Few new ideas come around that spark change as earth-shaking as the revolution LEDs have touched off in the lighting market or the transformation tablets are now causing in the computer world, but the following new technologies could really change the electrical market.
Distributors looking for a new way to process sales in the field don't have to look any further than their closest Apple retails store or neighborhood Starbucks. If you have purchased something recently at an Apple store, the salesperson probably scanned your credit card with a reader made by Linea-Pro, Arlington Heights, Ill., that's hooked into an iPodTouch. And you could soon be ordering that latte at a Starbucks by swiping your credit card into a mobile card reader manufactured by Square Inc., San Francisco, which recently inked a deal to install its devices into more than 7,000 Starbucks' coffee shops.
Square's credit card readers simply plug into the earphone jack of a smartphone. Customers with Square software downloaded onto their smartphones and linked to their credit or debit card don't even need to pull out their phone to pay — they only need to say their names at the register to check out. Square software reads the smartphone GPS signal and provides an identity crosscheck by displaying the customer's name and photo.
How might these credit card readers impact distributors? Aside from the obvious applications in counter areas, delivery personnel could process orders upon delivery to the jobsite. And perhaps we will someday see salespeople driving vans loaded with commonly used MRO products to jobsites and factories (think Snap-On Tool vans) and processing orders in the field with a reader.
Lots of contractors are already using Square as a mobile payment system for their service calls, and they may want to use them to purchase materials from you, too. You can find out which customers are already using Square in the company's directory at www.squareup.com. I typed in “electrical contractor” and was shocked to see how many companies are already using Square near my home.
It's not unusual for electrical manufacturers to use CAD/CAM systems to design and manufacture prototypes of new products before retooling their manufacturing lines to make the real thing. Three-dimensional printers using a less-expensive technology than conventional CAD/CAM equipment from companies like 3D Systems Inc., Rock Hill, S.C., and Stratasys Ltd., Eden Prairie, Minn., offer businesses and consumers the ability to manufacture products in their offices and homes. The products these three-dimensional printers currently manufacture are currently somewhat limited by the types of resins and other plastics they can utilize, but they may be quite capable of manufacturing some nonmetallic electrical products.
Some obvious and legitimate concerns exist about counterfeiters using these printers to knock off products, ensuring that anything manufactured by a three-dimensional printer would meet the necessary listings from UL and/or other testing agencies, and how the use of these printers by customers might affect the supply chain. But maybe one day your customers will pay for the product design specs they download from a manufacturer's website and print out their own nonmetallic boxes, cable ties, fasteners or other products. It's not that far-fetched. If you want to learn about an industry that's already being totally transformed by three-dimensional printing, check out 3D Systems' Digital Dental Systems (toptobottomdental.com).
Smartphone video chat applications
Sometimes we can learn a lot from our kids. Put a new smartphone or tablet in their hands equipped with a video calling technology like FaceTime and within minutes they will be on a video chat with a friend. You may or may not want to see your customers when you talk with them. But when a customer has a troublesome application on the jobsite and needs to figure out which product may solve the problem, a picture, or in this case a video, might be worth a thousand words. They could use FaceTime or another videoconferencing technology on their smartphone or tablet to show you the problem in real time.
Are you seeing any new ideas or technologies out there that you think could radically change our business? Send them along to email@example.com. EW's editors would love to learn about them.