Consumers drive engineers expectations

The way that engineers are specifying components is undergoing a rapid and radical transformation.

Engineers are also consumers. This inescapable fact was not so important in times gone by when engineers would specify components either direct from individual suppliers or from weighty catalogues that were protectively filed on a shelf above the drawing board.

While the web has made the whole research, specification and purchasing process significantly quicker, the online business experience of the engineer has fallen well short of the consumer experience. And an additional factor is that mobile devices and the communications infrastructure might, we complain, make us ‘always at work’, there is also an element of us also being ‘always a consumer’.

Consequently, the same people who can download a remastered prog rock album (we are talking about engineers here!) in a couple of clicks are starting to expect this level of functionality within their CAD environment. But, according to Colin Johnson, managing director of CADENAS Solutions UK, expectations are not being met. He said: “What I find with UK suppliers websites is that they don't really quite measure up to the expectations that we have as consumers.What I think manufacturers [suppliers] need to realise is they should be looking at their own websites as if they were the engineer. There is a subtle difference - as consumers we find and research information through choice. For engineers, it is their job.”

As a trend, despite the slow take up in some quarters that Johnson describes, it would appear inevitable that online information will be required to be instantly available.“Some of the distributors are already catching on and realising they need some form of an e-shop type functionality or to at least be able to select and choose the right information on a product,” said Johnson.

But is that going far enough? Is it supplying what engineers actually need? Not so according to Johnson: “When you think about an engineer who is researching and designing, most now use a 3D CAD tool.And when they're researching, they need to be able to configure, tailor and select and download content in 3D, the reason being because they want to be able to incorporate that into their designs. Without that 3D content, they have to remodel it themselves from the data sheets. It is time they don’t have.”

The notion of having 3D files available to email when engineers ask, as many companies do, shows a lack of understanding of how engineers are developing their designs, claims Johnson. “By the time he gets to picking up the phone and speaking to a company, he's a long way down the sales cycle already; he's done a large proportion of his research. Actually, if you haven't got the tools and the 3D content already on your website, he's probably moved on to a competitor who already has.” The argument follows that the decision to use a component is made much earlier in the design process and that decision may well be influenced by the ready availability of a 3D CAD file.

According to a survey by CADENAS if an engineer was looking for a particular product and it wasn’t available in 3D format, 75% said they would choose an alternative supplier. In coming years that last figure is only go to rise. Another interesting figure is that 87% of engineers, who download the 3D CAD of a part, end up purchasing it and including it in their final design.

It is a business need that CADENAS endeavours to satisfy with its online catalogue that features the 3D CAD files from around 700 suppliers. Although new to the UK the company has actually been around since 1992, launching its first Electronic Product Catalog three years later and in 2014 achieved 100,000,000 CAD file downloads, now running at a rate of 15 million downloads a month. All main 3D (and 2D) file formats are supported including Creo, Inventor, NX and Solidworks, and this includes all previous versions not just the current one.

Johnson claims that this immediate availability of useable models supports another emerging trend – that of customisation. It is something that consumers are increasingly looking for, possibly as simple as changes of colour or materials, but again it applies to engineers who are looking to tweak performance for their customers. “In the design environment the trend is more and more, to have the ability to configure and customise designs online. This is where we can help, where it's not a unique design, with the ability to configure options and variants to tailor the actual end product.”

This is not just relating to individual parts but can be applied to a whole system. “The engineer can provide the requirements of the application,” said Johnson “We can look at all the options and variants and within minutes you can get full bill of materials, full quotation online price and the actual PDF custom quotation.”

Having immediate and free access to 3D CAD files is a progressing and inevitable trend. It is hard to imagine any area of information provision where such a trend is not replicated as that consumer expectation rapidly filters through to the business and technical domains. There are obvious big advantages for the engineer, but are there disadvantages as well? Is there a risk that expertise is undermined or lost. Often the supplier has more to offer than just products, they provide invaluable application experience and knowledge.

“Absolutely, there will always be a place for that face-to-face customer interaction,” added Johnson. “In more complex design projects then the partnership approach between engineer and suppliers can be critical to success. But even in these cases, when the relationship is set up engineers can use a system like ours for repurchasing or when they are working on fundamentally the same product but making small differences to it when they no longer require that personal touch.”

A platform such as CADENAS represents a breakthrough in the way that the business world has caught up with the faster moving consumer sector, but having got there we are now more likely to see B2B and B2C developing more in parallel. Johnson said: “For example, I see in the future the ability to combine both images and material information and use that in order to search and interrogate catalogues. So not only will you type in your text, you combine both a 3D scan with material information that you've picked up, and you aggregate that together to be able to search.”

Johnson concluded: “If I could pick out one trend for design engineers it is that they can now realistically expect their expectations to be realised.”

CADENAS Solutions UK

CADENAS is a leading software manufacturer in the areas Strategic Parts Management and parts reduction (PARTsolutions) as well as Electronic Product Catalogs (eCATALOGsolutions). With its customised software solutions the company acts as a link between component manufacturers and their products, and the buyers.

With its 300 employees in 17 locations worldwide, the name CADENAS (Spanish for ‘chains’) has stood for success, creativity, support, and process optimisation since 1992.