by Matt Migliore
The process of fluid handling systems design, like many engineering tasks, has changed drastically with the emergence of Internet-based business over the past 10-15 years. And perhaps nowhere is this evolutionary trend more evident today than in the area of valve specification, as the era of massive binders full of product data sheets makes way for a new generation of online tools aimed at streamlining the valve selection process.
With lessons learned from clunky early iterations of Web-based offerings in hand, some valve manufacturers are entering the 2.0 phase of their online strategy, providing tools that are truly user friendly and thoroughly intuitive. Ultimately, the aim is to arm the valve user with an online system that is capable of custom configuring a valve to meet the specific needs of a given application. But before that goal is achieved, there’s still some more ground to be covered.
Web-Enabling Valve Configuration
It wasn’t so long ago that online valve configuration was nothing more than an idea, with a handful of manufacturers considering how to add product information to their Web sites. Meanwhile, end-users were still building hard-copy documentation libraries, filled with product data sheets and component manuals from valve manufacturers far and wide.
"[Ten years ago,] the whole process took much time, and since it was paper-based, it was prone to error," says Mike Farrell, director of Web & IT Services for Assured Automation (www.assuredautomation.com). "Engineers would need to consult all of the component product sheets and price sheets to find compatible components, determine the price of each component, and tally the cost of each component to get to a total assembly cost."
Marty Mincevich, director of marketing for ASCO Valve Inc. (www.ascovalve.com), says the online valve configuration tools that are coming to market today, however, offer valuable features to help end-user engineers take some of the time and effort out of the valve selection process.
Earlier this month, ASCO released its latest online configurator, which focuses specifically on solenoid valve specification. Whereas ASCO’s previous configuration tools took a systems-based approach with the aim of building entire valve packages, the company’s latest configurator focuses on the solenoid valve itself.
Designing the Configurator of Today
According to Mincevich, the development process for ASCO’s latest online configuration tool was based on extensive observational research and focus group data. He says this research process effort revealed some of the key characteristics an engineer wants in an online valve configurator, such as intuitiveness and ease of use.
Mincevich says engineers want a configurator that presents all of the possible options available to them via a single interface, rather than in drop-down lists or by parsing though multiple pages. Regarding intuitiveness, Mincevich says engineers indicated that while they want multiple options to choose from after inputting their application requirements, they don’t want to be overwhelmed with too many possible solutions.
Based on this feedback, Mincevich says ASCO designed its latest
configurator such that the interface is presented on a single page, which continuously refines the options as the end-user engineer provides more and more information about the application. The interface was also designed such that all of the options are viewable at the same time rather than housed in drop-down lists or on separate pages. Finally, he says ASCO armed its configurator with enough business and engineering intelligence so it generally provides 5-10 viable options once all of the application information is provided.
Farrell says Assured Automation sees timeliness as one of the key advantages online configurators offer as compared to paper-based systems. He says that while hard-copy documentation libraries often contain a lot of dated material, today’s generation of online systems are capable of providing end-user engineers with real-time access to the most current product information.
Farrell says today’s tools also hold significant advantages over earlier iterations of online configurators. According to Farrell, one of the main drawbacks of first-generation configurators was that they were often over-engineered, resulting in a time-consuming and tedious process. "Since there was no internal logic that guided engineers to relevant options based on choices already made, it was possible for engineers to configure assemblies that simply would not work," says Farrell. "Or engineers could select sets of options that would produce no viable recommendation."
As more logic was introduced into the configurators, Farrell says the problem became waiting for pages to refresh with each option selected. "The user interface was clunky and cumbersome. Extensive use of drop-down menus prevented engineers from seeing all relevant options in one glance," says Farrell. "And some dated configurators required engineers to flip across multiple pages before finally completing a valve assembly."
Unlike the valve configurators of yesteryear, however, Farrell says today’s systems are capable of providing enough engineering and business logic to effectively specify even the most complex assemblies.
Keys to Configuration Success