E-commerce is a ‘must have’ in automation and control engineering

31 March 2011

Tony Young of CP Automation discusses the expansion of the online buying trend in the engineering industry

Automation and control engineers are not renowned for buying components online. Despite being able to interface a PLC with a control system on another continent, using nothing more than a secure connection and a Web browser, we have always distrusted the idea of choosing and purchasing a drive, motor, resistor or encoder online and having it delivered without first being able to physically ensure that it meets our requirements.

However, this attitude is changing. It will inevitably become an industry relic, alongside Thomas Watson's claim that there will never be a global need for more than five computers and the 1876 Western Union internal memo that read, “This telephone has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication”.

CP Automation has just launched its first online shop, which will allow engineers to buy automation and control products online. We appreciate that in the 21st century everyone wants to buy solutions to their problems and not just components. We also know that solutions engineering requires site visits, design engineering skills and an in depth understanding of the technologies involved.

But sometimes people do not want to buy a solution. They might want to buy a PLC that is identical to the one that has just gone down, or an inverter with exactly the same footprint as the one that has just died and they want the product delivered as soon as possible. This is where online buying fits into the automation industry.

This proof that online buying is now becoming an important issue in automation and the wider engineering industry is borne out by the number of online engineering shops that were launched in 2010. These businesses are not just outlets for existing engineering companies but complete operations in their own right that sell only online. We are moving rapidly towards a situation where simple components, which cannot be bought online, are losing visibility in the marketplace.

The question is when did this trend begin? Some of the largest players in industry have had online shops for several years, but privately they will admit that they have been producing minimal sales until recently.

Clearly, there is a wave of younger engineers joining the workplace and this is a factor. For some time now our apprentices and graduate engineers have been born on the Internet and this has a fundamental effect on their buying habits.

We can trace the origins of the phenomenon even further back. For some time, automation businesses have been reporting that enquiries have been arriving fully formed and ready to convert. The customer now knows what they need to buy, what the part number is and all of the crucial specifications. Often they have already been able to compare the product to key competitors without ever picking up a telephone because all the necessary information is available online. If the suppliers web site isn't up to scratch, the information is available from a news site, a partner site, a directory, an online catalogue or exhibition or a social media profile or Blog.

In fact, when CP Automation was sourcing a product that would allow electric motor users to return braking energy to the grid, thereby taking advantage of feed in tariffs, we started our search online. By the time we met our ultimate supplier, we knew all about RevCon, our regenerative braking product. We were a great example of the changing buying pattern in our own industry.

It is in this changing buying pattern that I believe we can find the routes of genuine e-commerce taking place in automation. The widespread availability of information means that we no longer need a salesman promising to send a data sheet that never arrives. It is a small step from having all the information at your fingertips to clicking 'buy now' and providing your delivery address.

Personally, I do not believe that the truly significant, solutions based orders will be placed via e-commerce in the short or medium term. There needs to be a quantum shift in online technology before that happens. But, for quick and easy component level sales, e-commerce is now taking place in our industry.

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