While the list of companies embracing the Internet is expanding at the rate of more than 4,000 per month, much of the plastics industry still is assessing the medium, according to company executives, consultants and information managers. Not surprisingly, businesses that have put up a Web site, or home page, are convinced it is the right thing to do.
``We think every company is going to have a Web page two or three years from now,'' said Andrew Stephens, president and owner of Eaglebrook Plastics Inc. in Chicago ``It's the way people are going to do business.''
Stephens, who owns three companies involved in plastics recycling, extrusion and engineering, is bullish on the Internet. He plans to use it to market a line of garden furniture and other consumer items, and has been working with others in the industry to develop electronic sites for plastics information.
Stephens' enthusiasm is typical of those who have taken the road less traveled and see it as a good way for businesses to grow. ``I'm a believer in what the Internet has to offer,'' he said.
So is Jim Ure at Chicago-based Commerx Inc., an Internet startup company and a sponsor of Plastics Network, a hubWeb site devoted to the plastics industry. Ure was instrumental in the development of Eaglebrook's home page. He said there are two general Internet activity areas for the plastics industry. One involves large companies using it as an advertising/marketing vehicle. The other involves firms developing com-mercial Web sites, such as Commerx.
The Internet is a ``tremendous'' business and communications tool, Ure said - and especially useful in helping companies and individuals abroad connect with U.S. firms.
Experts said that is because the collection of 50,000 computer networks offers low-cost, 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week access to a vast range of information sources in about 200 countries.
But it also offers anxiety for those uncertain about how to approach or use the medium, which is not governed by any legal authority.
Tamar Mikaelian, a former Conair Group public relations manager who now operates a Wexford, Pa., marketing, advertising and electronic publishing business specializing in the plastics industry, said that at present, ``Information retrieval is the basic use of the Internet.'' She said she is not aware of any processors or manufacturers actually selling anything on it yet.
Mikaelian said it is difficult to rate marketing programs on the Internet because ``there isn't enough history on which to base any facts and figures.'' She said the capacity to electronically publish company literature is a significant Internet selling point, however.
``It gives you the ability to update [material] immediately and is a lot cheaper than printing [brochures],'' Mikaelian said.
Harbec Plastics Inc. of Ontario, N.Y., opted for the on-ramp last May. Today, the custom injection molder has a global electronic presence and counts 400-500 serious queries about its services from visitors to Harbec's World Wide Web site, said Robert Moyer, the firm's systems manager. He said the company's Web page - consisting of text and graphics in a form much like a billboard - receives about 100 computer contacts, or hits, a week.
Harbec, which employs 80, views the Internet as a silent marketing tool, said Moyer. He said the company has logged multiple computer inquiries about its services from businesses in Europe, South America and Malaysia. Most queries are from the United States, but a growing amount of the traffic originates in Canada, he said. Visitors to Harbec's site are invited to leave their name, address and telephone number. In return, the company sends them a free design guide. Moyer said 20-30 percent of site visitors fill out the page's guest register, which is how Harbec determines the identity of its electronic guests.
``Very few plastics companies are there [online],'' said Moyer, who also believes that will change. He agrees that assessing the value of an Internet site is difficult, but said Harbec is pleased with the exposure it has received. Moyer said the company has made several business connections via the Internet, which it also uses to electronically transfer computer-aided design files, a practice the auto industry has embarked upon.
The Big Three automakers are working with parts suppliers to develop a universal electronic link, known as the Automotive Network Exchange, for the transfer of design files and other information. As previously reported in Plastics News, suppliers of plastic parts will use the system. A small pilot program will test the concept this year.
Moyer noted that the initial cost to set up a Web site on the Internet can range from $5,000-$10,000 on average - though it is possible to spend many times that amount for a more detailed and sophisticated site. Access charges and maintenance costs will vary, he added.
Another molder, Engineered Plastics Corp. of Menomonee Falls, Wis., maintains a ``bare-bones'' home page, according to Martin Miller, the company's computer systems administrator. Miller said Engineered hasn't promoted its year-old page.
``I want to put a lot more bells and whistles'' on it, he said. ``Most of our vendors and customers don't use the Internet.''
He said the company, which uses a local service provider for electronic mail, has not done any cyberspace business yet.
G.D. Templeton, director of research and development at Therma-Tru Corp., said the Butler, Ind.-based maker of insulated doors has no Web site, but he routinely uses the Internet for communications and research.
Templeton, whose doctorate is in chemistry, said he uses the Internet to look for developments in fiberglass products, to check new patents and to locate and communicate with industry consultants. He also uses the e-mail function to stay current with company projects in Europe and to send articles he writes to science publications.
``The Internet expands the network of people you can talk to when you need information,'' Templeton said.
He notes, however, that most Web sites have little technical information available and in those cases, are ``not much value.''
Chris Robson, owner of Robson Co., a plastic mold design and consulting firm in Fairview, Pa., also uses the Internet as a resource tool.
``I use it for information on plastics material from GE Plastics,'' Robson said.
Pittsfield, Mass.-based GE Plastics launched its service in October 1994. It offers corporate, technical and product information to customers via the Internet. A spokesman for the resin maker said the company does not attempt to determine which sales GE Plastics realized as a result of its Web site.
In fact, the amount of plastics information available through the Internet is expanding daily. Recently, the American Plastics Council went online with Plastics Resource, designed to be a one-stop shop for people seeking industry information, whether general or technical.
Another Web site, Poly-Links, offers an index linking ``all plastics Web sites in the world,'' said President Greg Koski, who said the Fitchburg, Mass.-based venture now gets about 1,200 computer visitors a week vs. 50 a year ago, when it went online.
Other major online plastics sites include PolySort of Akron, Ohio, a publishing and information service for the polymer industry, and pages maintained by large corporations such as AlliedSignal Inc., Eastman Chemical Co. and Monsanto Co.
The explosive Internet growth notwithstanding, Bert Foster, president of the Minneapolis-based American Plastics Exchange, said he does not detect much practical interest in it on the part of his customers. His company provides a database service - Apex Q - for buying and selling surplus plastic resins and machinery.
Clients can obtain the fee-tiered service by fax or computer. Few choose the latter, even though the software and telephone costs are not extra.
``People prefer to get faxes,'' Foster said. ``It is hard to find your way around [the Internet] and it's crowded.''
He suggests technical people in the plastics industry are drawn to the medium, but others are much less attracted to it.
``The buzzword is Internet. We're finding it is just that - a buzzword, not a tool,'' Foster said.
Walter E. Gately, the Boston-based vice president of technology for Universal Protective Packaging of Mechanicsburg, Pa., sees it differently. He said the firm will be among the first thermoformers to put up a Web page when it goes online shortly.
Universal, which employs 100 and produces container packaging for sensitive electronic equipment, is hoping to get its suppliers to go online, Gately said. He declined to say what the company is spending for its site, but noted the cost is no more than the firm would spend for purchasing print ads in trade journals.
Gately said a presence on the Internet is important for his company because of its involvement with the highly technical electronics industry.
``The Internet is the way to go,'' he said. ``We want to shake the perception that we're a little company.''