When it comes to plastics machinery, the very definition of e-commerce has evolved, as equipment manufacturers use the Web for things like quoting via e-mail, spare parts, service and much closer communication with customers.
Auction houses also commonly run live auctions simultaneously with electronic auctions, where bidders interested in used equipment participate from their desktops.
But molders still are not ready to buy new machines online, said Brian Bishop, president of North American operations for Demag Plastics Group in Strongsville, Ohio.
``Where we are today, customers like to do their own research, in their own time. So they want to look at specifications, options and details online. But they want to buy it from a real person,'' Bishop said.
When the Internet hype was at its loudest, around 2000, several press makers rolled out basic machines designed to be purchased over the Internet, like a book or a CD.
Those presses had very few options and were designed for quick shipment.
But, as everyone knows now, molders in the big U.S. and Western European markets largely have stopped buying big numbers of basic machines, and they need specialized, high-tech presses for things like multicomponent molding. Commodity molding work is moving to low-cost places like China and Eastern Europe.
``The small machines and the general-purpose machines, the demand for these machines really collapsed,'' said Gerd Liebig, marketing director of Engel Holding GmbH in Schwertbert, Austria.
Liebig joined Engel late last year. Before that, he was chief strategic and marketing officer for Demag Plastics Group, where he became known as an e-commerce advocate.
DPG had plans for online sales of the Ergotech Viva, a basic press, but that never took off. Bishop acknowledged that a downturn in machinery sales that hit in mid-2000 - just as e-commerce hype was at its peak - hurt the idea of Web-based sales of injection presses. Also, buyers like to negotiate, he said.
``You can tell them that they're going to face the absolute, rock-bottom deal and they're still going to try and negotiate face-to-face for a lower price,'' Bishop said.
The opposite is true for spare parts, Bishop said, adding that DPG does well selling parts online.
``People want to go in, they want to buy with a credit card online,'' he said. Mouse-clicking customers can see if DPG has a part in stock before buying online or picking up the phone.
But for new machines, ``the sales person needs a little more presentation than point and click,'' said Peter Gardner, vice president and general manager of Niigata injection presses for DJK-Global Ltd. of Itasca, Ill.
Engel was one company that jumped into e-commerce for injection presses. In 2001, Engel took an equity stake in Omnexus, joining resin makers, compounders, distributors and additives suppliers.
However, the idea was not so much to sell machines, but rather to get Engel's name front and center as customers used the Internet to narrow machinery choices. Engel also wanted to sell spare parts via Omnexus.
Now, Liebig said, Engel uses e-commerce to sell parts. But complete machines - or these days, what could be called full machinery and automation systems - demand a sales force with application-specific knowledge. ``And this you cannot fulfill via the Internet,'' he said.
But Liebig, like other machinery executives, said customers research machines online. And although the Internet boom fizzled, he said getting ready for e-commerce forced Engel to make basic, standard machines faster - production time has been cut in half in the past five or six years.
Liebig thinks globalization could renew interest in selling new machines online, to industries like electronics manufacturing, with its very short product life spans. As multinational customers move work around the world, they need to set up new plants quickly.
``This means for us, as a machine supplier, that we need short delivery times worldwide,'' Liebig said.
And the Internet is working for Engel beyond spare parts. For the past two years, the Austrian company has been selling end-of-arm tooling (EOT), conveyors and safety products that way, too, according to Herbert Hofmaier, automation sales manager.
Engel officials decided to try EOT online sales as a test, because if a robot tool breaks, customers can get a replacement right away. Results have been positive. ``The process is very slim and very fast. It's a good service,'' Hofmaier said.
Engel still offers traditional phone ordering.
Ten years from now, will customers buy injection presses over the Internet? Both Liebig and Bishop think it could happen. If buyers already click around to get complete information about a machine, making one more click - ``order press now'' - may not be a stretch, they said.
``It never really took off,'' Bishop said. ``But I will say that we've really seen an upsurge of people doing research online, and so logically that could possibly lead to buying machines online.''
Niigata has gone a different route, under the direction of Gardner - who returned to the plastics machinery world several years ago after a stint at an Internet data center during the dot-com craze.
Niigata uses www.salesforce.com to run its online quoting and product literature. But the big advance, according to Gardner, is the customer service portal, which allows full interaction with Niigata's service department.
A customer can search for solutions to problems, typing in a key word, like servomotor, or asking how to change a screw. ``It actually gives them the instructions and drawings attached,'' Gardner said.
Another feature lets the molder log a problem using what's called a trouble-ticket. All documentation is stored on the site, including Niigata's actions, plus every e-mail and a record of phone calls. All the information can be accessed by field service, customers and management - including Niigata officials in Japan.
Having the full records available helps customers track problems, and keeps Niigata's service people on their toes, according to Gardner. ``It makes our service department really bust their butt when a trouble-ticket gets opened,'' he said.
Customers can tell Niigata to monitor downtime at key injection presses. If the press is down for a set period of time, usually 24 hours or more, an e-mail goes out to top officials of both Niigata and the customer.
``It just makes everybody aware of what's going on,'' Gardner said. ``It makes the process much quicker and simpler.''
Connecting everything together was the motivation of Conair Group Inc. when the auxiliary equipment maker teamed with BigMachines Inc. several years ago. BigMachines hosts a Web-based reporting system called LFE Reporting and Analysis. LFE stands for ``lean front end,'' and that term describes the focus on streamlining quoting and ordering functions, the ``front end'' in a capital investment deal.
``We are using it worldwide in our organization. It gives us the same consistent information,'' said James Lundquist, product strategy manager at Conair in Pittsburgh.
BigMachines helps tie everything together at Conair. In the past, sales and operations people in different parts of the company often did not know about quoting from other parts of the company, Lundquist said. The new system helps Conair do cross-selling of its full line of equipment.
``This is a quoting tool that integrates our manufacturing system so when things are quoted, we have complete confidence that it's going to be built and ordered exactly the same way the customer ordered,'' Lundquist said.
Ben Martin, sales and marketing director, said Conair is studying whether to sell spare parts and some basic products online.
Although machinery makers have struggled to sell new machines over the Internet, the auction industry has embraced online bidding.
Stopol Auctions LLC of Solon, Ohio, has done more than 40 auctions with simultaneous on-site and webcast bidding since 2004, according to Neil Kruschke Jr., chief executive officer.
Stopol developed its own webcast that lets people bid online, or stop bidding, by clicking on an icon on the computer screen.
The ratio of online to on-site bidders keeps moving up. At an Aug. 23 auction at Little Tikes Co. in Hudson, Ohio, the mix was about 50-50, Kruschke said.
At another auction company, Branford Group of Branford, Conn., off-site bidders watch the slides and make bids during teleconferences. Internet bidders now account for more than half of total sales at some auctions, said James Gardner, senior vice president of auction services.
``The later the model of equipment, the more [Web] participation you will get. Newer equipment will lend itself to attracting buyers from around the world,'' Gardner said.
Branford has conducted Internet auctions for about five years. Gardner said a lot of buyers still want to show up to be part of the event: ``They want to touch and feel the machine, talk to the auctioneer and be part of the action.''
Off-site bidders often send an agent to inspect the machine, or call the operations manager of the company selling the press.
Gardner said the Internet is here to stay in industrial auctions. ``The size of the audience, the proceeds that we've gotten, it's definitely enhanced our ability to reach out,'' he said.