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Experimenting with Web-based tech support

Frustrated with flipping through a manual to solve a tech support problem?
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You might be surprised to find that a growing number of equipment makers offer up-to-date tech support information right on their web sites.

While the Web is no substitute for an in-house engineering staff or live support from actual vendor technicians web-based tech support can be another information resource in a packager's tool kit.

One supplier with an extensive repository of technical product information is Rockwell Automation/ Allen-Bradley. Complete manuals for many of A-B's products can be found on-line at www.ab.com&#44 along with detailed data sheets onA-B's line of industrial controls sensors drives and more. Also included is training information and schedules of classes.

From Rockwell Software an extensive archive of software demos updates and patches is available for immediate download.

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For hardcore tech support problems there's an "ask the experts" section where you can fill out a form and submit technical (or general) questions. The site promises your question will be "forwarded rapidly to the appropriate Rockwell Automation experts."

Although it doesn't fall under the "tech support" heading the site currently offers an interactive sensor demo an animation that can be downloaded right from the home page.

Unfortunately the demo requires that your web browser have Macromedia's Shockwave plug-in which isn't usually pre-installed with most web browsers. While the site gives directions on how to download and install the plug-in we find that doing so is often more trouble than it's worth for all but the most hard-core Web users.

Caveat: like many web sites you must register your name address and phone in order to access the goodies mentioned above.

Another vendor that's recently revamped its site to include more hard technical data is Enercon Industries. This easy-to-navigate site located at www.enerconind.com&#44 includes technical papers as well as on-line tech support manuals for its corona treaters. At the time we visited it had yet to post on line manuals for its induction sealers though Enercon tells PW that those manuals should be available on-line by the time you read this. The manuals are in a symptom/problem/solution format. Scattered throughout the solutions are extensive links to technical drawings that can be downloaded from the site and printed out. However like the Allen-Bradley site in order to access the drawings you must first download and install browser plug-ins.

Zebra Technologies Corp. has taken a different tack at support. zebra.com (no "www" in front). The printer manufacturer rolled out a nifty interactive troubleshooting service this fall called Zebra Internet Product (ZIP) support.

Here's how it works: After choosing your model of print engine from a pull-down menu you can enter a plain-language phrase that describes the problem you're experiencing with your printer. It then asks you a question to make sure that it understands the general nature of the problem. Depending on your response it branches to another question asks for your response and so on to narrow your problem to a specific set of possible causes and solutions. If after all this you're still stuck the site allows you to fill out a problem ticket that's e-mailed to the company's tech support department. But the site makes you go through the interactive Q&A process first.

We gave the ZIP tech support site a quick spin to see if it really worked trying phrases like "The printer doesn't print" for a hypothetical communications problem and "The bar codes are wrong" to indicate an incorrect bar-code symbology appearing on the label. In both cases the automated line of questioning not only quickly picked up on the correct issue it pinpointed a number of possible specific causes.

For certain solutions an icon appears designating a downloadable section of a relevant portion of a manual. Such documents are in Adobe's Acrobat Portable Document Format (PDF) which means they'll work regardless of the type of operating system computer printer or word processing system you have. However a PDF reader-downloadable for free from the site-is required in order to read and print the documents.

While no automated support system can replace a human this one is a credible attempt at streamlining the tech support process for packagers and is worth bookmarking.

Next month: materials recycling and recovery via the Web.

On-line tech support manuals can be a convenient resource.

Editor's Note: Web Plus is a new department in Packaging World that tracks packaging-related developments on the World Wide Web. Tips on packaging-related web sites can be sent to [email protected].

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