Disk-Based Catalogs for Sales & Technical Information

The Woodlands, Texas - July 1, 1991 - Scientists and others in the technical community are faced with making difficult decisions about the use of many complex materials. Choosing the best product for an application is not always easy. The selection process usually involves the use of printed sales literature, past experience, and the advice of trusted vendors.

A new tool is being used by technical people to make optimal material selections. Several manufacturers are supplying their sales and technical information on floppy disks. When technical data is blended with a decision support system, an "Intelligent Electronic Catalog" is created. By adding animation, sound, and other special effects, the electronic catalog is able to communicate information in ways not possible with traditional media.

The use of interactive disk-based catalogs is on the rise. This article focuses on how this technology is being used now by manufacturers and the technical community they serve.

Decisions, Decisions, Decisions We all make hundreds of decisions every day... most insignificant, but others are of critical importance. For those in the technical community, key decisions may be vital to the success of a project or system. Specifying a material which is over-designed for the job results in increased costs with no offsetting benefits. Under designing may result in failure, and again cause unnecessary expenses.

Wouldn't it be great to have the help of an expert when we are faced with making critical decisions? However, experts are usually in short supply, and almost always expensive to use. If the knowledge of an expert could be captured and then modeled on a computer, that knowledge could be made available to large numbers of people. Better decisions would surely result.

The Times - They Are A Changing - Communicating key technical data on a product along with specific features and benefits is a need shared by most manufacturers. Usually, printed sales literature is produced to communicate this important information to potential customers. These "product data sheets" are typically assembled in a binder along with specifications and applications sheets. Since markets are dynamic, changes are continually being made in a company's product line.

If an engineer is selecting materials based on outdated catalog data sheets, he may be making less than optimal product decisions. Yet even with the latest data sheets, there is no guarantee that the best product choice will be made by someone not familiar with a company's product line.

In recessionary times, corporate cutbacks are common. The sales staff may be trimmed, and the responsibility of product choice may be left to less experienced sales reps. Engineers may be forced to rely on their own experience to make the selection. Such conditions made the time right for change. Manufacturers around the country are converting their printed sales and technical information to computer-based media. One floppy disk can contain the equivalent of hundreds of pages of information. Although transferring information from a printed format to electronic media provides many advantages, real productivity gains are achieved when a decision support system is also embedded onto the disk.

A Decision Support System - Just what is a decision support system? In the simplest terms, it is software that is designed to help someone reach an optimal decision. On one end of the spectrum, a decision support system (DSS) can be modeled around a simple flow chart. At the other end, the DSS may be quite complex and require the use of an expert system to produce the required answers.

An expert system is a computer program that mimics the way an expert makes a decision. By asking a series of "If / Then" questions, the computer is able to reach a conclusion modeled after the rules established by an expert. To further increase the usefulness of the electronic catalog, manufacturers are adding sound and animation to illustrate complex technical information.

Suppose a manufacturer is introducing a new type of industrial valve. Traditionally he would have an artist create a drawing of the valve to illustrate how it works. The drawing, along with a photograph and some sales and technical information, would be combined and a printed technical data sheet produced. This data sheet will go inside a catalog along with other printed information about the company and its other products.

Contrast that process with the creation of an electronic catalog data sheet. Using the computer, drawings of the valve are made in a sequence of open and closed positions. They are linked together so an engineer can "open and close" the valve on his computer screen. Sound is added to increase the sensation of fluid motion. A spreadsheet-like calculator pops up on the screen to assist the engineer in determining the most suitable valve configuration for his specific application.

Hundreds of pages of technical data, case studies, industry regulations, and installation specifications are also included on the disk. One can easily imagine how much more effective the electronic catalog is in communicating information about the valve.

Experiencing information is far more memorable than simply acquiring it. The more senses one involves in a learning process, the more likely the message will be remembered.

Examples of This Technology in Use

CASE 1: The Ultratec Division Of Raychem Raychem is a Fortune 500 industrial company primarily involved in the production of products for electrical / electronic applications. The Ultratec division manufactures a conductive polymer wire known as AnodeflexTM. To help introduce a new version of the product (Anodeflex 1500), Raychem chose an interactive electronic catalog.

When a specifying corrosion engineer requests literature on Anodeflex, a floppy disk is sent. The engineer simply inserts the disk into an IBM compatible computer and types the word RAYCHEM. Immediately a menu appears on the screen. From this menu, the engineer has access to hundreds of pages of technical information. Case histories, industry regulations, sales offices, features and benefits, and questions most often asked about the products, are only a keystroke away. A powerful spreadsheet-like section of the program lets the engineer calculate the proper wire configuration for a specific application at hand.

To further increase the value of the program, an extensive glossary of industry terms is provided. When exiting the program, the engineer is taken to an interactive survey to determine future needs and industry trends. After completing the survey, the engineer simply prints and mails it back to Raychem. Raychem is now in a position to better understand the needs of its customers

CASE 2: The Canusa Division Of Shaw Industries Shaw Industries is North America's largest pipe coating company. The Canusa division manufactures 19 types of protective coatings for use in various environments and operating conditions. Since pipelines operate in all types of surroundings and carry a wide variety of substances at different temperatures, selecting the right coating is critical to the life of the line.

An intelligent electronic catalog was created for Canusa that modeled the selection process. The program begins by asking the engineer questions about operating parameters of the line. A simple example may help illustrate the process. An engineer is trying to determine which pipe coating is best suited for a line he is designing. Typically, a salesman from Canusa would ask a series of questions and then make a recommendation based on the answers. First the salesman might ask, what is the pipeline transporting (oil, gas, water, etc.)? Next, at what temperature is the line operating (arctic, ambient, desert)? What are the soil conditions (sandy, clay, and loom)? The computer program would model this process by building a list of rules based on the knowledge of an expert from the company. Rule 1 might look like this:


The pipe is transporting oil, and
The line is operating in arctic conditions, and
The soil is sandy
Recommend the use of product #l000

Display or print specification sheet. With each answer, the program eliminates unsuitable coatings until it determines the optimal material for an application. The program would offer the engineer an opportunity to view or print the latest data sheet for review. For those with a great deal of experience (veteran salespeople), the program helps them check their recommendations prior to meeting with the customer. For the less experienced Canusa Distributors, the program insures they are recommending the correct product. The engineers who use it feel confident that the product they specify is designed for use in their specific application.

Like most sales literature, both Raychem and Canusa provide the programs free-of-charge to their customers. As information on a company's product lines changes, outdated data is electronically overwritten with new specifications. Not only does it save paper and reduce shipping costs, but it allows customers to make better product selections.

Why should an engineer, technician, or scientist be interested in this technology? For several reasons:

1. Improved Decision-Making Ability. Specifying engineers are responsible for determining the best products for a particular application. By helping engineers make better choices, everyone benefits in terms of increased quality and lower costs.

2. Lower Costs To Provide And Maintain Information. It is very expensive to print, distribute, and maintain catalog data sheets. Information changes frequently. New sales literature must be printed and old data sheets destroyed. Engineers like the convenience of having the equivalent of a 300-page printed catalog on a 3.5-inch floppy disk that can fit in their shirt pocket. Disks are inexpensive to distribute and are rarely thrown out. When the information changes, old data is deleted and easily replaced.

3. Industry Trends Lean Toward Providing More Information Electronically.

Manufacturers can illustrate their products in ways not possible with traditional media. Electronic data sheets can show animation, sound, and allow for interaction on the part of the engineer. Why simply provide information when one can have a customer experience it. If calculations are required, let the computer do them. The results will not only be accurate, but it will allow multiple scenarios of various test cases.

Conclusion The age of computerized sales literature is upon us. We are flooded with information, and the computer can help us sort out exactly what we need. Using such tools as expert systems, animation, and sound will not only help insure proper choices are made, but make the product selection process more enjoyable.

Just how effective can an intelligent electronic catalog be? A good test is one developed by Alan Turing in the mid-1950s (now commonly called the "Turing Test"). Turing said, "A computer program could be considered intelligent if it could fool someone into believing it was a human being." Some of the intelligent electronic catalogs being created today may indeed be capable of passing the Turing Test.

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