Manufacturing guy-at-large.

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Mini-review: Amazon Part Finder on iOS

Added on by Spencer Wright.

A week or two ago, Jordan gave me a heads up about a new feature on Amazon's iOS app: A "Part Finder" feature that supposedly will identify fasteners using your camera's phone. The tech press is, predictably, excited about this: It's arguably augmented reality, and AR is hot right now, and most of the people writing about AR and Amazon probably don't own a pair of calipers, metric or inch thread gages, or a thread checker set

As one might expect, I was a bit skeptical to learn that it might take a journalist ten tries to even get the app to produce a result. So this morning I gave it a shot.

More or less at random, I opened one of my parts drawers and took out a selection of parts. I tried the following McMaster-Carr part numbers:

  • 92196A581, 18-8 Stainless Steel Socket Head Screw 5/16"-18 Thread Size, 3/4" Long
  • 91771A542, 18-8 Stainless Steel Phillips Flat Head Screws 1/4"-20 Thread Size, 1" Long
  • 97517A025, Aluminum Blind Rivet with Steel Mandrel Domed Head, 1/8" Diameter, for 0.1880"-0.25" Material Thickness
  • 97395A451, Dowel Pin 316 Stainless Steel, 1/8" Diameter, 3/4" Long
  • 92196A194, 18-8 Stainless Steel Socket Head Screw 8-32 Thread Size, 1/2" Long
  • 90895A029, 18-8 Stainless Steel Belleville Spring Lock Washer for 1/4" and M6 Socket Head Screws, 0.264" ID, 0.374" OD

TL;DR: I do not find this feature even a little bit useful. A few notes:

Lighting

My shop is lit mostly with task lights: Clamp-on fixtures with LED bulbs. This tends to cast shadows, which the Part Finder had a *really* hard time with; it took maybe 25 tries to get a single result. Worse yet, the app shows you the instructions every single time, making the photo process itself rather painful.

I next went outside and set up in full sun. This was even worse - the high contrast shadows seemed to throw the Part Finder off even more. Lastly I went inside in an area with a decent amount of indirect light, which worked much better - but still far from perfectly. 

In a few cases, the Part Finder couldn't even find the penny I was using, and once it claimed that it couldn't find the part. Some of these failures can fairly be blamed on my lighting, and some can probably be blamed on Amazon's image processing software. But the user experience sucked, and that falls squarely on Amazon's product team.

"Additional part details"

When I finally did get a match, the following message appeared:

IMG_4377.PNG

Great, we have analyzed the photo and gathered specs. Please select the additional part details below:

The Part Finder seems to operate *only* on fastener diameter, length, and basic classification. It doesn't deal with head type or thread spec, and when I scanned the blind rivet the app prompted me to ask whether it was a "Drive Anchor, Post, Hex Bolt, or Blind Rivet." 

Some of this filtering may be useful to leave in the user's hands, but the range here calls into question exactly what "specs" the Part Finder has gathered. Which leads me to:

Thread spec

The Part Finder cannot distinguish thread pitches, nor can it tell the difference between metric and inch threads.

To me, this is a need-to-have feature for any fastener identifier. I almost *never* lack a method of determining a fastener's diameter and length (I bring a caliper with me if I know I'm doing much work at all), but my thread gages mostly stay in the shop. If Amazon wants to get serious about this, they *need* to include thread identification in the Part Finder.

Conclusion

As I've written before (see this and browse here), Amazon's total lack of product hierarchy puts them at a severe disadvantage when it comes to this kind of feature. The obvious counterpoint is McMaster-Carr, whose catalog structure is perfect for establishing the appropriate scope in a part identifier feature search. 

In other words: Partly, Amazon's Part Finder just sucks at identifying parts. But there are also institutional barriers in the way of Amazon ever being good at something like this, and (if AR gets better) I do still hold out hope for another player to tackle this problem.

Notes on Amazon Business and decisions in B2B ecommerce

Added on by Spencer Wright.

This week, while in Seattle, I had the pleasure of visiting Amazon and talking with some folks there about Amazon Business. To prep, I spent a bit of time reflecting on the B2B ecommerce world, and how the major players in it have approached & prioritized their efforts there. I've written about both Amazon and B2B ecommerce a bit before, but what's below clarifies my thoughts on their position in the ecosystem significantly.


To an outsider, Amazon has always struck me with two core messages:

  1. We are insanely customer focused.
  2. We have built a massively impressive logistical operation - the biggest of its kind, outside of China.

Also of note: Amazon has always seemed to target specific audiences in its external messaging. Most prominent to me are:

  • Consumers; people who would otherwise be shopping at Walmart or local retail stores. Basically everything on the website is directed towards this group.
  • Other retailers/competitors. This is a bit less immediately evident, but it’s my impression that Amazon’s willingness to talk openly about their fulfillment centers (one of which I toured last year) and the way they’re thinking about logistics & delivery (cf. drone delivery, rumors about a NYC store, etc) are intended specifically to scare off firms that might want to compete with Amazon’s retail business.
  • Google/Apple/Microsoft. This is specific to AWS, which has become increasingly in focus over the past year (but was always assumed to be huge).
  • Investors. The best example of this is the shareholder letter, which is always a good read. The core intent here seems (and I’ll admit that this is a half-baked theory at the moment) that investors should trust Amazon, because they’re a truly visionary company - like Apple and Google, NOT like some retailer that should be focusing on short term objectives.

What’s missing in the list above is business customers. I’ve bought plenty of business related stuff on Amazon, but it’s usually been from my personal account, and the shopping experience isn’t aware (or doesn’t care about) the context shift that I (presumably?) go through when I clock in and out. The “Recommendations for you” sections switch over, but it’s on a visit-by-visit basis. Amazon treats me as a person, and it simply recommends that I look at things that are similar to what I looked at recently. 

Now, I’m sure that plenty of businesses have Amazon accounts that are just for business purchases. I worked at one such business a few years ago, and again recently. In both of these cases, I got the impression that (and please, pardon the pseudo Christensen here) Amazon had trickled *up,* being used first at home (whether by the person in charge of purchasing, or someone who was bugging them to buy something) and then later at work. As a result, it always made sense that the Amazon product we used at work was the same as the one we were using at home. I was used to it, and it has gotten *so* easy to buy stuff for personal use there, and changing my mindset a bit to use Amazon for business stuff was really very easy.

The arrangement worked well. When I was running a prototyping shop, I made a *lot* of purchases from McMaster-Carr and MSC and Rutland. Those companies’ catalogs were tailored for the work we were doing, and they (especially McMaster) do *such* a good job of providing a consistent browsing, purchasing, and fulfillment experience, that once you get used to their system it’s hard to imagine life without it. But there were plenty of times where I used Amazon too, especially when it came to items that fell more on the “office supplies” end of the spectrum. Amazon’s search features are really good, and it’s great to have ratings sometimes as well. Amazon’s product discovery system is dramatically different from those of the industrial suppliers, and there are a lot of cases where I’ll hit the wall with one system and really just want a change of pace.

This is worth highlighting: 

  • McMaster-Carr’s search is very good, but their browse features are just *awesome.* This works because they’re basically a walled garden: McMaster curates their catalog well, and they do a really fantastic job collecting & displaying (consistent!) data about every product that they sell. 
  • Amazon is basically on the other side of the spectrum. Their catalog is enormous, but it’s full of stuff that comes from third parties, and is often really poorly documented. Plus there’s a lot of stuff that you can buy on Amazon that’s basically a joke (that 55 gallon drum of lube comes to mind). This is partly made up for by their review system, which is really helpful when you’re evaluating multiple products whose data doesn’t line up directly. But it also feels like a crapshoot sometimes, especially with decidedly consumer products (that three wolf shirt comes to mind). In the end, the Amazon shopping experience is definitely less consistent than McMaster’s - but then again, McMaster won’t sell you a 55 gallon drum of lube. (I’m being facetious, but the point is real. Amazon’s huge catalog is definitely a feature.)
  • The other industrial players are a mixed bag. None of them are as good about data keeping (or, consequently, browsing/filtering) as McMaster. None of their searches are as good as McMaster or Amazon, and none of their catalogs are as large, either. They make up for these shortcomings with depth: Uline does shipping, MSC and Rutland do tooling, etc. They have niches, and their capabilities within those niches make them incredibly valuable.

It’s also worth noting that these companies each take a different approach to knowing/caring who (or what type of entity) their customers are:

  • It’s implicit from McMaster’s site, but I’ve been told in person that they take it very seriously that they do *not* treat different customers differently whether they’re a business or an individual. The prices I see as some schmo on the street are the same prices I see if I’m an engineer at Lockheed Martin, and they don’t give quantity discounts either. They’ll even turn away large orders, and are in general happy to send customers to their suppliers if it’d make more sense to cut McMaster out of the transaction. 
  • A lot of the same could be said of Amazon, with the caveat that there’s a public perception that Amazon is constantly optimizing their pricing - definitely for time of year (supply and demand), but possibly also on a person-by-person basis. I have no way of knowing how much of this is true, and personally I wouldn’t find it offensive if it was. But it does strike me that Amazon takes the stance that “everyone sees the same site, but that ‘same site’ is one that’s constantly shifting depending on who you are and when you’re looking at it and what you looked at recently, and when we talk about the ‘same site’ we’re talking about something that might vary in layout, graphic design, product recommendations, pricing, and any other number of variables.”
  • Most of the industrial players, on the other hand, do kind of want to be selling to actual businesses. Some of them will go so far as requiring EINs or sales tax IDs (this is more common with suppliers that sell products at wholesale), but almost all of them will at least have the “business name” field be required.

If it’s not clear, I *like* these differences. I enjoy living in a world where companies put philosophical approaches to commerce up for debate, and let consumers decide which they prefer. The variety is good, and I find myself enjoying trying to use each to its most powerful effect. But the differences are worth noting, and it’s fun (and possibly useful) to project outward where each of these perspectives might lead in the future.

Things that are on my plate right now

Added on by Spencer Wright.

Mostly for my own benefit & the sake of catharsis, here are the things that are consuming my attention over the past & for the next few months:

  • Planning my own wedding in October.
  • Having fun this summer.
  • Getting more exercise.
  • Writing a long blog post on the seatmast topper that I had printed (DMLS) by Layerwise, and then tested by EFBe
  • Writing a long blog post on the seatpost that I had printed (EBM) by Addaero.
  • Digging more into McMaster-Carr's iOS app, and comparing it to Amazon's recently rebranded Business offering.
  • Planning a sourcing trip to Shenzhen, where Zach and I will investigate a significant redesign of The Public Radio's speaker & mechanical assembly.
  • Getting more hands-on experience with metal powder bed fusion machines. Because there are none in the New York metropolitan area, this inevitably means traveling for a few days to somewhere where I have a friend in the industry.
  • Doing a deeper dive into the variety of design tools that are cropping up for additive manufacturing. This includes getting better at T-splines (Autodesk Inventor), working with topology optimization software (SolidThinking Inspire; Frustum Cloudmesh), and doing some experimenting with lattice structure generation (with nTopology).
  • Doing a deeper dive into build preparation software, namely Materialise Magics.
  • Building myself a real desk, preferably with a proper toolchest integrated into it. I also want 2x24" displays, a proper Windows computer for 3D design, a new Mac for daily use, and a place for both a Wilton "bullet" vise and my 12"x18" granite surface plate.
  • Writing a presentation on metal 3D printing that covers both my experiences over the past two years (a case study), and my broader observations on the industry. 
  • Getting said presentation accepted to an industry conference (likely either AMUG, RAPID, or Inside 3D Printing).

There are a few more longer-term things, but this is a pretty good list for now. 

Smart: McMaster's minimal top level nav

Added on by Spencer Wright.

One of the most striking things about McMaster-Carr's website is the nearly nonexistent top level navigation. I thought I'd compare it with some similar sites for context.

McMaster-Carr

McMaster's top level navigation has six primary items:

  • Search
  • Contact
  • Bookmarks
  • Order History
  • Build Order
  • Log in/Authenticated "my account" dropdown

The Search bar has a dropdown that autopopulates results as the user enters text. The Contact, Bookmarks, Order History and Build Order links are just that - links. No dropdown/flyout, nothing.

The unauthenticated site has a small "Log in" dropdown at the top right that takes an email address. The authenticated site's account link drops down to show a "Log out" and a "Settings" link.

MSC

MSC has too much top level navigation to describe in detail here, but a few takeaways:

  • Two home links (one is the logo).
  • They have a "Special Offers" flyout that has 6 items in it.
  • They have a virtual paper catalog link with a large logo next to it.
  • They allow you to arrange product categories by four variables.
  • They only show half of their categories by default; users need to click to show the other half (or, as a second option, "View All Categories").
  • They have a 277x150 pixel advertisement on the right side of the page.

Amazon

My main beef with Amazon is their "Your Account" dropdown menu. Why do I - a visitor to the Amazon home page - need to know that "Manage Your Content and Devices" used to be called "Manage your Kindle"? 

Elsewhere, the "Shop by Department" dropdown has seventeen items in it - each with a flyout containing images and as many as nineteen sub-items.

Uline

Uline's homepage is straightforward and visually consistent. But they insist on separating their dropdown menus by "Products" (containing 34 subcategories) and "Uline Products," (26 subcategories) which as a customer seems totally arbitrary. 

Also, free offers? Really?

Grainger

My rule: If it's okay that your flyout/dropdown menu obscures a large block of content, then it probably isn't relevant. 

Grainger's site is uniquely complicated by the space devoted to its retail stores, but that's no excuse. Just take the top row. They've separated out "Sign in" and "Register now" (two mutually exclusive use cases), and have their marketing email signup (which I don't see why I'd want) right there too.

Smart: McMaster-Carr's "delivery notification" feature

Added on by Spencer Wright.

A problem I've had in real life: I made an order from a supplier, and I know the day that it's going to arrive, but I won't be at the actual delivery location when it shows up. This could be because I'm on a jobsite, or there's a dedicated delivery location where I'm working, or maybe the UPS guy just always leaves things at my neighbor's house.

Well, McMaster-Carr seems to have noticed this, and they're now integrating their carriers' shipping & delivery info into their own delivery notification system. It's a great feature, and I got the chance to try it out the other day.

In this case, Zach was picking the package up in Southampton, and I was going to be in the city when it was delivered. He had asked for the tracking number from me but I (being lazy) never got it to him.

But I *had* put my cell phone number in the checkout dialog, and I got this great text message - which includes info on the parts I ordered - when it showed up. A quick screenshot & text to Zach, and he was able to grab it without any problem.

IMG_8128.png

This is a really, really great feature. By giving their customers access to delivery data on their own terms, McMaster makes the entire procurement process a lot easier.

Manufacturing logistics wishlist

Added on by Spencer Wright.

+1 for breakfast with a smart friend. Always good for taking a step back & seeing a bit of perspective.

I like mass market products a lot. But I want to really love the things that I make, and that's hard to do if you're trying to appeal to a mass audience. Compromises need to be made when you're designing for a diverse customer base; when the market is smaller, it allows the product developer to be a bit more choosy.

I'm excited that making short-run products is getting easier - but there's still a lot to be done. These are a couple of the things that have been bothering me.

Soup to Nuts design toolchain.

As a designer of traditionally manufactured parts, features are specified according to more or less knowable tool properties. When I place a drilled hole, the results will be predictable, regardless of my supplier's equipment or process.

The same is not the case with additive manufacturing, where build orientation and support structures matter a lot. As a designer of these parts, I want to be able to simulate varying configurations myself, so that I can specify the build procedure to my suppliers. Simplifying the CAD/CAM toolchain - ideally with solid/NURBS, T-Splines, topology optimization *and* build plate prep all in one application - will be crucial to lowering the barrier of entry to AM.

Surface finish specs.

When designing a part - especially those used in assemblies - surface finish is often critical. With additive manufacturing, surface finish may vary widely, depending on build orientation and support structures. In some cases it may be possible to reorient a part in order to improve finish.

But today, these determinations are preformed by machine operators whose knowledge of the process is experiential and not publicly available - making it difficult for designers to know precisely what they'll get. Machine manufacturers and job shops should work together to develop design guidelines and detailed surface finish specs, alleviating this uncertainty.

Full service plastics prototyping.

I love Shapeways. But they *need* to offer secondary services, i.e. tapping and tolerancing. 

Advanced Manufacturing 3PSCM.

Again, I love Shapeways. But they *need* to offer assembly, and custom packaging, and small parts that are traditionally manufactured (i.e. bolts). 

3D printing is a cool technology. But so is stamping, and you don't see sheet metal shops selling useful products directly to consumers. Without a supply chain management offering, I believe that Shapeways will be confined to just selling parts - not products.

Industrial supply catalog APIs.

I love McMaster-Carr. But they need an API that can talk to both my e-commerce and the API of my manufacturer. When my customers purchase an assembly from me, my supply chain manager (whether it's Shapeways or somebody else) would automatically place orders through McMaster-Carr and my manufacturing partner(s) - with all parts being shipped to the SCM and assembled just-in-time for shipment.

A word on MFG and Alibaba.

I'm all for services that provide me access to a wide range of manufacturers. But it is critical to the design process that that service be completely transparent. Like it or not, most designers are *not* manufacturing agnostic, and speaking directly to a manufacturer - and preferably to the machine operator who will actually be setting up & running your part - is key to producing successful designs.

Too much effort is being spent trying to disrupt procurement in ways that adds an opaque layer between me and my supplier, and the end result is that I learn little from the process. All I want is for you to put suppliers in front of me and then get out of the way.

Everyone in the supply chain should have a blog.

Why aren't these people talking about their processes? Why aren't they sharing the non-NDA work they've done? Why aren't they showing me the capabilities of the new machines they have? I would gladly pay a premium for a shop that's actively showing me the engineering feats they're accomplishing. Get bloggy - the openness is quite becoming.

 

I hope it is, at least :)

McMaster-Carr and the Future of Parts

Added on by Spencer Wright.

Last year, I wrote a post describing my feature requirements for a modern parts management system. Re-reading it today, I realize that it doesn't really say what the user interaction would feel like - or how it would work at all. I hope to provide some of that here.

The key is this: Integrate small parts inventory management into the product design, prototyping, and maintenance, repair & operations processes. I'll treat these as three separate use cases, though they're all part of the same product lifecycle.

The reader will note that I believe McMaster-Carr to be the strongest positioned organization to take on these tasks. As a longtime fan of McMaster and a student of their intense customer focus, beautiful interface design, and impressive supply chain management, I hope that they seriously consider these recommendations - as I'm sure that their competitors will be soon.

Note: I diagrammed an early version of this idea in a flowchart here.

My current "system," during prototyping on  The Public Radio.

My current "system," during prototyping on The Public Radio.

During Design

As a hardware product designer, I want my suppliers' parts catalogs integrated into my design environment, so that I can seamlessly browse for new parts and view part data directly from my modeling software.

Autodesk Inventor is my go-to design software, and McMaster-Carr is my go-to parts supplier. I'm constantly browsing McM for a part, then adding it to an open order, then downloading the STEP file and importing that into my model. I consider this a luxury: McM's decision to include STEPs for the vast majority of their mechanical parts makes my job a ton easier. But the process is convoluted, and a lot of part data is lost. On parts like socket cap screws, for instance, McM tracks the following data:

  • Thread size
  • Length
  • Thread length
  • Material
  • Package quantity
  • Package price

But their STEP files contain none of that; all that's included is the part number and the material, which is often stripped of a lot of useful data (parts described as "Type 316 Stainless Steel" on McMaster's site often show up as either "Stainless" - or worse, "Generic" - in the STEP file).

For McMaster-Carr to become more fully integrated into my design and procurement process, they should include comprehensive part data in all of their STEP files. 

Moreover, there's a larger opportunity for McMaster to integrate their catalog directly into my design environment. If their catalog were available as a plugin for Inventor/Solidworks, designers could browse, design, and purchase all from one seamless interface - which I believe they will demand in the near future. Look at Plethora and Sunstone Circuits (and in web development, Squarespace) - across the hardware world, the movement is towards integrating design & supply chain management. McMaster-Carr is perfectly positioned to become a powerful player in the field. 

During Prototyping

As a prototyping mechanic, I want real-time internet enabled inventory management, so that I can understand what parts I have on hand & prepare for shortages before they happen.

Small parts management sucks. With their lightning-quick delivery and vast catalog, McMaster is the cornerstone of most prototyping shops' parts management system. But that solution is awkward at best, and often requires simply ordering more parts, even if we have some (somewhere) on hand. 

Small scale inventory management has historically been extremely difficult, but today it's increasingly easy. For instance, Quirky has shown us that it's not that hard to keep track of the number of eggs you have in your fridge, and Tesla's iOS app shows the charge state of your car's battery. It's only a matter of time before the same is the case with things throughout our physical lives, and McMaster-Carr is uniquely positioned to take small parts management on.

I envision a small parts cabinet full of sensors (some combination of force, optical, or proximity), which would periodically update an online database as to the quantity of parts inside each bin. But you needn't even start there. An easy MVP would be an iOS app that allowed the user to snap a photo of a small parts cabinet and tag each bin with a part number & quantity. The photos would be collected and stored online, and would be linked to the customer's McM order history. 

Then, when a mechanic takes a handful of bolts out of a drawer, all he needs to do is update the inventory count from his app. By tapping around a set of linked photos in the app, he's directed to the bin that he's physically looking at - and he can confirm visually that the parts are what they appear to be. By tapping on an "info" tab, he brings up the inventory data (including links to a 3D part file, technical data, order dates, and a list of mating parts/assemblies that the part has been used in - culled from the Inventor plugin described above) and assign a piece count to a job & edit quantity on hand in moments.

McMaster-Carr should build this system - starting with an iOS app that offers basic inventory management. Doing so would give them a view into their customers' usage data, and would help users streamline their restocking process. The days of bins labeled with bits of paper are numbered, and users will soon demand personalized (and internet-enabled) inventory management systems. McMaster is in a unique position in the marketplace, and has the opportunity - if they work now - to strengthen their foothold in small parts management.

For MRO

As a maintenance, repair & operations engineer, I want a single process that incorporates machine data, relevant spare parts, and procurement, so that I can get my facility back online more quickly.

A large part of McMaster-Carr's business is in supporting maintenance, repair & operations (MRO) professionals. These customers have unique needs; their ability to get the right part, right now, can have huge impacts on their company's ability to recover from unplanned downtime due to a broken machine.

In many cases, MRO engineers will find themselves with a broken part and will need to replace it immediately. Doing so will require careful measurement to determine the part's specifications, a process that can be difficult and imprecise - especially if the broken part has been mangled and/or lost.

McMaster should work to establish a system of folksonomy - user contributed data - that would allow MRO customers to tag parts with information about how and where they can be used. For instance, a particular serpentine belt might be commonly used as a replacement spindle drive belt on an old lathe. Instead of finding this data on the web - and then cross referencing part numbers back to the McMaster-Carr catalog - a tag could be submitted to the relevant part directly in the McM database. Subsequent users could then find the information they need right in the McM website/app.

Such a system would be complicated, for sure. It would require a significant effort on McM's part to hire and train community managers, who would monitor and vet user submitted data on a daily basis. But doing so would allow McMaster to leverage the huge - and growing - network of hardware professionals and enthusiasts. This community is sorely lacking a single go-to reference, and McMaster is in many ways the strongest candidate (with its enormous existing database of part, material & process data) to do so.


In order to pull off these tasks, I believe McMaster-Carr will need to become more transparent about their processes and inventory data. This will be a difficult process - I myself struggle with transparency - but I believe the payoff will be well worth it. A new generation of hardware professionals & hackers have come of age in a new information paradigm, and they are increasingly responsible for purchasing decisions in small and large companies alike. These people have grown up reading Amazon's shareholder letters and following the official Google tech blog. They expect to be part of a company's product development process, and will contribute their own time, energy, and expertise to projects that historically would have been developed in private. McMaster-Carr - with its huge network of enthusiastic users - should leverage that collective energy, and work with its customers to bring parts management into the 21st century.

A smart thing that McMaster-Carr does really well

Added on by Spencer Wright.

Commoditization of everything.

Tool selection is often a difficult process. Manufacturers are keyed on branding, and often use brand terminology to describe what may (or may not) be useful product features. As a customer, a lot of my efforts are spent trying to interpret this information, and cut through the terminology to get to a head-to-head comparison.

Most retailers repeat brand product descriptions verbatim, but McMaster-Carr does customers the service of stripping brand copy and providing only the relevant product features. They even go a step further, formatting those features consistently across product lines.

See the Amazon results for "nailer":

Amazon's results show four products. Customers can see the brand name, a large color photo, pricing, consumer (star) ratings, shipping availability, and one product feature/description.

McMaster, on the other hand, shows eight products (plus two accessories). Each product has nine features, a price, and a detailed description - including a wide range of associated products (mostly nails, in this case).

Amazon seems to think that what I really care about is the color of the tool and when it's available. McMaster gives me real product data, and their global shipping policies (which are a worth a thousand words unto themselves) give me all the information I need to make a timely decision. While Amazon focuses on brand language - both the manufacturers' (who needs the 9-digit alphanumeric part numbers?) and Amazon's ("Prime"; "#1 Best Seller"; "More Buying Choices") - McMaster focuses on what the tool actually does.

As a consumer, I want to comparison shop by technical product features, so that I can quickly find the right tool for the job.

Brands are beside the point. McMaster commoditizes products, reducing them to the features & methods they use to solve my problems.

Feature Requirements: Parts Storage System

Added on by Spencer Wright.

Parts storage has been a key aspect of my product development career, and has consistently frustrated me. A few reasons for my ire:

  • Parts cabinets are expensive. I probably spent $200 on my cabinets, which were mostly used; at my last employer, we spent over $2K on "standard duty" parts drawers, shown here, from McMaster-Carr.
  • Traditional parts organizers are time consuming to organize, and often aren't formatted to hold the size and quantity of parts you need to store.
  • Most management systems don't allow for reorganization without significant amounts of work.
  • Every organization & labeling system I'm aware of is disconnected from the part specs that I usually want to have on-hand when making a selection from physical inventory.
  • Keeping a digital catalog of parts inventory on-hand is time consuming, difficult, and totally disconnected from the location and quantity of the parts themselves. 

In order for the full implications of digital product development, manufacturing and distribution to come to pass, I believe that industry will need to completely rethink how it addresses, organizes, processes and tracks parts inventory. I have a few ideas of what this will look like, but I'd like for now to focus on the requirements for such a system. 

  • Parts should be uniquely addressable. For many of my applications, McMaster-Carr, DigiKey, Sparkfun, and Amazon product numbers would be fine. Ultimately a system like IP would probably be preferable, if only to apply uniformity and allow manufacturers and distributors of all flavors to buy into a single standard. At some point, I wonder about the possibility of addressing not only each brand/make/spec of bolt, resistor, or chip - but also addressing each physical instance of each of those categories. With the enormous addressing capacity of IPv6, this is well within the realm of possibility - we simply need to find an appropriate tracking mechanism. (Side note: IPv6 has an addressing capacity of about 3.4*10^38. In comparison, there are estimated to be on the order of 7.5*10^18 grains of sand on all the beaches in the world. That's a ratio of 4.5*10^19 : 1, in favor of IPv6 addresses.)
  • Physical organization shouldn't need to be hierarchical. Hierarchical systems work fine on dynamic interfaces (e.g. on the web, where they're used in conjunction with tagging and search features), but parts organization is subject to so many other forces - not the least of which is the size and quantity of a given type of item. For example: if the bolts I have on hand vary in length from 5mm to 50mm, finding a single drawer to accommodate all of them will be difficult. Much better to allow locational organization to be loose, and instead encourage browsing through a database. Put a different way: I don't see the need to institute a browsable Dewey Decimal system on my parts; I'll just search for them on my computer, and it'll tell me where I should look.
  • Parts on hand should be treated as a subset of parts in the world. When I'm designing a new assembly and searching for a bolt to use in it, I want to access a single interface that will allow me to search either globally (the entire catalog of uniquely addressable parts in the world), from a single manufacturer/distributor, or only from my in-stock catalog. On the other hand, when I'm physically looking at a particular item in my inventory, I should have easy access to the product specs for replacement parts and compatible mating parts. 
  • Inventory should be tracked in real time. When I remove parts from physical inventory, my database of stocked components should be updated immediately. As sensor technology evolves, it is my hope that this will be possible with minimal user interaction (e.g. via the use of pressure, proximity, or chemical presence sensors within the parts cabinet). In the meantime, the parts cabinet itself (or at the very least a nearby iPad running dedicated software) should offer me the ability to quickly update quantity on hand.
  • Complete part data should be available at the part's physical location. If I'm browsing for a bolt, I should be able to have access to all available part data for that bolt - including specifications, tolerances, 3D models, compatible mates, replacements - right at the parts cabinet. For now, this could be achievable by some user gesture at the parts cabinet (e.g. pressing a tactile switch at the individual part compartment) pushing a notification to a nearby iPad. As interaction hardware evolves, I would hope that this would happen within the parts organizer itself, through the use of haptic/gestural info (picking a part out of a bin) and integrated displays.
  • My purchasing system should know what parts I have on hand. When I order parts, it's almost exclusively through webstores. When I hit the "confirm your order" page, I want my inventory tracking software to scan for similar parts in my database and alert me if I've got anything in stock that would work for what I'm doing. If I'm ordering M4x12 button head cap screws and I have M4x12 socket head cap screws in stock, it's possible that I could save time, money, and inventory space by redesigning my assembly to accept what I have in stock. Conversely: When I place an order, my inventory system should know about it and prepare my parts organizer to accept new inventory.
  • Everything should have a 3D model. This is a bit of a pet peeve of mine. It blows my mind that many PCBs are designed without a digital visual check for interferences, and the situation is even crazier when you consider integrating PCBs into mechanical assemblies. I've spent a lot of time modeling off-the-shelf components for my own use, and have begun posting them on GrabCAD  for others to use. It's my hope that this type of thing catches on, and that manufacturers find ways to support/help the effort.
  • No paper. My previous parts organizers relied heavily on sticky notes and Sharpies, as I suspect most contemporary systems do. This is absurd. What happens when you run through stock of a particular part, and decide not to reorder? Well, you spend ten minutes scraping a crusty old label off of the bin, or taping over it with a new one. Adhesives fail over time, and pen-and-paper just isn't modular enough for the rapid changes in direction that modern product development shops go through. My bins should be unlabeled. Instead, I'll identify parts by comparing them to their 3D models (viewable in my parts organizer's interactive display), or - better  yet - by my parts organizer knowing what I'm doing (through whatever gestural interaction it uses) and telling me what I'm looking at.

What I've described here is huge, but not that conceptually complex. It also has the capacity to be expanded recursively, to apply to all kinds of physical and digital objects. A cohesive, consistent system for tracking and managing parts will allow for improvements in innovation and distribution techniques to reach their full potential. And I worry that without such a system, the benefits of rapid prototyping, just-in-time manufacturing, and distributed, adaptive supply chains will be highly constrained.