October 14, 2015

electroindustry Magazine – How Standardization Prevents Getting Lost in Translation

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The scene is familiar: A new widget is introduced to the market. Before long, the widget is all anyone can talk about. Consumers want it; companies scramble to make their own version; existing products are re-marketed for better comparison to that widget. Ultimately, consumer preferences were propelled by an industry trend, dictating the behavior of all major industry players.

Staying on Trend

The electrical industry is no different. End users’ product preferences are being influenced, and their purchasing decisions driven, by industry trends with increasing frequency. Energy efficiency, renewables, distributed energy resources, sustainability, and LEED certification are just a handful of trends that have recently impacted the industry.

Consumer trends affect the production of certain electrical products, dictating the features and benefits that manufacturers build into their products. The ways in which products are marketed and sold are also affected, with manufacturers going so far as to design the attributes of their product lines (e.g., descriptive marketing data and electrical performance information) to align with the trends.

For example, when green products began to rise in popularity, manufacturers began to call more attention to the specific, searchable product attributes – such as Energy Star ratings or the use of specific raw materials – that related to sustainability and “being green.” They knew this information was what end users would be looking for when conducting product searches, and wanted to make sure their products were found in those searches.

However, this agile response to industry trends cannot happen without solid communication along the supply chain. Manufacturers need a consistent way to find out about the industry trends desired by end users in time to update their product attributes that communicate back to buyers. How?

Standardized product data.  

Specification Standards vs. Product Data Standards: What’s the Difference?

The codes and product specification standards set and managed by the National Electrical Manufacturers Association (NEMA) speak to how each product is built, ensuring that products are safely manufactured and properly functioning. Once a product is built according to NEMA standards, the product data standards supported by IDEA impact the ways in which those same products are communicated and sold.

When manufacturers use standardized product data to communicate, they are able to consistently capture, store, and distribute their product information from the point of origin all the way through the supply chain, down to the end user. Each member of the chain begins to speak one unified language.

IDEA’s Industry Standards Committee (ISC) develops and maintains eBusiness standards to govern business-to-business communications, data content and quality, and product information.

These two types of industry standards – product specifications and product data – work together to improve the accuracy and efficiency of the electrical industry. In fact, NEMA has endorsed IDEA’s standards-based Industry Data Warehouse (IDW) as the sole preferred source for NEMA member companies’ product information.

Benefits of Standardized Product Data

  • Reduced cycle time (order to cash)
  • Better inventory management
  • Increased productivity
  • Lower cost of doing business
  • Improved accuracy & fewer errors
  • Increased efficiency of contractors & distributors to assemble bid packages

Aligning Interests throughout the Supply Chain

A successful supply chain is built on a complex web of interactions between each member of the chain, and those interactions are more streamlined when each member is speaking in the same fashion. You’ve heard the old adage, “A chain is only as strong as its weakest link.” Standardized data removes those weak links from the electrical supply chain.

Manufacturers, distributors, and customer communities comprise the electrical supply chain. Each component has its own needs and interests. “Customer communities” can be broken down further into different types of customers, such as architects, engineers, building owners, specifiers, purchasers, contractors, and maintenance technicians.

The challenge for manufacturers, then, is to find a way to move their products through this complex channel and ensure that the product data they provide allows these customers to search for and find their products. To do so, they must incorporate their product data – including those searchable attributes – into the systems that feed the electrical industry and address the unique needs of each of these groups without the message becoming muddled.

With standardized product information, manufacturers can reach into the many types of software systems and business vehicles that can be used to specify and sell their products, including computer-aided design (CAD) tools, building information modeling (BIM) packages, contractor estimating systems, quoting systems, product information management (PIM) systems, enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems, and any number of web stores and online search tools.

Standardized product data helps align special interests throughout the supply chain and enables this critical product information to be exchanged efficiently, regardless of system or file format. For example, when product data is captured in a standardized fashion, it ensures completeness and consistency in bid packages assembled across multiple manufacturers.

Products can get to market faster, with less time, effort, and cost needed to do so.

Connections with Contractor Estimating Systems

Most contractor estimating software products come populated with data from a mix of product databases, giving contractors access to only a limited number of items and manufacturer product lines. As a result, contractors may import product data from sources not confirmed as accurate by their trading partners. With inconsistencies or out-of-date descriptions, UPCs, part numbers, and spec sheets come mistakes that cost money and slow down the process. To help combat this issue, IDEA’s IDW has established connections with several major contractor estimating systems via ElectricSmarts’ NetPak service. A real-time direct feed of standardized product data from the IDW becomes available through estimating systems used by contractors, specifiers, and other end users. This synchronization between the IDW and estimating systems allows contractors to directly access high quality manufacturer-supplied IDW data and use that information in their daily operations. Standardized product data enables each member of the supply chain – from manufacturers and distributors all the way down to end users – to speak the same language, so the entire bid process can progress more accurately and efficiently.] Each of these customers also has its own demands. For example, specifiers need to know more about performance relative to the industry trend; contractors need details about the electrical performance; distributors need packaging and pricing information for inventory and sales.

A Commercial Building Example: Translating Trends into Product Sales

How can standardized product data help manufacturers to respond to industry trends and communicate through the supply chain? To bring all of these concepts together, let’s look at an example:

  1. Trend – Since the evolution of computer-aided design (CAD), electronic drawings and renderings have become a prominent trend in the commercial building space. This trend has been further enhanced with the evolution of 3D drawings and building information modeling (BIM). Capabilities in BIM permit architects and engineers to design things like efficiency and sustainability directly into a project.
  2. Communication Shift – Manufacturers have continued to build their actual products in accordance with NEMA product standards as they always have, to ensure that each product is built correctly and will function properly upon installation. In the face of this rising commercial building trend, however, manufacturers need to find new ways to communicate about their products to align with the needs of the end users.
  3. Product Data Standards – In response, manufacturers have begun to highlight the attributes of their products that address the efficiency and sustainability information the end users are now looking for, due to this trend. When joined with standardized manufacturer product data, these attributes become the “as designed” features of the space against which the “as built” performance can be measured.
  4. Relaying Information – Once manufacturers have learned of end users’ demands and adjusted how they communicate about their products, they are able to relay their product information back through the supply chain down to the end user without worrying about mistranslations along the way, because they adhered to industry product data standards. The standards have enabled each member of the supply chain – manufacturers, distributors, and end users alike – to speak the same language and communicate more smoothly.
  5. Flexibility – Standardized product data enables manufacturers to remain in constant alignment with end user needs and interests. And when trends change, as they inevitably will, the manufacturers will be able to anticipate the new end user demands influenced by the rising trend and respond by highlighting different relevant features.

Standardization for a Strong Foundation

Standardized product data drives synchronization, and synchronization drives efficiency. Inconsistent product data throughout the supply chain can lead to costly mistakes and slow transaction time. However, product data standards help trading partners speak one common language. By following product data standards, manufacturers can understand and respond to end users, distributors can have a better understanding of the type of information available to them to help manage pricing and inventory, and end users can search for, find, and purchase the products they need.

With an ever-evolving industry, manufacturers who embrace product data standards – and focus on the depth, breadth, and quality of their product data – will be able to respond successfully to the constantly changing demands and trends impacting the electrical industry.