Taking Your Vertical Sales To New Heights
Compliance pressures are leading suppliers to the aerospace/aviation industry to adopt AIDC. One VAR discusses how you can capitalize.
Business Solutions, March 1998
At that point, suppliers want to be able to easily determine when, in the part's manufacturing process, the defect occurred. And that is practically impossible unless suppliers bar code these parts and encode the settings of the machines used to make them in the bar codes. Most aerospace/aviation manufacturers, like Boeing, have begun to require their suppliers to bar code the parts the suppliers ship to the manufacturers. However, many suppliers lack the bar-coding hardware and software necessary to comply with the manufacturers' mandates, according to Derreck Ford, president/CEO of JET Equipment Corporation. JET Equipment, a Santa Ana, CA, VAR, with gross sales of $3.5 million, sells AIDC technology to aerospace/aviation suppliers. "Compliance pressures have made our job easier," Ford says, "because the suppliers need AIDC technology. When suppliers make a defective part, they go back and review the manufacturing process. Because if the supplier can identify a defect in the manufacturing process - such as a machine not having the proper settings - then the supplier can make the part correctly."
Despite the aerospace/aviation industry's dire need for AIDC technology, Ford says VARs have to overcome unique challenges to successfully sell to this market. In the following pages, he discusses the market's nuances as well as action points VARs can use to their benefit.
Capitalizing On Aerospace's Need For AIDC
According to Ford, aerospace/aviation manufacturers like Boeing and McDonald Douglas have mandated, since 1992, that their suppliers bar code shipments. But those were "partial" mandates because suppliers were only required to bar code the "outside" - i.e., the cartons - of their shipments. However, manufacturers are now requiring suppliers to take their shipment labeling a step further. Specifically, suppliers now have to bar code the individual items they ship in addition to the cartons they are shipped in.
Historically, suppliers have marked their cartons with one-dimensional, linear bar-code labels. And, while linear labels are appropriate for carton marking, Ford says they are not appropriate for identifying parts and components. Because every single part of an aircraft is bar coded, linear labels would add too much extra weight to a plane, for example. Ford adds, "Individually, labels only weigh a few ounces. But some aircraft might have 100,000 parts, so the weight of the bar code label is multiplied by 100,000."
In addition, linear bar codes are not used on planes because they can peel off. "If a label on the outside of the plane partially came off while it was in flight, the label would flap in the wind and disrupt the plane's airflow," Ford adds.
As a result, aerospace/aviation suppliers have to use ink jet printers to identify parts. These printers have printheads with nozzles at the end. Ink is sprayed out from the nozzle, creating an ink bar code. The principle of ink jet marking is similar to painting a house with a power paint sprayer. Ink bar codes are scanned with the same units that are used to scan paper-based bar codes, Ford says.
One common method of ink jet printing is marking items as they pass by the printer's nozzle on a conveyor belt. The nozzle is at a fixed position above the conveyor belt. As items pass underneath the nozzle, it sprays an ink bar code on them. However, conveyorized ink marking systems have one primary drawback, according to Ford. Because the nozzle is set at a fixed position above the conveyor belt, the items have to be of roughly the same size and height.
Handheld print guns are also used to mark items with ink bar codes. These units resemble handheld data collection terminals (handheld computers). The worker aims the print gun at the item, and pushes a trigger to spray ink on the item that is being marked. Handheld print guns are ideal for labeling large items that are too large or heavy to be moved easily, Ford says. "While most of the suppliers have label printers, many haven't yet adopted ink jet printers," he adds. "That's because the manufacturers only recently began to require suppliers to identify the items within their shipments."
The Difference Between Providing Hardware And Solutions
Jet Equipment has gone through several transformations as it has learned more about selling to aerospace/aviation suppliers. At first, Jet Equipment was strictly "a hardware provider," according to Ford. "Our approach was to promote the features of our bar-coding hardware," Ford explains, "whether the prospects needed those features or not."
However, Ford soon realized that success in the aerospace/aviation industry required a different type of sales approach. Specifically, the company became more proactive in working to understand customers' requirements from AIDC technology. For Jet Equipment, that meant listening to prospects discuss their business problems before talking about its products. "At least initially, aerospace companies don't want to be 'sold' on product features. They want VARs to help them meet the compliance issues," Ford says. "It's the difference between VARs saying, 'here's our products' capabilities,' and 'tell us about your current processes and how we can improve them together.'"
Understanding The Market's Requirements
However, Jet Equipment also learned it had to go beyond developing solutions based on customer needs. As a result, Jet made a second, major business transition. According to Ford, the company also developed a "partnership mentality" in working with customers. "End users in the aerospace industry require a lot more hand-holding than those in most verticals," Ford says. "Aerospace companies don't want to spend time becoming experts on bar coding. They just want to focus on manufacturing parts."
The fact that aerospace companies expect VARs to partner with them places several requirements on VARs, according to Ford. These requirements include:
- Responsive technical support requirements - Aerospace suppliers bar code all parts and materials as they manufacture them. This is so these items can be found quickly and easily when the suppliers need to pull them from inventory (to send as part of a shipment to a manufacturer). As a result, Ford says suppliers halt production when their ink jet printers are down. "Suppliers have to meet their customers' shipment deadlines," Ford explains. "So, printer failures put them in jeopardy of missing those deadlines. And suppliers who miss deadlines can lose customers."
JET Equipment's goal is to resolve customers' hardware problems within 24 hours. "If Boeing asks us to have a technical support person there tomorrow, we better have someone there if we want to keep Boeing as a customer," Ford says.
In some instances, JET Equipment relies on its vendors for hardware support. JET Equipment buys bar-code scanners from Microscan (Renton, WA), a scanner manufacturer. If one of JET's customers is in close geographical proximity to Microscan, then Microscan typically will help with the service. "Relying on vendors can be more efficient than flying someone across the country," Ford adds.
- Intensive preventive maintenance requirements - Ford says customers expect Jet to perform regular, preventive maintenance on its hardware. This includes changing filters in ink jet printers as well as lubricating and recalibrating printers. "We're expected to do the maintenance because our customers don't want to spend the time doing it," Ford says. "The maintenance does help prevent serious hardware problems down the road. Most aerospace suppliers run three work shifts, 24-hours-a-day. So, equipment downtime can cause them to miss a shipment deadline."
- The ability to be a sole source of technology - End users in the aerospace industry want to limit the number of VARs they buy from. The end users expect VARs to fulfill their technology requirements "today and tomorrow," Ford says. As a result, VARs have to stay up-to-date on technology in order to recommend new products. "With the aerospace/aviation market, VARs can't simply sell a customer and move on to the next one," he says. "That may be true in some markets, but it certainly isn't in aerospace."
The aerospace industry has a number of requirements related to the inks used to mark and identify aircraft parts. According to Ford, these requirements include:
- Fast drying - The inks used by aerospace/aviation suppliers have to dry in one to two seconds. Because parts may be stacked vertically, the inks will smudge if they don't dry quickly enough.
- Matching contrast requirements - Because parts and other items are different colors, it is important for VARs to recognize suppliers require inks of different contrasts, depending on the items being marked. "The inks have to be dark enough to provide a sufficient contrast," he says. "If the ink isn't dark enough, the user won't be able to scan the item."
- Safe handling requirements - VARs need to train end users on disposing of inks. Because the inks are flammable, they have to be disposed of in special flame-resistant trash cans.
According to Ford, aerospace manufacturers and suppliers thoroughly evaluate their VARs. For example, the aerospace industry rates VARs for quality; the top rating is "gold." These ratings are based mainly on VARs' ability to deliver product on time, and their ability to service their products quickly and competently.
And because many end users want to talk to references, VARs have to be willing to disclose customer names. In addition, some users make informal visits to the VAR's site to see how knowledgeable its employees are.
According to Ford, VARs are assigned new ratings every six months. VARs are informed of their rating. Many end users only buy from VARs who maintain a "gold" rating.
'Partnership' Focus Critical For VARs
Ford says JET Equipment has maintained a gold rating by establishing partnerships with customers. "The aerospace industry doesn't want 'suppliers' who just move boxes, it wants partners. That means we have to be there at a moment's notice if a customer needs technical support. And it also means we have to keep abreast of product developments so we can provide technology the users need now and five years from now."