The internet has come a long way in the space of a few decades. From obscure beginnings as a tool mostly for academics and enthusiasts, the web has become ubiquitous in the everyday lives of more than 3 billion people around the world. In addition to serving up more information than has ever been available in all of human history in less time than it takes to make a sandwich, the internet has revolutionized the way business and commerce are conducted.
More than 25 million electronic transactions occur every day on just one of the leading e-retail sites. As the prevalence of electronic commerce continues to increase and buyers become ever more comfortable conducting transactions online, sales channels that traditionally involved more personal interaction (car buying, for instance) are going digital. Along these lines, an obvious question to ask in the world of manufacturing is when, and to what degree, will industrial equipment shift to an internet-based sales approach?
Buying and selling electronically has some clear advantages on both sides of a transaction. For buyers, the internet can offer easy access to a wide range of information about products, including technical specifications, pictures and videos, and even testimonials or reviews of the product by other end users. Of course, the web is also very convenient for buyers because it’s there all the time: Even if a question about a product pops up in the middle of the night, the internet is available to help find an answer.
From the standpoint of sellers, the internet makes marketing a product to a broad audience relatively easy compared to sales channels that depend on direct contact with potential buyers. E-commerce platforms also raise the possibility to reduce overhead compared to more labor-intensive sales channels: If the buyer can access the information needed by themselves to make a purchase decision that is a huge labor savings in the sales process.
That’s the idea anyway: The internet can make buying and selling more efficient for everyone involved. When it comes to manufacturing equipment sales, the formula can become more complicated. Just like almost any product for sale, machinery for production has an intended purpose. A press brake machine is obviously intended for bending sheet metal components.
That said, one model of bending machine can have a range of different possible specifications (e.g., pressing force) that directly impact the performance, depending on the circumstances. A bending machine can be used to make a wide variety of components in lots of situations, and the purchase price can vary by a hundred thousand dollars or more depending on the specific options or features that come with it. The buyer had better know exactly what they do and don’t need to make the machine operate for their intended purpose before buying it.
Although many considerations may go into that final purchase decision, above all else, capital equipment investments must be profitable. The possible configurations just for press brake machines are enough to require a subject matter expert to help buyers understand, for their own individual production scenario, which machine models and options will provide the best return on investment.
Just the initial questions might include: How much bending length and tonnage do I have to buy for the material types and profiles that I need to bend? For the families of parts that I need to make, is automation feasible, and what would that look like? What kind of preparations do I need to make to receive the equipment, such as new utility connections or foundation work?
Even if all of the required information was available online, the range of possible questions and answers that can arise during the acquisition of a sheet metal bending machine would make this a daunting process for a buyer to face alone and unaided. In this scenario, where consultation between a buyer and a product expert is not merely beneficial but actually required, the “website as salesperson” model runs into its limitations.
As complicated as the purchase decision for a press brake machine might seem, it is only one discrete process in what, for most manufacturers, is a whole series of machine processes that need to happen to get finished goods out the door.
If a capital equipment buyer needs to evaluate a whole group of machines that are needed to work together for a given production project, the sales consultation process becomes exponentially more important. In the world of sheet metal fabrication, a major factory startup, expansion or overhaul might involve a whole team of machine, automation and software specialists advising on the particulars of their respective products.
In the end, the productivity of the whole factory will depend on technical salespeople helping the buyer get all the important details right. Under those circumstances, a more intensive (and costly) sales process is well-justified because it helps to prevent major roadblocks from popping up unexpectedly further down the line.
So, if most manufacturing machinery projects require close consultation between buyer and seller, does that mean that the capital equipment world is doomed to lag behind in taking advantage of e-commerce? From a big picture standpoint, the answer is definitely no.
While many capital equipment investments are complex and will probably always require a high degree of personal interaction to complete, there are many equipment investments that fall into a different category entirely. Some production projects, whether in large factories or small shops, are sufficiently limited in scope that in-depth consultation with a product expert is unnecessary. The goals are straight-forward for the buyer, and so are the requirements in terms of equipment needed.
In this situation, it works to sell a fairly simple machine product that is properly supported by a digital sales platform (the website and associated media) via the internet. The first requirement is a simple machine for a buyer trying on their own to understand what they need to buy. The machine ideally would have one or two standard configurations with no optional (add-on) equipment from which to choose.
Take, for example, a standardized press brake for sheet metal processing that includes 80 or 100 tons of pressing force, an 8-ft. or 10-ft. bending length, a control with 3-D programming support and a 4-axis backgauge system. More advanced options that might be available on a similar machine (integrated vision systems, material handling, automatic angle control, uptime data reporting, etc.) would not be available on the standardized “over-the-web” machine.
This helps the equipment to be offered for an economical price point, but more importantly allows a buyer to place an order and a machine builder to confirm the order electronically without anybody having to talk through the product configuration.
A machine offered this way, as a one-size-fits-all sales approach, will not be suitable for all bending jobs; it will be intended to satisfy the needs of general-purpose metal forming. Although that rules out the machine for many factories where greater speed, automation or flexibility is required, there are many places where a simple, general-purpose machine does make good economic sense.
In addition to offering simple machine options, the other requirement for the e-commerce approach to selling machines is the digital sales platform, or the website that acts as the contact point between buyer and seller. Thorough information about a product is always important to make buyers feel comfortable about a purchase decision for a product they can’t see or touch. The more detail that can be made readily available, such as pictures and videos of the product and technical specifications, the more likely that a buyer can make an informed decision on their own.
Also important for the web sales platform are the secondary considerations that the buyer must keep in mind, such as the installation requirements of the product, payment terms offered by the seller, warranty coverage included with the product purchase and how the equipment can be serviced long-term. These are all points a machine buyer typically covers with a salesperson directly; in the case of e-commerce, this information must be easy to find on the sales website in order to satisfy a potential buyer.
This is exactly the scenario envisioned by the Trumpf Group when they set about offering the TruBend 2100 press brake to customers over the web. The idea is to bring the quality and precision of Trumpf CNC press brakes to a price point that is economical for even very basic fabrication work.
The machine shares common design elements, such as the frame, control and hydraulic system, with other Trumpf press brakes, and comes backed by the same technical service organization as all other Trumpf machine tools. However, it has no configurable options for the buyer to choose. With 110 tons of pressing force and 10 ft. of bending length capacity, the machine is sized to cover a broad range of sheet metal forming jobs.
The machine also includes a 10-ft.-long starter set of precision tooling to get users bending right away. And it does include some advanced features, such as a networkable 3-D machine control, precision-aligned tool clamping, 4-axis backgauge system and CNC crowning.
While machine builders have offered some very simple machines for sale on the internet for some time – and used machines can be bought and sold electronically at various auction sites – the majority of this business has fallen into the category of “buyer beware” or “as is, where is.” There is not much in the way of reassurance for online machine buyers, or anything like the easy merchandise return policies that have made online retail so successful. This may be the biggest change coming to the world of electronic capital equipment sales.
As well-established machine builders move to offer products for sale online, the process of buying capital equipment on the web overall will become more normalized. In addition to coming with a bumper-to-bumper factory warranty and 24/7 service support, the TruBend 2100 is sold online with a standard return policy in place to boost buyer confidence. When they know that they can deal directly with a reputable machine builder that stands firmly behind the product, a lot more capital equipment buyers are going to seriously consider whether that “over-the-web” machine might be the right one for their next shop expansion.