Parametric search zeros in on fast product selection

The optoelectronics industry is extremely dynamic. New products and technologies are being introduced into the marketplace almost constantly.

May 1st, 2003

The optoelectronics industry is extremely dynamic. New products and technologies are being introduced into the marketplace almost constantly. This speed of change is both one of the best and one of the worst things about the industry. A high rate of innovation means that new solutions to problems are appearing daily, but it also presents a tremendous challenge for engineers wanting to keep abreast of new developments in the field.

Just a few years ago, the activities of sourcing products, staying current, and estimating costs meant maintaining libraries of relevant catalogs. When you actually needed a part or component, finding it meant long, painful hours spent searching catalogs, to say nothing of the effort to maintain the libraries themselves.

The emergence of the commercial Internet offered the promise of faster, easier searches for optoelectronic components, and recent reports indicate that 90% of engineers say that the Internet is the first place they look when researching products and components. But for many engineers and designers, it has failed to live up to its potential—the tedious process of searching catalogs has been replaced by an equally tedious process of searching Web sites.

There are two key reasons for this. First, general-purpose search engines are not designed to meet the specialized needs of the readers of Laser Focus World. As a result, when an engineer is looking for a specific optoelectronic component with exact specifications, an ordinary search engine can produce literally thousands of hits that then must be followed up, one at a time, to discover if they contain the desired information.

Second, manufacturers of technical components have been slow, sometimes very slow, to leverage the full power of the Internet. As a result, it is fairly common to find that a manufacturer's response to the demand for an online catalog is to simply publish its print version of the catalog on the company Web site in the form of a downloadable file. Even when manufacturers make a forthright effort to provide an online, interactive catalog, it is still very rare to find detailed search capabilities at the specification level.

Deep search keys

Recently, however, an Internet search technology, which has been under development and refinement for several years, has emerged as a powerful tool for those in the optoelectronics industry. Parametric search technology offers the ability to search on a deep level for the exact performance parameters or specifications that are required. So, when an engineer is looking for a light-emitting diode (LED) with a specific peak wavelength, viewing angle, and optical power output, he or she can enter the parameters that are desired, press "enter," and get back a list of products that exactly meet the search criteria.

Two key elements are essential to parametric search capability. The first is a focused approach to the management of online content for a wide range of technical products. Unlike clothing, for example, in which parameters of size, style, and color cover just about everything, each optoelectronic product has its own vocabulary and key parameters. As a result, when an engineer wishes to find "Optocouplers," the selection of search parameters is vastly different from a search for "Optical Choppers and Shutters." The correct engineering taxonomy and rich, product-specific search forms make very precise, very fast searching possible.

The second key element is sophisticated search software that allows the user to define a set of parameters, logical conditions, desired values or range of values. When combined with accurate search terms and vocabulary, the result is the ability to "zero in" on the exact product with unprecedented speed.

In contrast to parametric search technology, many of the printed buyer's guides and product directories that have moved onto the Internet employ a detailed search tree structure, which the user must follow onto smaller and smaller branches until the desired category of product or component is reached. Quite often, a user may traverse all the way down the tree to a null result, and have to back out far enough to choose another branch and go through the process again. Even if the search is successful, the user typically is not presented enough information to determine if the specifications meet his or her need.

Parametric search capability gives engineers far more than the simple ability to identify sources of specific products that meet their needs. The same search technology allows quick and easy side-by-side comparisons of components across suppliers. Users can rapidly "sweep" an area of technology and get a feel for the current state of the art. (In some cases, manufacturers also offer one-click viewing of CAD files for candidate components.)

A third advantage of parametric search capability is the ability to rapidly contact suppliers that make the components that satisfy the search criteria. With just a few keystrokes, the user can send an inquiry or submit a Request for Proposal to a manufacturer or group of manufacturers. A number of users report this is an effective way to cost components in the early stages of a project.

Boosting efficiency

At least one engineering Web site (GlobalSpec.com) offers more than 950 parametrically searchable product areas, which include 62 optical component areas and 23 fiberoptic device areas, and involve more than 2000 contactable companies in these areas. Among the optical-component areas covered are lenses, mirrors, filters, polarizers, beamsplitters, optical windows, lasers, lamps, LEDs, diffraction gratings, and dozens more.

So how are engineers taking advantage of parametric search technology? One reports identifying a specific product, contacting the manufacturer by e-mail, and making the purchase within the space of a single workday. Another, a consultant, uses parametric searches to discover "what's new" that might be of interest to his clients. Yet another used parametric searching, coupled with electronically submitted requests for proposal, to rapidly assemble preliminary cost estimates in the early stages of a new project. And a fourth was able to second-source a critical component and saved his small company $100,000 a year.

Parametric search technology is also spreading to individual corporations. Some manufacturers are now beginning to add parametric search capability onto their own corporate Web sites and intranets because they realize how useful it is to their current and potential customers, as well as to their own engineering and design staff.

As powerful as it is, parametric search capability is not a panacea. If used improperly, it casts too wide a net and produces results that are little better than using a generic search engine. But when used properly, it can help engineers and designers find critical components, stay abreast of emerging technology, and gather the cost and performance data they need far faster than was previously possible.

JOHN SCHNEITER is president of GlobalSpec , 350 Jordan Rd., Troy, NY 12180; e-mail: jschneiter@globalspec.com.

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