Self-service as a digitization strategy: this is how to get your metalworking facility ready for the future in an instant

Many metalworkers doubt whether self-service is right for their business. They wonder if the type of work they do is suitable for it, whether it is not too complex for customers to make requests themselves, and whether their business processes are sufficiently in order. That doubt is understandable, but as a metalworker, you can also approach self-service as an opportunity to automate the knowledge present in your organization. In fact, that is the most crucial step for the further digital future of your company.

What is self-service?

Self-service for metalworkers means that customers can submit requests themselves. The positive result is that they receive quotes back as quickly as possible and can turn a quote into an order automatically. Self-service also allows customers to track the progress of an order. The advantage of this for all parties in the chain is that customers do not have to call all the time asking: what is the status? It is even possible for customers to track their order all the way to delivery. In short: self-service covers all moments of customer contact between customer and supplier and makes it as easy as possible for customers to serve themselves.

Successful examples

Within metalworking in Western Europe, the number of successful examples of self-service is increasing. Take 247TailorSteel, which now no longer calls itself a metal worker but an e-commerce company. Fractory and Laserhub are other fine examples. Recently, Eindhoven-based VDL also entered the market with a new label based entirely on self-service: OrderOn.

These companies have easily findable and completely self-service-based platforms that make it very easy for customers to request quotes. The work they can’t handle themselves, they distribute to affiliated metalworkers.

These examples all demonstrate it: when a self-service concept becomes the front end of your factory, it allows you to offer much more work than you can take on yourself. For example, operations that you don’t do in-house can be automatically outsourced at the back end of your self-service portal. This makes it easier and more attractive for your customers to order from you.

The future of self-service

Self-service portals as we know them today will eventually disappear. They can be compared to webshops: customers get their quotes and place their orders there. The expectation is that this form of self-service portal will be popular for another five years or so, but then it will have reached its expiration date.

Instead, in the near future, the customer will increasingly make use of a purchasing platform in which digital messaging takes place. Within that platform, the customer communicates his needs, uploads his technical drawings and provides all specifications. The purchasing platform then helps to find the right metalworkers. This is very convenient for the customer, who no longer needs to log in to all sorts of self-service portals to request prices from various parties. That time will soon be over thanks to the arrival of one central “purchasing cockpit”. Conclusion? Self-service will remain, but the traditional portals will disappear.

Digitizing processes and knowledge

As portals disappear, the question arises: why should you invest in one?Because a portal forces you to digitize your processes and knowledge. And because everything you need to automate to make a self-service portal work is crucial in a future where portals no longer exist.

So what processes are we talking about? We outline them below.

  1. A self-service portal forces you to have the capability to recognize features from technical drawings automatically. Gone are the days in which employees have to do that manually by studying drawings;
  2. A self-service portal forces you to be able to determine the manufacturability of a product automatically, instead of having someone with a lot of technical expertise review it;
  3. A self-service portal forces you to monitor your customers’ buying behavior so that you can automatically segment customers and provide them with appropriate discounts;
  4. A self-service portal forces you to digitize all kinds of technical and commercial knowledge that resides in the minds of your employees in the form of what we call decision rules (business rules).

The future without portals

Immediately another pressing question looms. Because how does that work, a future without portals? Current developments offer the answer. Work is currently in full swing on standardized digital messages and the infrastructure that enables their exchange. One example is the Smart Connected Supplier Network (SCSN).

The purpose of such an infrastructure is that parties in the supply chain can collaborate on the basis of standard messages within the software that suits them best. It means that, as a metal worker, you are not forced to work in specific ICT systems. Above all, choose the software that suits you best, provided that package supports such standard messages.

This development ensures that a request for a quotation will be sent to you as a metal worker as a digital message. A customer will no longer need to e-mail you or log into your portal. If you receive the request for a quotation as a digital message, then of course you must respond to it digitally. This can be done via a standard quotation message. The result is obvious: this process increases the ease with which parties in the metalworking industry can work together and accelerates the digitization of the supply chain.

Why start now?

Metalworkers who don’t anticipate this development fast enough will find it increasingly difficult to compete in the supply chain. Other participants expect them to be able to process these kinds of standard messages and to be connected to an enabling infrastructure. If they are not, they will receive less and less work or their efforts will increasingly be limited to work that no one else wants to do.

In short: working with a self-service portal is the way to learn how to digitize the front end of your factory. Even if not all the work you do is suitable for self-service. Software development in the coming years will ensure that even those operations, such as welding and other assembly work, will soon be suitable for self-service.

Implementation does not have to be a major challenge. Through a platform such as Quotation Factory, you realize self-service within a month for a low-threshold subscription. This way you create a huge learning effect and prepare your factory for the future in one fell swoop.

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