MARYSVILLE, OHIO — Molders and their customers can spend a lot of time on the phone — and the fax machine, and the e-mail system, and in airplanes on their way to numerous face-to-face meetings.
Each of those methods of communication has its advantages — and plenty of disadvantages. Conference calls can be hard to set up and confusing once they are under way. Fax messages and e-mail aren't always received on time. Air travel is both costly and time-consuming.
But at least one molder, Marysville-based GI Plastek, is taking advantage of relatively new technology to keep in close contact with its customers without having to leave the building.
A computer-based video conference system allows GI Plastek to connect distant conference rooms. Using off-the-shelf software and equipment, GI Plastek's sales and technical staff in Ohio can use cyberspace for virtual face-to-face conversations with customers hundreds of miles away.
Cameras at both ends transmit live audio and video of each conference room to a computer monitor in the other using high-speed modems.
With live video, participants at both ends can actually tell who is talking — something that is sometimes tricky on audio-only conference calls. New products or problems with existing lines can be shown live and in color to the other party, instead of relying on verbal descriptions or slow, low-resolution faxes. The computer also allows instant transfer of electronic data — plans in a computer-assisted design program or cost figures in a spreadsheet — back and forth during a conference.
``Video conferencing has a different impact on a customer than if they were talking to a box with a couple of voices coming out,'' John Barrett, sales and engineering manager for GI Plastek, said during a Feb. 19 interview at the Marysville plant.
GI Plastek originally started using video conferences about a year ago to connect its four far-flung plants.
``Part of the reason for buying the system was to minimize travel for meetings,'' Barrett said. ``Once we got everybody wired up in the company, we started to get our customers involved.''
GI Plastek's customers are even more far-flung than its own plants. Video conferences easily link the Marysville plant to buyers in France. Even domestic customers tend to be located in smaller cities and towns away from airline hubs, Barrett said.
GI Plastek has found most of its customers already have some video conference capabilities — most of which are reserved for upper-echelon corporate affairs.
``It's a question of whether the engineering or the quality groups have access to it,'' Barrett said.
When customers do have access to video conferences, problems can be visualized by both parties and solved faster, GI project manager Mark Fisher said.
``There is a quicker exchange of information,'' Fisher said.
That exchange of information was exemplified during a two-hour meeting GI Plastek's Barrett and Fisher held Feb. 19 with Jon Cybulski, a supply management engineer with John Deere Inc.'s Harvester Works in East Moline, Ill. Both parties agreed to let Plastics News observe the video conference as long as specific information discussed there was not revealed.
During the conference, Cybulski, who was accompanied by a local GI Plastek account manager, talked about a variety of issues — delivery schedules and tooling costs — that could have been handled with a phone call.
But Fisher and Barrett also were able to give Cybulski a close-up shot of potential trouble spots on a large molded part just by bringing the piece closer to the camera.
Picture quality during the conference generally was good enough to distinguish facial features and gestures, but did not necessarily measure up to ``broadcast standards.'' Movement also was jerky at times, which is typical of many computer-based video systems.
One clue the meeting was taking place in cyberspace instead of real space was the barely perceptible delay in audio transmission. Often the participants inadvertently interrupted each other, mistaking a pause in transmission as an invitation to speak.
But in general the meeting showed how adding the visual dimension to telephone conference calls benefited the participants.
``It definitely helps to talk face-to-face,'' Cybulski said in a telephone interview after the meeting. ``Communication is better when you can see a face.''
While noting some of the system's limitations, Cybulski added ``it's still better than a phone call.''
It's also better than spending between three to five hours in planes for a two-hour meeting, Cybulski said.
Deere originally bought its video conference system for internal corporate use, but makes it available for suppliers as well, Cybulski said.
GI Plastek uses its video conference system ``several times a week,'' Barrett said, adding his company also still believes in visiting its customers in person.
``We're still going to travel,'' he said, ``just less frequently.''