Todd Shryock

Thursday, 29 November 2001 18:18

Sign of the times

Our litigious society has led to an explosion of warning labels on products. Some products take on the appearance of a quilt because of the mass of warning labels and icons.

These labels -- as well as the warnings in any manual -- are there for several reasons. Some are required by law, some are there for market access reasons and still others are there because of the requirements of the customer. Labels may warn of operating hazards, recommend safety equipment, offer maintenance tips or give an overview of how the product should be properly installed.

"Once you've established the basics, you need go into it deeper: Where will it be used? Where will it be sold? What location is it intended for?" says Darrell Lehman, director of Global Business Development for Intertek Testing Services, an independent certification firm that helps companies figure out what labels are required for their products.

If you're planning on selling to a large chain store, bilingual labels might be in order.

"There may be some cases where bilingual is required by law, such as in Canada," says Lehman. "It may not be a requirement elsewhere, but it may be implicit for market access."

The regulations can be overwhelming. Different laws govern size, placement and appearance of warnings. Additional instructions may be required in the owner's manual. There are even specific requirement for the type of adhesive used on the label itself. Foreign markets have their own set of standards.

Lehman sees products arrive in various stages of compliance.

"Some companies are more sophisticated and come in with a product that's in full compliance and they just need a final confirmation required by law," says Lehman. "Others come to us with a raw product. The sooner we get involved, the better. We encourage our clients to get us involved in the product cycle itself. By the time they're done developing the product, it's already fully compliant."

The further along the product is, the more it will have to be reworked if something isn't in compliance, leading to higher costs.

"The biggest mistake we see is companies that just don't understand what's involved," says Lehman. "They don't even get copies of the standards."

Wednesday, 28 November 2001 11:29

Do the math

How do you get the next generation of entrepreneurs primed and ready for business?

Executives at Fifth Third Bank believe teaching students about banking is a good start. So as part of its In-School Banking program to teach children the importance of saving, Fifth Third Bank has opened two in-school banks for students at Metro Catholic Parish School in Cleveland and Goodyear Middle School in Akron.

Run by students with supervision from employees from nearby Fifth Third Banking Centers, the banks are open twice a month for the rest of the school year for students to open accounts and make deposits.

Teaching lessons in savings at a young age is crucial. Research cited by the American Bankers Association shows that our national savings rate is lower now than it was during the Depression; Americans are spending $9.99 of every $10 earned.

In-school banking presents an opportunity for students to learn about not only saving and banking, but also about responsibility, planning and career opportunities. And the student bankers selected to run the in-school bank go through an interview and training process -- something most students may not otherwise have the chance to do for many years.

Wednesday, 31 October 2001 08:45

Picture perfect

Videoconferencing has come a long way from the jumpy, grainy pictures and poor sound of just a few years ago. Quality has improved dramatically, and the devices themselves are doing more than just video calls.

''One of the major problem areas we set out to correct was one of value,'' says Ned Semonite, vice president of marketing for PictureTel, a videoconferencing equipment manufacturer. ''Companies that bought the devices felt they weren't being used enough. They used big monitors, and it was obvious when they weren't being used because they were these big dark things sitting in the corner.''

As a result, PictureTel has designed a system based on a PC architecture that can do more than just show pictures.

''It can be used as a meeting room or collaboration tool,'' says Semonite.

The device can also be used as a stand-alone conference room PC to support Web browsing, project planning, presentations or sales forecasting when not in use in a videoconference.

One of the other major drawbacks to videoconferencing was in sharing information.

''The technology was showing faces and hearing what they had to say, but getting information from one location to another in a form where people could see it proved problematic,'' says Semonite.

Now there is the capability to transmit information from whatever electronic format it's in -- such as a Word document or a PowerPoint presentation -- and make it possible for people on the other end to see it at a high resolution. You plug your laptop into a small device and press one button to send data through.

You can view data either separately on another monitor or in a way similar to picture-in-picture technology on your television, with the people in a smaller frame on the same screen. Everything is viewed in real time. Web browsing is also possible, so that two groups of people at different sites can see a Web-based presentation or view Web pages.

''These systems save hours in your day,'' says Semonite. ''We surveyed our users, and 70 percent said the system paid for itself within six months and 90 percent within a year.'' How to reach: www.picturetel.com

Wednesday, 31 October 2001 05:31

Working relationships

The promise of the Internet did not go down the drain along with the dot-com dreamers. The Information Superhighway has more uses than just trying to sell furniture to people in other states.

The ability to connect anyone -- and anything -- at all times is where the real potential lies. Information can freely flow from devices to the people who use or maintain them. These devices, whether a copy machine, air conditioner or other mechanical unit, can all be integrated into a larger information system.

''Our view is that these devices contain a lot of valuable information on customers,'' says John Canosa, chief scientist at Questra, a software company that integrates the Internet into everyday devices. ''Companies are always looking at ways they can get closer to the customer. These devices are right now sitting in a customer's space, and they use them every day.''

Canosa says that by taking the basic information from a copier, for example, a vendor can provide better service. Information on how often it's used, what it's used for and when it breaks down is all sitting there untapped.

''Until now, there really hasn't been an easy way to extract this information and get it into your systems to make use of it,'' says Canosa.

Some other examples:

* Manufacturing. Computer chip makers have hundreds of thousands of dollars invested in their manufacturing equipment. When the equipment isn't working, the chip makers aren't making money.

By tying the device to the machine's manufacturer via the Internet, its performance can be monitored. As problems and degradation of performance become evident, preventive maintenance can be done before the device fails.

* Service. Every office building probably has a rooftop air conditioner. If one should develop an oil leak in the compressor, the unit will eventually stop working. And if this happens in the middle of summer, your employees will probably stop working, too.

By tying the air conditioner into a monitoring system that is connected to the Internet, the service company can detect problems in advance and possibly even perform a remote diagnostic test so it can have the right parts on hand before ever going up on the roof.

''I personally believe the device revolution will actually dwarf the impact the Internet has had on the access to information,'' says Canosa. ''There will be more timely and more accurate information that will be collected and placed into a monitoring system. This is going to change how some organizations do business.''

This technology isn't years away, either. It's here right now. Wal-Mart has had its point-of-sale devices tied into its management system for years. FedEx spent tens of millions of dollars on its package tracking system.

''They had to build the entire system, and they were successful, but they had to spend large sums of money to do it,'' says Canosa. ''The Internet is bringing this to the masses. The infrastructure is already there. They don't have to spend millions to do it.''

New business software, whether it's customer relationship management software or something else, understands the language of the Web, which enables businesses to make the most out of this new data stream.

''If this is done right, you won't even see the computer,'' says Canosa. ''You're already interacting with computers every day that you don't know are there.''

On a basic level, it might mean you never run out of toner for your copier -- or even have to order any. You might make a deal with the vendor, who would then monitor your toner supplies via the device. When the supply runs low, a refill would be automatically ordered.

''This can provide a tremendous competitive advantage for manufacturers of these devices,'' says Canosa. ''Commoditization is ongoing in a lot of products and there are huge margin pressures, making it very difficult to differentiate your products. What the difference will be is that a company will be able to offer service and guarantee a 100 percent up-time.''

Vendors will transform from selling products to selling products plus services.

''We are in the genesis of the revolution,'' says Canosa. ''What we're seeing is affecting the ways people run businesses. The changes that are just starting will be profound.'' How to reach: www.questra.com

Todd Shryock (tshryock@sbnnet.com) is SBN Magazine's special reports editor.

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