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Analysis

Will standardised product data drive digitalisation in the construction industry?

10 March 2020 | By Stuart Dinnie

Stuart Dinnie reports on a new initiative from the Builders Merchants Federation on a new drive to standardise digital product information.

The ability to research, compare and buy products has become even easier in our personal and work lives. This is an opportunity that has been identified in other B2B industries, where the importance of having structured product data so end users can easily identify and buy products online has already been realised. 

Using structured product data is not something that has been adopted to a great extent in the construction industry. But it is at the heart of every area of the supply chain, and its lack of structure can cause pain in multiple scenarios, but particularly in relation to the digitalisation of the industry.

The shift toward digital transformation in the construction industry has been gaining momentum in the last few years. A new initiative from the Builders Merchants Federation aims to push this forward even further for their members. Implementing structured product data using the ETIM standards are the focus of this initiative, and its aim is to improve efficiencies throughout the supply chain.

What are the ETIM standards?

To begin to understand the ETIM standards, we must first be clear on what is meant by “product data”. When a product is produced, key taxonomies must be identified relating to that product so it is easily identifiable by a number of different parties. These unique classifications can include a description, size, weight, material, colour, uses, price and so on.

The ETIM standards were originally developed for the Dutch electro-technical sector, but they have steadily expanded into different industries & countries. Now, the ETIM Technical Information Model (adapted from Electro-Technical Information Model when it first launched in 1991) is a standard that has been adopted by manufacturers and wholesalers in 20 countries across Europe, the US and Canada. It is an open source data model for the standardisation and classification of product data.

The ETIM Data Classification Model

The BMF is the sector lead for ETIM UK and will be working to introduce the standards into the UK building materials, HVAC and sanitary sectors, meaning wherever you sit in the construction industry, this initiative will likely affect how you manage, store and share product data.

The ETIM model offers the unambiguous grouping and specification of products. The data is consistently structured to allow it to be easily transferred from one system to another.

To expand further, ETIM is a model that can be used industry-wide that will result in the standardisation of product data. It will ensure language and taxonomies are consistent across the industry, (for example, roof lights as opposed to roof windows) so data can easily be transferred across companies, systems and channels.

Currently, there is no agreed standard for presenting technical product information which is causing product manufacturers, merchants, contractors and so on to spend time reworking product data to meet their requirements.

How will ETIM affect your construction business?

For the construction industry, a number of different parties in the supply chain require the use of the same product data – not just the manufacturer, but merchants, contractors and architects or specifiers are all people who will rely on this data to do their jobs. Its complexity deepens when you consider the various departments that require the use of product data too.

Product data flow example

At the moment, product data is created, stored and shared in a variety of different ways across the industry – it can change depending on the product type, the company producing the data, or the use of the data. This lack of consistency has resulted in ambiguity and inefficiencies across the breadth of the construction industry. Here are just a couple of examples where a lack of consistency can cause issues:

  1. An architect is specifying a product for an upcoming project. They have downloaded datasheets from the manufacturer’s website and must now take time to translate this into their own systems.
  2. A builders merchant wants to list a selection of new products on their website, from multiple suppliers. They must contact each supplier requesting the data, which is sent back in different formats. They must process this data and format it properly to be able to add to their website. (This works the other way when a merchant requests for a manufacturer to structure data in a certain way).

These examples would be negated if the data needed was formatted in a consistent way, meaning transfer from one system to another would have been an easier process to complete.

As the industry shifts towards digitalisation, data will be key to a seamless transition into the online world. Recently, the BMF performed a survey about product data and identified that 65% of respondents planned to launch or increase online business in the next two years, and 53% of respondents said they have difficulty obtaining product data from their suppliers in an easily usable format.

As industry governing bodies push this initiative and it begins to gain traction, construction companies will have to begin to understand and potentially, implement the ETIM standards for their product data.

What are the benefits & challenges of using the ETIM standards?

As with any new initiative, there will be benefits and challenges relating to its implementation.

The main advantages of using the ETIM model are:

  • As all data follows the same principles, there are expected to be major time and cost savings when transferring or using data.
  • Reduced errors when transferring data from one source to another due to less human interaction.
  • Information can be sent digitally but can also be used in print media and BIM Product Data Templates (PDTs).
  • Data can be easily translated into sales-driving content as all parties will be “singing from the same hymn sheet”.
  • End users get more consistent and accurate product information.

The main challenges of using the ETIM model include:

  • Onboarding the whole industry to use the same standards is a huge task. Each company will have their own processes which will take time to change, or there may be resistance to change.

Considering how the ETIM standards affects the product pages on your website.

If you are using your website to showcase or sell your products, you will probably have an interest in how those product pages are performing. This is where you might start to consider your website’s SEO performance.

One element of this is your On page SEO , which is something you should be considering, regardless of ETIM.

On-page SEO is about optimising your web pages to ensure you rank within search. A search engine will look at the content on your page including your title tags, meta descriptions, headlines, header tags, image alt tags and the written content. If you duplicate this content, it will negatively affect your ranking in search because search engines don’t want to rank pages that have copied content from other pages.

In February 2011, Google brought out the Panda Algorithm Update whose sole purpose was to stop sites with poor quality content working their way into the top search results. This algorithm gets updated from time to time, and rewards unique content.

For example, if you have one product with four size variants, and you set up four pages with similar content, then google will struggle to recognise the original and will not rank any of them highly in organic searches. Ideally, you want to have one product page with product variations, or if this cannot be achieved, you will need to canonicalise the variant pages.

It’s likely that if you are implementing the ETIM standards, you are probably going to make updates to the product pages on your website. This is the perfect time to make sure you are also implementing “best practices” for your on-page SEO.

How have the ETIM standards been applied in other industries?

The ETIM standards have been adopted by manufacturers and wholesalers in 20 different countries. The EDA (Electrical Distributors Association) has been implementing the standards into the UK electro-technical sector since 2017.

Venture Lighting Europe is one of the companies already implementing the ETIM standards. They recognised challenges relating to product data as they receive regular requests for their data in different formats from wholesalers. These requests take time to complete & it can be difficult to track which data version was being used by the wholesaler. Alongside this, they had customers in Germany who were specifically asking for data to be supplied in line with the ETIM classification model.

ETIM UK completed an audit with Venture and discovered that their attributed product data was held in Word or Excel Documents, managed manually. Alongside this, their digital assets were held on a completely separate server.

ETIM UK made recommendations and helped the company deliver ETIM optimised product data.

What actions to take now?

The BMF initiative was launched in January 2020, so it is still in its infancy stage. Therefore, it is the perfect time to become accustomed to the standards set in the ETIM model and engage with the BMF to find out more about how your company could begin to implement the ETIM standards across your product data.

Stuart Dinnie is the managing director of Pauley Creative, a marketing agency specialising in the construction industry http://www.pauleycreative.co.uk

You can find more information via the BMF website, ETIM UK website or by emailing Dave Bate, ETIM project manager, at [email protected].

Top image: Anton Petrychenko/Dreamstime.com