SMC Corp. of America needed a better way to present its complex product information — a method that would supplement its print catalogs and help customers, primarily engineers, do their jobs better.
The world’s largest original equipment manufacturer of pneumatic components, SMC has been making and distributing actuators, valves, compressors, pumps and electrical components since 1959 and selling them to industrial customers worldwide. In the past, SMC annually produced a half million hard-copy catalogs for promoting its more than 8,900 basic products with millions of possible configurations.
But not only were the print books expensive to create, maintain and distribute, they quickly became outdated as new products became available. More importantly, a print catalog, even at its best, couldn’t effectively show all of the details for the full range of product options SMC had available. Each product in an SMC catalog might have hundreds of different iterations based on all the manufacturing specs the purchasing engineers could want — parameters and values such as bore size or stroke.
SMC used to spend $30 a piece to build about 400 custom computer-aided design (CAD) models a month for its customers — amounting to a whopping $12,000 each month in extra expenses. Making matters worse, customers ended up with catalogs comprised of hundreds of pages filled with part numbers and product photos. But to make their design decisions, customers often required more specific data in the form of 2-D and 3-D CAD drawings — thus their need for individualized CAD designs.
“There was no way to show all of these versions in a print catalog,” recalls Steve Hoffer, marketing manager for SMC Corp. of America. “So customers would call their sales reps for help, and oftentimes, custom CAD models would have to be worked out by hand.”
An Online Solution
SMC decided to see if an online interactive catalog could be the solution that would solve both its product complexity issues and the need for so many CAD models. By building an electronic catalog that also could generate custom CAD models on demand, SMC would be able to improve customer service through its catalogs and reduce costs by eliminating the need for so many man-hours of customer sales support.
“In 1999 we started to look for a solution, but we weren’t sure if we should go with a CD-ROM or a Web-based solution,” Hoffer says of the initial phase of the project.
Two key variables determined which direction SMC should take with the catalog. First, it needed the capability to configure an almost-custom product. And second, the ability to provide CAD files to display which options customers wanted to see.
To explain how difficult it was to find the right solution, Hoffer notes: “We offer a very configurable product. But on the printed page of a catalog, it’s challenging to convey the full range of product options.” He cites one base product line, such as the company’s series of pneumatic cylinders. “These could be used by engineers in the heavy vehicle, automotive, electronics and food processing industries. And all of these need a slightly different product configuration.
“In addition,” he continues, “we serve all types of industrial applications — from pick-and-place to packaging motions. So the technology is slightly different from application to application. Typically, an engineer will order our products, and a lot of times they like to have the printed catalog on their desks. But they may not have all the time in the world to sit there on the phone and spec out their product order with a sales rep.”
Time is especially precious to today’s engineers, Hoffer says, as they’re often asked to do more and more projects and take on larger workloads. “So anything we can do to help streamline their ordering process is going to make it easier for them to do business with SMC.”
After several discussions, SMC officials determined that an online catalog rather than a CD-ROM catalog was the direction they’d take.
The next question to be answered: Which online catalog vendor(s) would be able to best accomplish the tasks SMC required? The job needed both Web catalog design expertise with an eye toward complex business-to-business manufacturing environments, as well as a knowledge of how to build and work with CAD models.
SMC devised a request for proposal and sent it to five vendors. “Three responded with proposals, two of which we liked enough to do site visits. We had a list of 30 to 40 criteria we were looking for, including price, of course, but more importantly things like being able to maintain our own data.”
SMC chose SolidWorks in Concord, Mass., for its expertise in working with configurable CAD files. And it selected TechniCon, an Emeryville, Calif.-based Web catalog solutions firm experienced in creating online industrial catalogs with validation parameters and selection criteria that would work with SMC’s products. If possible, SMC asked, could they create a project team by bringing the two vendor companies together? The answer was “yes.”
TechniCon’s Custom-Commerce Web catalog solution was integrated with SolidWorks’ 3D PartStream.Net CAD model-building service. This gave SMC the tools and expertise it needed to get its new E-Tech catalog up and running. “TechniCon supplies the software used for our front-end Web site interface, while SolidWorks provides the back-end CAD models. So they work hand-in-hand,” explains Hoffer.
When SMC approached SolidWorks in early 2000 with its challenge of building CAD models for its electronic catalog, SolidWorks already had Web-enabled its own software and could display 3-D models on a computer screen.
Jim Giebutowski, director of sales and marketing for SolidWorks’ 3D content solutions, says its software originally had been designed for single users. “So we had to adapt the system to the Internet and to multiple users.” SolidWorks worked with SMC on one of two beta tests on the 3D PartStream.Net project.
“The CAD software already was there,” Giebutowski recalls. “We took it to the next step by incorporating it into an interactive catalog commerce environment.”
As he explains it, SolidWorks could provide a Web catalog environment for the system, bring its own setup or opt to use a third party, as SMC chose to do in working with TechniCon. “SolidWorks lets us host our models on their server,” says Hoffer. “We don’t have to maintain a server with all of the CAD models.”
Now, SMC’s E-Tech catalog customers who want to see a CAD display can click a button to leave SMC’s servers and go to SolidWorks. “3D PartStream.Net allows our customers to view our site, which hosts the catalog and CAD models from SolidWorks’ 3D PartStream site. This hosts all of the CAD files,” he explains.
Behind the scenes, a request is made of the 3D PartStream server from SMC’s Web site, but this transition occurs seamlessly. The user may not even know this has occurred, Hoffer notes.
Once Hoffer and his team got through the technical setup issues, it was time for the challenging task of building the models and developing the catalog content. SMC’s main involvement was in the project’s setup phase.
“It was a time-consuming process,” Hoffer recalls, “because we had to define the dimensional values for each product line. It would take a fair amount of time to model up one cylinder with all of its possible configurations.”
SMC did this work with the help of SolidWorks CAD software, setting up master files that could be configured with a number of variable options, such as stroke, mounting and bore size.
Giebutowski notes, “The technical folks at SMC had to think through all of these instances. We couldn’t do it for them, because they know their products best. In SMC’s case, with such complex products, there could be no simple scanning of the paper catalog’s pages, although for some other catalog clients we handle, that can be the case.”
SMC’s E-Tech catalog became operational for testing in mid-2000. “This was just the core model of the catalog, and it had taken us about six months to put up,” says Giebutowski.
It took another eight months of development before the system went live in January 2001 with 75 products, says Hoffer. SMC spent a six-figure sum to get the system up and running. Plus, internally, the company went from having three staffers devoted to the Web site to eight.
Now, 1,500 products are available for 2-D and 3-D views on the E-Tech catalog site, with millions of potential combinations and configurations.
Three Major Benefits
Today’s SMC customers are generating and downloading nearly 30,000 CAD files a month from the company’s Web site, says Hoffer. And it’s all done at a fraction of what it previously cost SMC to create models individually. Its Web site has decreased annual sales support costs by $205,000 and thousands of man-hours, say officials at TechniCon.
From an operational perspective, customers determine when they need information as they work through their design processes. They don’t have to call and wait for a salesperson or engineer to do it for them, Giebutowski adds. This brings up three key benefits of SMC’s new electronic catalog:
1. 3-D drawings are easily accessible. By making a three-dimensionally accurate CAD drawing available on the Web, E-Tech allows SMC’s customers to specify products early in the design process — a boon to design engineers who previously had to use bulky and often outdated catalogs, or call a salesperson for help.
Now the necessary information is available to engineers in an up-to-the minute format via the E-Tech catalog. All this gives SMC a competitive edge. If SMC makes a design engineer’s job easier up front, he or she is more likely to specify SMC parts for the final product. And studies show that 90 percent of the parts originally designed into a product later are used in production, note officials at TechniCon.
“Getting information to the people who need it when they need it is key when you’re in the business of serving manufacturers,” says Hoffer.
2. More leads for the sales reps. Currently, the online catalog is not e-commerce-enabled, says Hoffer. “Orders are still taken through the SMC salesperson or independent distributors, so the function of gathering leads is still very important [to us].”
SMC sells through its own sales force and distributors. Working through multiple sales channels, SMC’s main goal is to feed leads to its sales force. “The online catalog replaces browsing of the paper book and waiting for a salesperson to configure the spec for an order,” Hoffer explains.
SMC requires customers to register to use the free E-Tech catalog services. This enables the company to gather and track leads, and it gives SMC valuable marketing information for very little cost.
“Registering doesn’t cost the user anything, other than a few seconds of their time,” says SolidWorks’ Bob Noftle, general manager of 3D content solutions. “Overall, it’s a win-win, because it reduces the cost per lead for the seller and expands the reach to a broader market without incurring more marketing costs.”
The site funnels as many as 150 new leads a day to SMC’s sales staff of 500 sales reps.”In the world of manufacturing sales, where the salesperson is still an integral part of the process, those leads are key to success,” Noftle adds.
More than 90,000 customers registered to use SMC’s Web site in its first three years. The system is easy to use, Noftle says; all the user has to do is navigate through a product tree.
SMC’s salespeople received hands-on training on the system, so they can answer customers’ questions. Hoffer says the sales staff was receptive to the new online catalog. “If customers are happy, our salespeople are happy. And this [online] capability is something our customers wanted.”
The E-Tech catalog also allows greater visibility into what customers are doing on the site at any time, he notes. “We know what they’re looking at in the online catalog, so our salesperson can respond. We can do a better job of customer service. And better customer service equals more sales.”
3. Reduced print costs. With the advent of the E-Tech catalog, SMC cut its print costs by at least 50 percent, Hoffer says. “Most of our catalog mailings are to existing customers. Of course, we’ll always need printed materials. But now more often, customers can help themselves via the online channel.”
In addition to lower printing costs, Hoffer says the online channel allows capabilities the printed channel doesn’t. For instance, a new product configuration option — such as size or even an entirely new product series — can be added immediately, instead of waiting months. Moreover, a new product can be added in days instead of having to wait for the next catalog printing cycle. Now these product modifications and additions are handled via back-end Web sites that allow CAD models to be uploaded and selection options to be entered — a relatively simple process.
“Print catalogs always will be around, but you can’t modify a print catalog on the fly,” Hoffer says. “Plus, with the electronic transfer of catalog information, you always can print it out if you want a hard copy.”
SolidWorks’ Bob Noftle agrees that paper catalogs are here for the foreseeable future. “People still like to pick up a catalog and leaf through the pages.” But he stresses the importance of the step SMC has implemented by stating that for a company in the business of selling industrial components, “Being able to offer customers 3-D CAD models and images in a customized online catalog is going to make it easier for customers to do their jobs and easier for them to decide it’s right to do business with SMC.”
About SMC Corp. of America
U.S. Headquarters: Indianapolis (world headquarters is in Tokyo)
Year founded: 1959
Business: supplier of pneumatic and electrical automation products to worldwide manufacturers
Annual global revenues: $2.4 billion
Annual circ: 250,000
# of SKUs: 8,900 basic products with millions of variations
Web catalog creative: TechniCon
CAD model design: SolidWorks
Alicia Orr Suman is a Philadelphia-area freelance writer and the founding editor of Catalog Success magazine.