Born in Pittsburgh in 1902, Fisher Scientific has an amazing set of catalogues. It supplies everything from bunsen burners to spinal columns to 150,000 research and test centres worldwide. Fisher's main 2,600-page catalogue weighs almost 10lbs, but contains only 45,000 of the 100,000 items the company can supply. The cost and logistics of producing the catalogue means it is sent out only once every two years.
It also means it is a natural for transfer to the World Wide Web. But managing a huge database can be a nightmare. HTML, the working language of the Web, is clumsy. It is difficult to maintain accurate and up-to- date links on a large site.
Before it ventured on to the Web, Fisher developed a traditional "client server" ordering system. This meant that if you wanted to order from Fisher, you had to have its software running on your computers. Given that Fisher does most of its business with large companies this was not a problem. Customers were prepared to invest time to install and learn the ordering system.
Early on, however, Fisher saw wider possibilities on the Web. Last year it launched its Web service (http://www.fisher1.com), which allows customers to browse through its catalogue. To do this in a normal HTML-accessed database would be terribly clumsy. But Fisher had used the British IBM- spin-off company Xyratex for a special search engine for its client server system. Even on the Web this would allow fast inquiries to be performed on the huge database.
Fisher is working on a real-time contract price and fulfilment system for the Web, which will be the first of its kind when it is launched in July, the company claims. Because it sells to many different-sized companies with different needs, it negotiates contract prices with its clients. The new system will check the availability of the item, check the customer's contract agreement and report back on price and availability.
The company is still using its Supply Link client-server system with large clients. The Web will show potential clients what Fisher has to offer. This may not be the most glamorous application of Web technology, but it shows that the heavy industry of the Net is coming alive.