Buying online blurs the lines between suppliers and distributors

Buying online can pit suppliers against distributors, but expert help still catalyzes most projects.

By Jim Montague, executive editor

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Life used to be so much simpler. Suppliers manufactured process control and automation products, and local distributors delivered and helped users install and configure them.

Then everyone got on the Internet, set up their own websites, digital resources and online communities that don't respect geographic or organizational boundaries—and everybody got mad at each other. This upheaval, combined with galloping technological advances driving more frequent component and software updates, as well as shrinking in-house engineering departments due to layoffs and retirements, further fueled the chaos. If they didn't fly out the window, many traditional supplier/distributor relationships and their organizational channels experienced severe friction as they coped with the Internet's surging omnipresence, and sought ways it could benefit their clients and themselves.       

"Nowadays, we use the Internet for everything from communication to supply to information. Cost is always an issue for supplies," says Robert Cool, maintenance coordinator at All-American Hose in Erie, Pa., which extrudes and weaves polyurethane, rubber, polyester, nylon, cotton, Kevlar and other materials to make fire and industrial hoses. "Much of what we purchase comes from either the web or distributors, and oftentimes we're forced by production needs to find the fastest route from warehouse to shop. That's the key and then cost.

"The Internet opened up my supply lines internationally, which helps because we have to do whatever it takes to keep running—though local distributors are still our main source. Our proprietary manufacturing technologies use drives and PLCs, and we're just now looking into cloud-based systems. I have local control specialists, electrical engineers and vendors, who help me with system upgrades, but I also have an IT manager who I work with closely in areas I may be weak in. Relationships from past professional lives, friends and work associates are the key to resolving problems quickly, but research also plays a part."

Way past order taking

Over the years, manufacturer/suppliers and their distributor/sales representative networks have increasingly bumped elbows online as they jockeyed for awareness and access to the customers, end users, system integrators and other clients they're both trying to serve. Lessons were learned to varying degrees, and the scrappiest distributors and suppliers found ways to survive—typically by adapting and offering value-added services with their products. This is good news because technical changes and departing know-how seem like they're only going to increase in the future.

"In the 20 years we've been on the Internet, we've seen it change the ways distributors must work to stay in business and succeed by delivering value-added distribution, system integration and field-site support, and getting more involved with designing, engineering and installing projects, as well as supporting their hardware and software," says Vikram Kumar, president of EZAutomation, which is part of the AVG group of companies, and operates simultaneously as a manufacturer, supplier and online sales distributor, integrator and application support provider.

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