Bruno Schmitter views business-to-business (B2B) collaboration as more than an e-commerce facilitator. "It's a disruptive technology, and the earlier you participate the greater the scope and duration of the competitive benefits that can be enjoyed," says the president and CEO of Hydromat Inc., St. Louis. "Eventually," he adds, "it will be a requirement in the business world." A manufacturer of transfer line equipment (rotary, inline, and trunnion machines), Hydromat is launching its e-commerce initiative at IMTS 2000, the International Manufacturing Technology Show sponsored by AMT-The Assn. For Manufacturing Technology (Chicago, Sept. 6-13). Via kiosks and demonstrations, Hydromat will roll out HSL Direct, an Internet-based, customer-driven service engine. The partner helping with the implementation is Epicor Software Corp., Minneapolis, the provider of Hydromat's recent Vantage ERP installation. Schmitter considers Internet collaboration a fundamental leap toward greater market efficiency with the biggest competitive gains to be made by firms that can update practices quickly. By eliminating complexity in the traditional collaborative practices of manufacturing companies the Internet contributes to a new standard of organizational behavior. Driving down business transaction costs is one consequence, but the strategic value also lies in the new things that couldn't be done before, says Schmitter. Consider the way HSL Direct works, adds Scott Frisby, Hydromat's chief information officer. "A customer logs onto the Hydromat Web page, selects HSL Direct from the options, enters the password, and then has a complete window on the entire account activity. The customer has immediate access to order tracking, part tracking, spare parts, repairs, machine delivery schedules, open invoices, and payment history -- all without ever talking with anyone on the phone. For example, a customer who checks order status can easily drill down deeper and look at the actual packing slip to validate that the right component is indeed going to be shipped. Then he can access the invoice to check price. HSL Direct also will have links to FedEx and UPS Web pages for tracking shipment status. "What we're really providing our customers is visibility -- visibility of their accounts, visibility of their open orders, visibility of their shipments. Hydromat's role is transparent, nonintrusive," adds Frisby. "There are no phone calls to make, no faxes to send or receive, no searching for the right person on our end with the correct information. The customer accesses information as required, seven days a week, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year." Adds Schmitter: "The competitive edge of HSL Direct lies in the productivity that collaborative tools provide to customers. It gives us a greater intimacy with their needs." HSL Direct also includes a "Storefront" that will enable customers to order parts and select the mode of shipment and payment. Will entire machines ever be ordered over HSL Direct? Frisby hedges: "It's not outside the realm of reality to think about ordering bar feeders, pick-and-place devices, and bowl feeders. Anything that's typically off-the-shelf or a commodity item will certainly be a Storefront candidate." Schmitter adds that "while online sales over time will inexorably move in the direction of selling the entire machine, we probably will never get there. Virtual collaboration may never replace live collaboration, but it will continue to do more and more once the order is launched." Both Schmitter and Frisby acknowledge that HSL Direct is the beginning of a process direction that has a very long to-do list. It includes having all the parts manuals online, coupled with a knowledge base that has accumulated from commonly asked questions or problems. An embellishment might be the use of artificial intelligence to guide customers in equipment adjustment, repairs, and maintenance. Another possibility for HSL Direct is chat rooms. Customers could seek answers about tooling, machine operation, or process issues from either each other or Hydromat technicians, adds Frisby. Such a chat room could provide a forum for evaluating Hydromat's performance from a customer's perspective. "Crucial guidance as to where to invest will come from our customers," Frisby notes. "One thing we must always do is listen, listen to every nuance of what our customers have to say." John Teresko is senior technology editor for IndustryWeek. He is based in Cleveland.