The future of the industrial hose distribution and manufacturing processes is an ongoing topic of discussion. As the impact of the industry’s progression is unknown, there are some in the industry who have voiced concerns over the possibility of large players removing the middleman, the distributor. Hose + Coupling World had the privilege of understanding this topic from the perspective of a distributor, manufacturer, and one who has experienced both sides. Thomas Cobb, former distributor, and current manufacturer of stainless fittings, provides his outlook on distribution concerns and industry trends.
By Sara Mathov and Angelica Pajkovic
Thomas (Tom) Cobb, National Sales Manager of Stainless Hose Fittings, did not get his start in manufacturing. Prior to taking a position at his current company, Cobb built his career as a hose distributor. “For most of my career I have been a hose distributor. I thoroughly enjoyed interacting with both the end users as well as the manufacturers and was able to gain insights on the challenges each were facing,” explained Cobb. “When the pandemic started, everyone began putting blocks in place, and companies did not want anyone to travel. As I was distributing hose for over a hundred locations, the inability to travel was very cumbersome. After a little while I had customers calling – telling us – that they were having problems.”
After learning that many of his customers were facing difficulties obtaining/ selling the necessary products, Cobb decided that something had to be done to help. “They were calling and asking us to please come see them, and that to me was more important than staying put,” he said. “So, I took all the necessary precautions, and I went to see our customers to help with their procurement, distribution, and technical problems. Despite my best efforts, I was discouraged from traveling as a distributor due to COVID-19 restrictions and was therefore not able to aid as significantly as I had hoped.” It was this and other factors that lead Cobb to choose to transition from distribution to manufacturing.
Making the Switch
“The ability to address issues at the source made it easier to meet demands of customers when many were not able to fly.” Transitioning to manufacturing has been a worthwhile change for Cobb. Now, his role involves communicating with distributors, engineers, and manufacturing product. “We fabricate stainless hose fittings, crimp end fittings, adapters, push lock fittings, instrumentation, valves, weld-on fittings, and much more. After 28 states and visiting over 500 customers, I can say that I love doing this. I am meeting with both distributors and engineers now and am experiencing entirely new perspectives,” he said. Having a dual perspective, especially when experiencing an ongoing challenge like COVID-19, has provided Cobb with practical insights into the industrial hose market.
With ongoing travel restrictions, and a growing trend of small companies merging and consolidating, there is continual talk of what will happen to the distributor/manufacturer relationship. “For hose distributors, Amazon is the biggest threat out there,” explained Cobb. “I have a feeling they will go for every piece of the pie they can get. The biggest obstacle that Amazon faces, however, is lack of boots on the ground; that is where distribution comes into play.”
Cobb explained that if an application is defective or underperforming, an automated system will not be able to help. While Amazon can deliver quickly, and could potentially offer a wider variety, it cannot problem solve if the issue is user related, or a product malfunctions. “Take something simple as a coffee maker for example,” stated Cobb. “If it does not make coffee an automated reply would not know to ask the user if the machine is plugged in, or if there is water in it. There is so much room for error there, and in the industrial and hydraulic hose world, that hands-on service is very important.”
Distributors offer services and know how that are essential to ensuring the successful operation of the application in question. “As long as distribution still has those boots on the ground that can go out, perform inspections, troubleshoot, and talk to the customer, there will always be room for the distributor,” said Cobb. “From a consumer’s perspective, there is an appeal to the price and delivery speed someone like Amazon can offer, in an industrial setting there is still a need for the connection; person-to-person interaction, product and application knowledge.”
Changing Job Market
As new technologies are emerging, the roles included in one’s job are also changing. “Everyone wants everything to be easier and are taking steps to simplify jobs and use more integrated technologies, such as cell phones.”
While many industrial sectors have already established Industrial Internet of Things (IIOTs) tools, Cobb believes that it will become much more prevalent in hose applications. “Companies are now doing more with their online integration. If a technician is working on a hose that is going bad, and it has a barcode on it, the amount of time it takes to come up with a solution to the problem is drastically reduced. Usually, the technician can scan the barcode and it will provide them with information on how long that hose has been in service and what kinds of ends are on it, which they can use to troubleshoot the issue.” Radio-frequency identification (RFID) is another technology that Cobb believes will become more frequently used as well.
With these progressions Cobb suggests that a universal language between distributors and manufactures will be highly beneficial to the industry. “I see distributors and manufacturers working closer and closer together to combat challenges with supply chains and long lead times as well as improving communication for the benefit of the consumer.”