How control designers should use search engines

The search for knowledge, combining search engines with other information resources.

By Rick Rice, contributing editor

With technology moving along at an ever-quickening pace, the challenge facing a control designer is how to use these new products in our designs. Let’s face it, we are nerds, and we want to use the latest gizmo.

Try this exercise: Type “photoeye” in the search engine of your favorite Web browser. Before you start reading any of the compiled results, go down to the bottom of the page and check out the status bar where it reveals how many results were found. If you are like me and use Google, you will be startled to discover that there are more ooooooos in Google than you’d expect. The challenge becomes going from pages of results after a Google or Bing search to coming up with the parts list for our new design?

The invention of the Internet has been a wonderful tool to a designer. Having all of that information at hand is mind-blowing. Well, perhaps at first. It used to be your Internet search would result in a few lines pointing you at the major parts manufacturers. Two or three clicks and you find a local supplier and a phone call brings in the sales team to help you through the murky waters to enlightenment.


Not too long after, something happened to change all that. It seems that every manufacturer figured out that the Internet was a great way to get more business. Next thing you know, four results become 40 and, not much later, 400. Now, instead of going to the Internet search for a suggestion, we had to approach the exercise with some idea about where we wanted to go with the results. So much for inspiration from research.

Technology catches up with us, yet again, when search engines come along. Now an enterprising business can pay some money to a company to make sure their products will rise to the top of the search list. This sort of privilege costs money, and, by virtue of market position, the more affluent automation vendors rose to the top once more because they could afford to pay for their products and services to appear at the top of the page.

In those early days of Internet marketing, I remember the comment that, if they don’t see your name on the first page of the search, then you wouldn’t be seen. So, life was good for the control designer again. New products and technology were at the top of the page, and we could garner inspiration from our Web search.

Just when technology came along to help us cut through the 400 results to find what we wanted, another revolution comes along and its name is e-commerce. Suddenly some enterprising person in Sparta, Mississippi, or Lyons, France, starts up Web-based business and, poof, the Internet search populates that coveted first page of results with links to “PartsExpress” (name disguised to protect the guilty), which buys parts wholesale and then offers them to you at a discount. All this is great but what happened to the link to the manufacturer that guides us to the correct selection of components? We are cast out in a sea of information with a thirst for knowledge but no idea how to sort through this intellectual overload.

To counter this phenomenon, most major manufacturers turned to CD, DVD and, later, thumb drives to put their products in the hands of the designer. This worked for a while, but, like all things in our world of automation and controls, the information on hard media doesn’t automatically update itself when new technology comes along. These days, new technology comes at such a swift pace that digital media is outdated before it even gets in the hands of the designer. Impacting this even further, the latest trend in computer technology is eliminating the CD/DVD drive altogether.

All of this advancement is forcing us to be a connected world. We really can’t survive without it. So, how do we get past the pages of Internet search results and find the information we really need? Well, it seems if we can only just remember the big names in the business, we can navigate to their pages with a Web browser and here, with some patience, we will find the answers that we seek. If we can only get to those home pages. As with any business over the years, corporations get larger and larger, eventually swallowing up the smaller companies. Try finding a brand name that isn’t part of a larger entity.

Let’s try something different. Same search engine but this time type “sensor photoeye.” How did that turn out? A couple of manufacturers floated up to the first page? One of the key things about doing an Internet search is to keep in mind that the search engine uses keywords. That means that it doesn’t really care about the effort that your teacher invested in your study of grammar and sentence structure. The Internet is more like Joe Friday from Dragnet:, “just the facts, ma’am.”

At this point, you have achieved a couple of key things. You now have some major manufacturers of photoeyes on your search results. You also have links to their websites. This probably seems like a victory, but your journey is really just beginning. Click on one of those key vendors and see where it takes you. Unless you get lucky, you have plunged rather haphazardly somewhere into the middle of a catalog. The lucky click will land you into some sort of interactive product selection tool. Either way, you are now tasked with figuring out how to get the information you are seeking. One too many clicks and you will be plunged back out into the home page of a corporation that owns the company that makes the product you are interested in.

The transition from hard-copy catalogs to a website has been a less-than-satisfying journey for some OEMs and many a control designer. The demands of the industry force companies to try and get every piece of information possible into a reachable link of a website. Smaller product lines are somewhat easier to represent, while diverse companies can have thousands of product types and the roadmap to what you want is somewhat similar to navigating a corn maze on a moonless night. You know that something is out there, but it can be scary just reaching out into the unknown. Some hardware vendors have embraced this issue with gusto and the results are quite pleasing. Others have thrown money and people at solving the issue and the result is a hodgepodge of success and failure all wrapped up in a single website.

They can spit out part numbers like they are a native language.

Here are some of my experiences. I have a preferred vendor where I get most of my pneumatics components. The outside sales group that stops by my place of work is super-supportive and really seems to know its stuff. In fact, they can spit out part numbers like they are a native language. They leave me with a feeling that I am being well taken care of. I usually get an email later that day summarizing the parts that we talked about, and a copy of that is sent to the distributor that I buy my components from. A day or two later, I get a quote with all the parts numbers and my cost. Being the astute guy that I am, I like to put those parts numbers back into a Web search or to the vendor site, just to make sure that I am getting what we discussed. Well, this particular exercise inevitably ends up in a morning spent rebuilding the part number using the website’s built-in parts finder because the quick search netted me a results list as long as the Google search I mentioned earlier.

On a happier note, my preferred photoelectric-sensor vendor has a feature that automatically fills in the part numbers as you type them in. From the very first digit, there is a clear indication that your part number is a good one. Clicking on the finished part number from the suggested list brings you right to a product page containing not just the specifications but DXF, PDF and 3D CAD files, ready to download into your own library of components. The same goes for my favorite proximity-switch vendor. Parts are easy to find, and there is a wealth of information, readily available.

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For many hardware manufacturers, your search for knowledge doesn’t have to end with the selection of a part. Most significant vendors use the exposure to their products as an opportunity to reveal other products in their family. Many now include an interactive support system where users can post questions or search a database of questions in a forum designed to share the experiences of others. These cool tools, unfortunately, have a downside. These forums are really an unmanaged repository of information. To date, little has been done to organize the posts into categories to make them easier to browse. Again, we are called upon to use our ever sharpened search skills to come up with the appropriate keywords to make the information rise to the top.

Hopefully this column has helped to bring the light the overwhelming source of information out there. Gone are the days of figuring it all out on your own. There is sure to be a person or persons out there who has been there and done that. Most are willing to share those experiences with others. Hardware vendors are, for the most part, aware of the state of their websites and actively involve their users in attempts to create a more positive Web experience. Remember to use the keywords and keep adding more until the search results filter out the resellers and e-commerce sites when you are trying to sort out what you want to use in your design. Once you have settled on your design, pull some of those keywords out and have a look at some of those same resellers and e-commerce sites you filtered out before. Who knows, you might just find a great deal because, at the end of the day, who isn’t interested in saving a few bucks. Good luck with your search.