When manufacturing companies realized the marketing potential of the Internet--and rushed to develop Web sites touting their product offerings--it was all but inevitable that purchasing executives would soon find ways to use the Net as a sourcing tool. But hopping from Web site to Web site in search of the right vendor can be a time-consuming process. In recent years, a number of enterprising firms have offered alternative approaches, creating what might loosely be described as "electronic yellow pages"--Internet-accessible databases listing numerous supplier companies. One of the early players in this field was Pittsburgh-based Industry.net, which stumbled into financial difficulties. And the Thomas Register, which for years has offered a nationwide compendium of industrial suppliers in print, now has an online service. However, a Delray, Fla.-based firm--Worldwide Internet Solutions Network Inc., better known as "WIZnet"--may be moving to the forefront in the online-sourcing arena. And it is building a "virtual product-catalog library" that is global in dimension. At last report, its database included full catalogs from more than 72,000 manufacturers, distributors, and industrial service providers--with more than 8 million product specifications. In September the National Assn. of Purchasing Management (NAPM), based in Tempe, Ariz., gave its stamp of approval to the WIZnet system when it agreed to make the Florida companys "PurchasingExtranet" solution available to its 40,000 members as a premium service on the NAPM Web site. "The WIZnet service is the best thing available now in a surfing or extranet package for sourcing," says Brian Long, president of the Marketing & Management Institute, a Kalamazoo, Mich.-based consulting firm that conducts seminars on purchasing. Long says he was amazed by a demonstration--performed by Safwat Fahmy, WIZnets founder, CEO, and chief technical officer--at an NAPM convention in 1996. "I thought Id throw them a curve," he recalls, "so I asked them to do a search for 3.5-in. platinum ball valves available from a Michigan source. In about 15 seconds, Safwat found six Michigan sources where I could buy such a ball valve." The WIZnet database is steadily growing--with the addition of some 10,000 product specifications per week, says Fahmy. "Weve been adding catalogs from Germany, Taiwan, the Czech Republic, and other countries," he explains. "It will be a global database." This is not the first time that Fahmy, an Egyptian-born computer scientist, has played a pioneering role. In the late 1960s, he developed an early MRP system--known as IPICS (inventory production information and control system)--that was acquired by IBM Corp. and evolved into the widely used MAPICS system. His newest creation, he insists, is more than just an electronic yellow pages. "Thats the Thomas Register model--or the Industry.net model. Weve done more than that," Fahmy says. Whereas other systems simply generate listings of manufacturers of a particular item, "we have all the specs for the products right in our system," he says. "And we offer secure email to communicate directly with the vendor to ask for requests for bids or for additional specifications--or even to place an order." WIZnets advantage, Fahmy explains, lies in the technology it developed to extract data from various sources, whether paper or electronic. It is able, for example, to scan catalog information into its system at the rate of 17,000 pages an hour--scanning both sides of a page simultaneously. One advantage of the scanning system is that it avoids keyboarding errors that can occur when data is entered manually. Once scanned, the WIZnet system transforms catalog data into a searchable knowledge base using "self-organizing indexing" technology. Users can refine searches for vendor and product information with natural-language queries rather than following rigid keyword indexing methods. "A purchasing manager can go in and say, I want 4-in. titanium bolts, and he will get a display of vendors catalog pages where those hits are a match," Fahmy says. "And once he starts viewing a catalog page, he can flip to the next page or the previous page. He can print out the catalog page--in color--and if it includes an email address, he can click on the email and send an inquiry to the vendor." With keyword-based systems, a user has to understand the precise terminology to launch a search. "You have to know what word to look for--is it doctor or physician?" explains Long, the purchasing consultant. "But with the PurchasingExtranet, you can search for words in text--or even for part numbers. "The genius of their system is the compression program. It can compress catalog images so that they can be stored and quickly transmitted over the Internet. You get an exact image of the catalog page, not just a company name, address, and phone number. . . . And you can click on an icon and go to the [supplier] companys home page to get background information on the company." "The fact that they have catalog data online is a substantial time-saver," says Arnold Janot, a program manager in the Yorktown, Va., office of Remtech Services, a company that provides technical and engineering support services to government agencies. "With WIZnet, you dont have to phone and then wait for a call back or a mail or fax reply." Janots firm produces purchasing-related documents for the Dept. of Defense, including descriptions of the equipment involved. "We search the Internet for catalog data information on the equipment were writing about. We use other online databases, including the Thomas Register, but all you get there is the name, address, phone number, and general information--not the equipment specifications." WIZnets PurchasingExtranet represents a "paradigm shift" in business-to-business sourcing, Fahmy asserts. "Once youve located the vendor, you can let the vendor do the additional research for you and send back the information via email." A primary advantage of Internet-based sourcing, Fahmy points out, is reduction in leadtime. "In manufacturing," he says, "leadtime has three components, starting from the point when you recognize the need for a product. The first component is the time from requisition to purchase order. The second is vendor leadtime. And the third is transportation time." Using the Internet can reduce the first component by shortening the time it takes to find a supplier, he notes. Transportation time is reduced if the search locates a vendor that is closer. For many purchasing managers, trying to keep up with changes in the marketplace presents a major challenge, notes Long. "If theyve been in the business for any length of time, purchasing managers will typically get at least a 12-in. pile of mail every day, including product catalogs. But they dont have time to read [their mail], so they throw most of it out. As a result, they find it difficult to keep up with whats happening in a particular market." "For a purchasing agent who wants a quick cut at what models are available--or what the latest prices are--the WIZnet system can provide a basis for judging other [vendors] quotes," adds Janot at Remtech Services. In designing its system, WIZnets goal was to create an "affordable" user-driven model, Fahmy says. For a $95 upfront fee, a user receives a site license--along with the PurchasingExtranet client software, a password, and a user ID--enabling anyone at the site to access the system over the Internet or by dialing a toll-free number. U.S. manufacturers wishing to have their catalogs included in the WIZnet database pay a $1,795 annual fee that covers the listing and updates.