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issue: April 2006 APPLIANCE Magazine

The Open Door
Automating Online Quoting


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by Larry Lukis, founder, The Protomold Company

The conventional wisdom of product development is: “fast, cheap, good—choose any two.” But with the growth of global competition, markets are punishing manufacturers for falling short on any of the three.

Larry Lukis founded The Protomold Company in 1998 and currently serves as chief technology officer. He holds several U.S. and foreign patents in the fields of handwriting recognition devices, laser printer resolution enhancement, ink-jet printers, and online quoting for injection molding.

Delivering products quickly, thoroughly tested and at a competitive price requires precise coordination of internal and external resources. Automated online quoting can speed and simplify communications between customers and vendors, but there’s nothing simple about making the process work.

Today, if you search the Web for “online quoting tools,” many of the top listings will be for insurance services. The reason is simple. Insurance quoting is a simple actuarial process; you plug in the numbers and out comes a quote. In traditional online product quoting, the process isn’t much different. The user selects from a menu of options and the quoting engine—essentially an online spreadsheet—spits out a quote.

There’s no denying that these are useful functions. But with the hardware and software capabilities available today, these tools represent only a fraction of what automated quoting could do.

The real challenge begins when the input becomes “analog” rather than “digital.” My field is plastic injection molding, so I’ll use that as an example. A plastic part design submitted for a quote consists not of a limited number of definable options, but of infinitely variable shapes and measurements. An automated system has to analyze the design, decide whether it is moldable as presented, determine how to orient it for molding, and how to mill the mold. This kind of “thinking” moves far beyond the realm of mere computation toward that of artificial intelligence. Only then can the resulting output be combined with relatively simple input regarding finish, resin choice, quantity, and delivery time to produce a quote.

Historically, online quoting in injection molding consisted of nothing more than Web-based submission of a part specification, which was then transmitted to one or more human estimators, who, in turn, responded with e-mailed quotes. As with other types of online quoting mentioned earlier, it was a time- and money-saver, but it could hardly be called “automated.” Today, for the first time, we have all the necessary components for true automated quoting in complex fabrication processes.

First, 3-D computer-aided design (CAD) programs allow customer design to be presented directly as data rather than napkin sketches or drafted drawings. Second, analytical and graphic software tools allow systems to manipulate a CAD design in 3-D space to determine the actual steps needed to fabricate it. And finally, hardware—processing power and storage capacity—is capable of managing enormous amounts of data in something approaching real-time and at reasonable cost.

A fully functional automated online quoting system, one that fully utilizes the capabilities of existing hardware and software tools, should be able to: accept direct input of 3-D CAD designs in a variety of formats; analyze submitted designs and identify necessary or recommended changes based on best-practice design and fabrication principles; graphically present those recommended changes to the user online in clear, rotatable 3-D renderings; support enough processing power to allow simultaneous online interaction with multiple users; allow users to run “what-if” scenarios, altering materials, finishes, and other factors while viewing the resulting impact on delivery time and cost; and feed approved and accepted designs to automated production facilities with a minimum of human intervention.

This kind of automation can improve the cost, quality and speed of production. To the extent that it eliminates or reduces the need for human estimators, it cuts vendor costs and lets customers comparison shop without delay. By allowing customers to interactively fine-tune specifications, it helps them allocate cash to get what they need at minimum expense.

Automation can also impact quality. Automated design analysis helps eliminate oversights and design flaws. Direct linkage of customer designs to tool-path generation eliminates opportunities for human error. Speeding up prototype production allows more iteration, testing and design tuning in the course of product development.

Reducing queue times helps speed products through development and production. This can be particularly significant in development, where each new prototype entails additional delay, first for a quote and then for production. Shortening or eliminating these queues helps speed products to market, which, as product lifecycles shrink, is becoming a critical competitive advantage.

Finally, for those concerned that automation might eliminate valuable human contact between customers and vendors, the truth is quite the contrary. Automation in quoting is doing what automation has always done: offloading repetitive processes that can be better handled by machines. In the process, it frees live staff from the clerical process of quoting and enables them to focus on real, one-on-one customer service.

 

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