Product Information Expert System goes on-line at Atochem North America
Elf-Atochem North America is the 35th largest chemical manufacturer in the US, and a subsidiary of petroleum giant Elf-Aquitane SA. The company has released Rilsan® Advisor, an expert system intended for use by their technical sales and marketing people.
Like many other companies, Atochem’s sales people are often in situations with prospects and customers where they need to identify the best grades of product to meet precise technical specifications. Technical Manager George Apgar summarized the problem as follows: “We often have people in marketing and sales whose inexperience hinders them in knowing how to decide what grade of product to use for a particular application.”
This requires a two-part solution. The first part of this is to provide detailed product information in a timely, accurate manner without requiring a car load of sales-technical manuals. Since each field sales person is likely to represent 3 or 4 broad product lines, there is a potential need for a large number of technical information manuals.
But getting the information is not enough. An equally important task is to apply sales expertise in determining the best fit for the customer. Apgar chose a solution which gives them easy, fast access to complete technical knowledge about the product lines they are selling. Thus, when confronted with a prospect’s unique need, the sales person can quickly identify the best grades of product to fill the need using a laptop PC-based expert system.
The Atochem solution uses XpertRule software’s XpertRule knowledge modelling tool in combination with the Windows Help system. By following decision trees that embody detailed expert knowledge about Atochem products, XpertRule leads a relatively inexperienced person through a series of questions about the customer’s application. When the system feels it has adequate information about an application, it recommends grades to meet the needs. Then, using the Windows Help system, it presents data sheets on the recommended products.
Apgar said that the aim of the expert system is to help people in sales and marketing to be more effective in their work. For experienced sales people, the system helps reach high quality decisions fast. For novices, the system is also a teacher who is expert in Atochem’s products. He added that at the very least “this gives them a set of guidelines that leads them away from choosing unsuitable products to start out a new application” The bottom line benefit is that a sales person who can consistently meet the customer’s needs, accurately and quickly, will have a long term and happy customer.
Nearly any modern database retrieval system can extract information about product grades, and present them to a sales person for evaluation. However, embodying the expertise of experienced sales people in determining the best fit to a customer’s needs, is a task that is more complex than simply retrieving records from a database. An expert system can include database retrieval, and can also include the complex knowledge of product application that a sales person could spend years accumulating.
George Apgar says that after a two month search for solution software, he stumbled across the expert system approach entirely by accident. Once discovered, he felt that it provided the first plausible solution he had come across. He chose XpertRule based on other XpertRule users recommendations in Atochem, as well as his own first-hand experience of seeing XpertRule in action at a Boston seminar on expert system tools.
The first of George Apgar’s expert systems, the Rilsan® Advisor, was released to the dozen or so field sales and marketing people who handle the product line. Rilsan® is an Atochem trade name for Nylon 11, a line of Nylon products in the form of granules that are used for extrusion or injection molding applications. It is a specialty Nylon desired for its particular toughness, chemical resistance, and low moisture absorption. Automotive manufacturers use it in applications such as the coiled red and blue air brake tubing, seen connecting the cab to the trailer on many 18-wheelers.
In time, he plans to expand the expert system applications to encompass all of Atochem’s product lines. These include Nylon co-polymer products for applications such as hot melt bonding in garment assembly. He said that expert systems have the potential to be valuable throughout Atochem, and he would like to see many more applications of XpertRule.
Rilsan® is a registered trademark of Elf-Atochem North America