Technology and Industrial Distribution: What’s Next?

By IBT Inc

August 02, 2012

Industry News

The only constant in life is change. The only variation is when and how much. With technology, change has happened since I typed the first word of this article. What we think of as cutting edge today will be archaic to anyone who joins our industry in just a few short years. Already, for many of us, it’s hard to imagine how business was done without cell phones, PDAs, laptops or desktop computers.

Imagine a world with no electronic gadgets and the only lifeline to the customer or the office is a pay phone. It sounds like something you read in a history book, but the fact is there are many people in this industry that can speak about this time in the first person.

To truly figure out where this industry is going, we first need to understand where it came from compared to where we are today. From there, we can at least guess about what “we think” is in store for us in the coming years. And I’m sure we are all in for a big surprise.

I would like to break this down by innovation change and not a date line. No reason to pick a fight with the other generations. Let’s start with pre-computers and pre-cell phones and, yes, that includes the giant satellite bag phones that would cost you around $8 a minute. This was a simpler time in our industry.

Don’t get me wrong, simple doesn’t imply the lack of hard work. It merely means in the morning, you went to work and at the end of the day, you went home. That could have meant 8:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m. Or, for many of you, it meant 6:30 a.m. to 7:00 p.m.

The key is most work was done at the office and left at work. No checking e-mails at home in the evenings. No after-hours numbers, unless a few customers had your home phone. Text messaging, what?

During this time the outside sales person’s best friend was, in fact, the pay phone. Anybody remember what those look like?

We also can’t forget how the branches operated. No computers meant no ERP systems. I have never seen one, but I have heard a lot about the dreaded Inventory Card Catalog. Product comes in, card gets filed, product goes out, card gets removed. Sounds pretty easy, unless you are trying to manage thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of SKU’s. Oh, and inventory sounds like it would be a party. No thanks.

Now enters the computer.

I can only imagine that first conversion from inventory card catalogs to the electronic era. Assigning a part number system and entering proper descriptions must have been a never ending task. But wait, now when a customer calls a branch, a trained inside sales staff can identify inventory with 2 or 3 strokes of the key board. Navigating on a heavy, bulky 12-inch green monitor was considered high tech. Reporting goes from Big Chief to green bar, followed by Microsoft Excel. Now a few years pass and we have the World Wide Web. Information about almost anything is at our finger tips, and all we need is a computer and a phone line.

Welcome to the beginning of a revolution. Ring, ring. Is that a cell phone I hear?

This invention created the 24/7 on-call distributor. Pagers were around before but didn’t create such an easy pipeline to anyone – anywhere – quite like the cell phone. Now vacation meant you might need to discuss a bearing tolerance on the beach. There is no getting away.

How quickly the cell phone became a PDA. Now you can check your e-mails not only from your desktop, or even your now available portable laptop, but from a 4 x 3 inch rectangle that fits in your pocket that is also your phone. Oh, and the Internet is also available on these new devices. Now we can search Google while riding in a car.

Last, but not least, we have the iPad. An electronic tablet the size of a notepad that is as powerful as a laptop computer with access to almost an unlimited amount of information. The modern day Big Chief Tablet.

I know I summarized multiple decades in a few short paragraphs, but I think it shows how quickly the norm becomes out of date.

So here we are. Surrounded by technology changing the way we do our jobs. It is changing the way we approach recruiting. It is changing the way we train both our new and veteran employees. With such a surge of access to information, will distributors need experts in power transmission, or will they need computer savvy employees who know where to find information readily available online?

The value and power the distributor brings to the table is the knowledge and expertise of the products and services they provide. With so much available information, it changes the way each distributor will need to manage their internal knowledge and use it to differentiate themselves from the competition. Technology is not going to slow down, and the distributors who learn how to utilize the tools, while still leaning on their employees’ decades worth of expertise, will stand above the rest in the years to come.

Technology and Industrial Distribution: What’s Next? was originally published in PTDA’s Transmissions® Volume 1, 2011. This article is reprinted with permission from PTDA.