Since the first paint and coatings industry web sites began popping up in cyberspace in the early 1990s, suppliers have been constantly revamping their portals, adding new areas, jazzing up icons, adding amination and creating new ways to provide support. For you, the coatings formulator, their hard work has made your job easier. The information you need (now) is at your fingertips, be it an MSDS, order tracking or technical support.
"The Internet has really helped us to speed up the process of getting information...It enables us to do things faster," one U.S.-based coatings manufacturer told Coatings World.
A quick survey of the industry proves that suppliers are constantly working behind the scenes to make their web sites more user-friendly and customer-focused. Suppliers had a single answer to why they dedicate the time and resources to their portals: to make it easier to do business.
Speeding Up Support
Today's web sites are much different than those found just a few years ago. Early on, web sites were more or less online brochures providing visitors with information on the company, key personnel, some history and investor information. Today, the best sites-and those that get the most traffic-contain that and a lot more.
Eastman Chemical Company's web site debuted in October, 1995. At that time, its main goal was to provide company background to students. Since its launch, Eastman has added more product specific information for its various businesses and online ordering capabilities. Its most recent revamping, which went live in June, has added "user-focused site navigation improvements, integration of the Customer Center into eastman.com, and technical implementation to streamline access."
Among the newest additions to www.eastman.com are Eastman's "wizards." One of these is the e-Solvents Chart which provides technical and regulatory information on Eastman and non-Eastman solvents and their compatibility with specific resins. The program contains engineering properties and regulatory status for 83 solvents and resin solubility for 25 resins. Customers select physical properties, compare attributes and obtain solubility results that can be printed. Eastman's site also contains a resin calculation wizard which calculates condensation (step growth) type resins for coatings, inks and adhesives. These results can be printed or downloaded as a spread sheet.
Air Products, which has created a centralized e-business team for its key business units, has added a comprehensive specialty additives web site section, according to Kelly Boyer, marketing manager, specialty additives. Air Products' site-www.airproducts.com/surfynol-includes a production selection tool, access to all of Air Product's data sheets and MSDSs, market-specific application literature and a Q&A forum. The site also allows customers online sample ordering, product ordering for U.S. customers, order status and shipment tracking details.
The online ordering system, called APDirect, debuted in August, 2000. As this issue went to press, Air Products was working on the addition of multilingual capabilities to APDirect. Future plans include "expanding this capability to our European customer base in the near future," said Ms. Boyer.
Avecia redesigned its web site in November, 2000 to include dedicated information on each of its coatings-related business units-pigments and additives, protection and hygiene and NeoResins. When Avecia was investigating a web strategy, it turned to its customers for guidance. "Avecia pigments and additives surveyed a broad cross-section of customer to determine specific features they would especially value," said Anna Guest, marketing communications manager, Avecia Ltd. "It came through strongly that what our customers wanted most was fast guidance on the best product to match their applications and operations." To this end, Avecia added the additives selection tool (AST). According to Dr. Guest, AST offers "a unique product selection aid focused to deliver data on practical product applications."
The Cognis web site has been up and running for several years, and in 2000 the company started "extensive development efforts to make it easy for our customers to do business with us," according to Scott Jacobs, marketing communications manager. "We have improved product information and placed all our technical data sheets and product brochures on line. We have made it very easy for our customers to search and review our products and ask technical questions online, and we have added the capability for customers to order samples."
Cognis Coatings & Ink found that many of its customers-so far-have not been as focused on online ordering, but rather have used the other benefits of the Internet. "Online order entry has not been a priority for our customers. They are interested in customer self-service for order and shipment status and online access to shipping documents," said Mr. Jacobs.
Still, some companies have added online ordering capabilities to serve the most tech-savvy purchasing managers in the industry.
GE Silicones reports that MySilicones.com's order center has attracted "thousands of customers who are currently conducting over 4,000 transactions per week." "We are very pleased our customers are finding so much value on our site," said Scott Fallon, manager of e-business. "We've made it easier to do business with us from anywhere in the world." The site allows customers to select technical literature, plan products purchases, confirm inventory and check into delivery status.
Lubrizol Coating Additives has had an Internet presence since 1997. Last year the company added its extranet site, www.LZCoatingAdditives.com. This member-only site allows customers to order all of Lubrizol's products online anywhere around the world. MSDS literature, order tracking and testing information are also available. "We are expanding our capabilities to connect our ERP system to our customer system to facilitate purchasing, fulfillment, shipping and financial transactions. We are using the Internet to connect with our customers electronically to virtually eliminate the transfer of paper," said Steve Rotz, marketing information manager at Lubrizol.
On The Spot
One new web site creating a stir in the marketplace is e-epoxy.com, a site devoted to buyers of epoxy resins and related products. What makes this site unique is its target audience-spot buyers.
"We believe in the future, customers will buy the majority of their products on contract, but 20-30% will still buy on a spot basis. We have a site that services this portion of their portfolio," said Ian Telford, founder and leader of The Dow Chemical-supported web site. Since its Jan. 29 debut, e-epoxy.com has received 6,000-8,00 visitors per week, and according to Mr. Telford, 83% of the site's sales come from "new" customers.
The web site features current pricing of solid and liquid epoxy resins, solid solution epoxy resins and glycerine sold by the full- and half-truck load. At the moment, are all Dow products, but that may change in the near future. According to company officials, e-epoxy.com is negotiating with at least one supplier that may add its products to the portal.
In addition, e-epoxy.com is looking to extend its geographic reach from the U.S., 15 EU countries, Switzerland and Norway, to global coverage, according to Mr. Telford.
As their customer base becomes more adept at using the Internet, companies must add new capabilities. CCP has enhanced its corporate web site, adding MSDS and technical data sheets. CCP plans to add an online ordering inquiry system later this year.
MFIC, which first went live on the web in 1997, has recently redesigned its site to include an interactive guide on equipment from its Microfluidics and Morehouse-COWLES divisions. By 2002, the company plans to add purchasing capabilities.
Another equipment provider, Premier Mill, revamped its web site in 1999, and is already planning another upgrade. According to Julie Corcoran, visitors to the site will always see something new. "We are constantly updating our What's New page to let the customer know the new improvements with equipment, support and processing solutions."
Degussa is also focused on developing more web tools for its customers. Currently, visitors the Coatings & Colorants site can place orders,view order status, pricing,shipping information and download MSDS, data sheets and certificates of analysis and invoices. Future plans include enhanced reporting features and links to third party sites where customers can track proof of deliveries, according to Robert Morlino, senior vice president and general manager, colorants and biocides. Part of the Degussa family, Tego is also adding new capabilities to its site, including sample request ordering, data sheets and MSDS information. The next step, according to Tego's Jim Yosh, is to make the site interactive with the its "Tego Base" technical software.
If it is an MSDS from several raw material suppliers you need, Chemidex is the place to look, according to founder Bruce Ianni. New additions to this portal include the ability to search multiple language documents, MSDSs and a new Tech-Connect "floor" that enables visitors to submit technical questions to multiple suppliers and related experts simultaneously, said Mr. Ianni.
The Human Touch
Despite all of the benefits of the Internet, every company admitted that more traditional tools-phones, faxes and sales calls-will always be part of most supplier-customer relationships. For the coatings industry, web-based technology is simply another way of doing business-not the only way.
"We see (the Internet) as an additional channel for customers to get support, but human contact support continues to exist," said Mr. Morlino. Tego's Mr. Yosh agreed. "Given the specialty nature of our business, I don't believe that a web site can replace technical service, but it is most certainly a very useful supplement to the formulator's accessibility to necessary information."
"We have a tech support process in place, extranet presence doesn't replace that. It augments that," said Thomas G. Smith, project manager, e-business for coatings at Rohm and Haas. Rohm and Haas is the engine behind paintquality.com, an online education toll for consumers and contractors which debuted in 1996. The company's web presence is not entirely focused on paint users. For paint formulators, this March, Rohm and Haas expanded its Internet offerings to include an extranet/private exchange.
Mr. Telford of e-epoxy.com recognizes that Internet buying might not be for everyone. "It's simple and straight forward and reduces paper work. There are customers who appreciate it, but not everyone does."