KUKA AG manufactures and markets complex industrial robotics systems its customers use to manufacture other complex things ranging from aircraft and automobiles to electronic components. Seen in action, its robots typically carry out their tasks with repeated precision.
But to reach that point, KUKA’s business depends on its customers’ ability to order the right robotics equipment in the first place and keep them humming along. Its customers need to properly configure robotics systems from a virtually unlimited range of variances related to hardware, software, power supply and accessories—and be able to quickly act when a robotic arm or other component needs attention.
The company is helping its customers do all of that and more through its e-commerce site, which itself is a complicated system KUKA has been working on to simplify. “There is no general rule of thumb on the number of ways robots could be configured,” says Andy Chang, director of product marketing for KUKA’s Americas market. “To configure a robotics system, the rules are quite complicated. Each robot has different constraints regarding payload, reach and power requirements, and not every accessory is available to all robots.”
And just as KUKA’s customers must take the right steps to order the right robotics system, KUKA has been carefully stepping through the project of building out its e-commerce site. The Germany-based manufacturer does about $3 billion in annual sales and employs a workforce of 15,000 in more than 30 countries, including a digital commerce team in Austin, Texas.
KUKA launched its e-commerce site last year, using e-commerce and configure-price-quote technology from Apttus Inc. on top of a Salesforce.com platform for CRM and related applications. Within two or three years, KUKA hopes to make all of its products and services available for configuration and purchase online. “That’s our goal,” Chang says.
Last year, it started out offering online sales of its cloud-based KUKA Connect robot management software system, which users can access through any desktop or mobile computing device. But the online-ordering process still required “a lot of manual effort” to enter customers’ online orders into KUKA’s back-end order management system, Chang says.
In addition, KUKA wanted to add more products to the e-commerce site, but the interface for entering product listings and images was difficult for product managers to use without help from the IT staff. “It was more coding and a lot of complexity to insert the right images and bring the most relevant product documentation within the same page—something we don’t want to bother our IT colleagues to do,” Chang says.
Last spring, KUKA hired Six Vertical, an e-commerce design and systems integration firm. Six Vertical re-architected the manufacturer’s e-commerce platform with effective APIs that, for example, were designed to more quickly and easily pull product images and descriptions from databases to appear on web pages. APIs, or application programming interfaces, are sets of software instructions that enable data transfer between disparate software applications. This made it easier for a KUKA product manager without IT skills to design and build a customized product page, Chang says.
Rebuilding the e-commerce platform also made it more flexible and scalable to handle higher volumes of highly complex product configurations in KUKA’s configure-price-quote system, Chang adds.
With its improved e-commerce technology, KUKA is following a plan to carefully introduce more products. It’s focusing first on adding more cloud-based software and offering its Xpert database service on its e-commerce site to complement the KUKA Connect robot management software. Xpert has compiled ten years of product operational and diagnostics data, and it provides instant trouble-shooting recommendations for fixing problems with robotic functions.
The proper operation of a robotic system depends on information on multiple criteria, such as the weight of objects a robotic arm was designed to lift and the number of times the arm has been operated. If a malfunction occurs, the Connect system will issue an alert and an error number that the system operator can enter into the Xpert database to determine the proper fix, based on the stored data of what has fixed similar problems in the past. Eventually, KUKA plans to automate the entry of the error number into the Xpert database.
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