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The Web's new trick: it's now useful

In our daily strolls out onto the Internet, we are noticing that an increasing number of web sites have become more sophisticated, offering genuinely useful information to packagers.
FILED IN:  Machinery  > Case packing

One such site is the Tag and Label Manufacturers Institute's (TLMI) site at www.tlmi.com. It features a searchable directory of material suppliers and converters that allows site visitors to search by a comprehensive range of converting or printing process or material types. Of course suppliers can also be located by city state or zip code.

Though the design is a bit confusing forcing the user to go through several intermediate screens before getting the goods this isn't a mortal sin. The directory redeems itself by its depth: instead of simply returning a basic company listing and phone number one can view an extremely detailed product and process portfolio of any vendor listed in the system.

The directory's main drawback: it contains only TLMI members or about 300 companies half of which are material suppliers and the other half converters. The converters comprise most of the majors says Edward Boyle TLMI's communications coordinator responsible for "forty percent of the labels in this country." And the site's 150 material suppliers "represent all the major suppliers in the world" he says.

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The site itself is designed with a clean airy layout. We would have liked to see the directory more clearly marked on the home page perhaps with the words "Click here to search for a converter or supplier" instead of the association-centric "Members/Products."

Of course the eve of Pack Expo 98 is a good time to check out the Packaging Machinery Manufact urers Insitute's www.packexpo. com web site especially if you're not going to the show. Why? Its searchable exhibitor directory represents what is one of the most complete and up-to-date directories of packaging suppliers we've found on-line. Of course the reason is because the show itself has more exhibitors than any other North American packaging show.

Better the rumor coming out of PMMI is that after the show the site Pack Expo will continue to serve. The exhibitor list will supposedly morph into a permanent on-line directory of the self-same broad swath of machinery and material suppliers not just the 400-odd PMMI member companies.

The search engine is well-implemented if a bit hard to pick out from the home page. It gracefully handles variations in phrasing: for example we searched for "case packing" "case packer" and "case packers" and it returned the same 31 suppliers each time. And even more pleasing a quick glance down the list showed that most of the listed companies do indeed sell case packers. This may seem like an obvious requirement for a directory but we've seen too many on-line directories that don't bother to prevent companies from appearing in inappropriate categories.

Extranets for purchasing

Back in May readers of this column got a glimpse of some companies' web sites that feature extranets. Extranets refer to "private" password-protected portions of a web site that allow a specific group of people typically customers to place orders directly over the web check order status etc.

In addition to the companies we reported on in May another company that has launched just such an extranet is Wilkinson Mfg. Co. (Fort Calhoun NE) a supplier of aluminum foil and oriented polystyrene food packaging materials. The extranet on its web site at www.wilkinson mfg.com allows Wilk inson customers to see a wealth of inventory ordering and shipping data on-line which is updated daily. A well-done "tour" of what's available to extranent users including sample screen shots is available by clicking on "Member Tour" at the home page. Ron Williams Wilkinson's director of MIS tells Packaging World that about 80 customers are currently signed up on the system and that number is growing by "several requests a week."

Back to basics

A site doesn't have to feature an extranet to be useful of course. It's still a fine art to convey basic product information in a quick yet thorough way. Matthews Intl.'s Marking Products Div.'s (Pittsburgh PA) site at www. matthewsmarking.com is a good example of a site that executes this basic function well. Though packaging is just one of several unrelated fields and industries that the company targets it's easy for packagers to quickly click on "Applications" on the easy-to-digest home page followed by clicking on "Packaging." All of its coding and marking products are cleanly laid out in almost a narrative format with a generous sprinkling of photos. Links embedded throughout the copy lead to more specific information for each product.

Venerable motor and drive supplier Baldor Electric Co.'s (Fort Smith AR) site at www. baldor.com also sports easy-to-access yet thorough product information in the form of a searchable catalog. Detailed specs and photos of a wide variety of products are available and many include CAD drawings and connection diagrams.

Of course for sheer fun nothing beats Baldor's exploded "virtual reality" view of some of its products like the DC motor shown in the photo sequence on page 99. On the web it's a single photo: users can click on one side of the picture and drag the mouse pointer across literally exploding the motor in a smooth and continuous motion to expose its innards. Dragging the mouse back will close up the motor again. Yes it's excruciatingly slow to download the VR image into your web browser over a modem connection. But once it's in your computer you can slide the mouse back and forth with abandon exploding and imploding the motor over and over. Indeed we lost a good part of an evening's free time doing just this. If you're lucky enough to have a fast corporate connection check it out.

Machinery builders take note: this kind of web technology could allow users to "walk through" your machines via the web. Un fortunately until we all have high-speed cable modems at home or super-fast corporate connections at work this kind of technology will remain be yond the practical reach of the web-surfing masses. (Bring on the local phone competition! )

Plastics on-line

In keeping with this issue's plastics theme we examined web sites of a few well-known plastics companies that serve the packaging market.

Vinyl sheet supplier Klockner Pentaplast's site has a well-done troubleshooting guide for thermoformers at its site. Although you can access the site through the main Klockner corporate site at www.klockner.com&#44 it's easier to just go directly to the Pentaplast site at www.klockner.com/kpa/ kpa_main.html.

The troubleshooting section consists of a table of extensive tips for users of cut-in-place as well as in-line thermoforming equipment. A wide range of problems is covered such as "white stretch marks" "part not formed" "parts sticking to hot plate" etc. Solutions consist of brief instructions like "replace heater rod" "reduce time on hot plate" or "sharpen die to .001-.003 flat."

Early this year DuPont (Wilming ton DE) launched its Tyvek site at www.dupont.com/Tyvek/sterilepkg. The site for this popular material for medical packaging offers extensive tips for printing converting and packaging with the spun-bonded polyolefin material. There's also a section that instructs how to conduct package integrity tests as well as a section on tips for obtaining good peel performance. An extensive sterilization compatibility section is also available.

Dow Plastics (Midland MI) also lists extensive product information on its site at www.dow.com/plastics. Like DuPont the company serves many disparate end-markets. Thankfully the company makes it easy to zero in on information on the packaging-related portion of its business. If you know the precise product you're looking for you can click on "Dow Plastics Product Overviews" and choose a specific product or application from a series of drop-down menus. Technical datasheets are available for download.

If you find that you'll be a frequent visitor the site allows you to customize your own "desktop" at the site.

And finally in what we thought was a nice touch sprinkled liberally throughout many of the site's pages was a message that read "Tell us what you are thinking. Click here and e-mail your comments to Dow." Too many sites seem to go out of their way to omit basic contact information on every page.

If you have discovered interesting sites on the web tell us about it at [email protected].

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