LOS ANGELES — Microsoft Corp., the world's most recognized name in computer operating systems, never was sold on the idea of a new economy.
Instead, the company — and others attempting to tie technology to the manufacturing floor — has kept grounded in harder-core realities, said Chris Colyer, Microsoft industry marketing manager for manufacturing.
That lesson was lost on some early Internet pioneers whose models have not succeeded as well, he said.
"The main dynamic was developing an economy of the Internet, where it was about working on Internet time and undergoing radical change," said Colyer, who is based at Microsoft's Redmond, Wash., headquarters. "We take a more realistic approach by offering ways to add efficiency to businesses."
Don't look now, but the Internet is invading the plastics processing world in ways unimagined a few years ago. Where companies once talked of trading resin and products over a neutral site, using the Web today means something much broader.
Call it supply-chain management. Or parse it down into its elements, which include using the power of the Web for such areas as product development, inventory management, order processing and product fulfillment.
A mix of manufacturers and high-technology companies explained how the Internet will affect the plastics industry during two April 12 panel discussions at Plastics Encounter, a Plastics News-sponsored trade show and conference in Los Angeles.
The Internet already has made that anticipated leap with some companies. Scottsdale, Ariz.-based Tech Group Inc. has used the Web to work on projects involving more than 60 molds and for plants spread across four countries.
The company has joined with Waltham, Mass.-based Conferos Inc., an Internet company specializing in product development, to manage projects, said David Roe, Tech Group director of developmental engineering.
The company now gets involved upfront with its original equipment manufacturer customers to view computer-aided-design drawings, perform engineering tests and come up with the correct tool design for a product, Roe said.
"It's been a good fit," he said. "We can reduce time spent making engineering changes and reduce time to market. It's been a huge benefit for us."
Conferos — formerly known as BuyPlastics.com — launched commercially in November using Windchill software provided by Parametric Technology Corp. The software allows companies in disparate locations to perform product development work jointly on the Web.
The company's ProductSync software allows engineers on PTC systems globally to link in one virtual room, said Conferos Vice President Tom Podesta.
"Communication is the backbone of success," Podesta said. "Sometimes, three to seven departments are involved in the [product life-cycle] management process."
Some companies are taking product development to new extremes. Schick Wilkinson Sword Division, a unit of Pfizer Inc., has used Conferos software to start a "design red book" detailing the design history of its consumer products, said Richard Stadterman, Schick's director of global engineering.
The company also uses online CAD drawings to give suppliers a taste of what a product will look like before they bid on a new job, Stadterman said. That way, suppliers more accurately understand the costs and work involved, said Stadterman, who is based in Milford, Conn.
The shift at Schick is a radical departure from the company's former data-transmission methods, Stadterman said.
"E-mail could not do the work," he said. "Drawings weren't quite complete."
The Web is becoming more than a product-development hotel room. It also will play a key role in order and inventory management, the so-called back end of purchasing.
But processors still need to buy into that idea, said Jay Gardiner, director of business development with Houston-based ECOutlook.com and a former president of the Society of Plastics Engineers.
Some companies, such as resin suppliers GE Plastics and Eastman Chemical Co., have been early users of Web buying, Gardiner said. But most parts producers still are waiting to be shown more proof that the Web will work for them, Gardiner said.
It will take a greater commitment by a company's top executives to move to the Web, Gardiner said. And they will make that executive decision soon if they want to stay competitive, he warned.
"By working early with your supply chain, you can have a strong advantage," Gardiner said. "Using the Web is probably the only way to get that."
Online methods can automate many of the low-end but laborious functions that companies use to process orders and make purchases, Gardiner said. Those include keying in an order, communicating it to others and shipping out a part.
Companies can see an immediate spike in profitability by moving to computer models, he said. Many of those savings come from avoiding data-entry errors.
ECOutlook specializes in that approach, working with large processors and resin suppliers. Companies pay a subscription fee to automate those processes by using a private link to ECOutlook's Web site.
Microsoft takes a different approach, offering companies software to build their own internal network by using the company's BizTalk Server 2000, launched in December. Companies such as Troy, Mich.-based Delphi Automotive Systems are adopting that system to connect with supplies, Colyer said.
"We give you the ability to orchestrate internal processes and adapt those processes as you change," Colyer said.
Either way, the cost can be lower than what users might think. The Biztalk server costs about $50,000, Colyer said. Using ECOutlook's Web-hosting service varies in price, depending on usage, but will not break a company's budget, Gardiner said.
The industry also is driving to adopt a common computer language, called XML, that will avoid difficulties in translating data from one software package to the next. That will give processors fewer excuses to avoid online supply-chain tools, Gardiner said.
"Current methods are not efficient," he said. "You have to decide if you're going to do what other parts processors are doing or if you are going to lag behind."