Open marketplace: Adobe technology makes an easier place to buy, sell goods

Atlanta-based has become the world’s largest online manufacturing industry marketplace, with $15 billion worth of transactions made on the platform since its inception. But is not resting on past accomplishments. It recently completed a major revamp of its platform, leveraging technology from Adobe Systems.


Founded in 2000 to link buyers of manufactured-to-order components with potential manufacturers, Atlanta-based has become the world’s largest online manufacturing industry marketplace, with $15 billion worth of transactions made on the platform since its inception.

But is not resting on past accomplishments. It recently completed a major revamp of its platform, leveraging technology from Adobe Systems .

Buyers can use the marketplace for free while suppliers pay an annual membership to list their capabilities. The revamp began shortly after’s 2006 merger with, a similar marketplace based in Geneva, Switzerland.

“In SourcingParts we saw a marketplace where the designers had to think about issues that we hadn’t,” says President and CEO Mitch Free. “We were strong in North America, they were strong in Europe—but we were a site built around one language and one currency, whereas SourcingParts had to deal with multiple languages and multiple currencies. It also had strengths on the‘buy side’ of the transaction, such as its approach to requests for quotes [RFQ]. The problem was, from a technology point of view, these capabilities weren’t necessarily easy to use.”

Enter Adobe, which gave a team of developers based in Edinburgh, Scotland a straightforward task:

The sharing of CAD data, for example, had long been a source of frustration for both and SourcingParts members. While most buyers and sellers have CAD systems, explains Free, differing vendor-specific CAD formats makes the interchange of designs difficult without additional investment in software.

To address that issue, made Adobe Acrobat 3D its standard tool for viewing CAD data, allowing buyers and sellers to freely exchange 2D and 3D geometry together with manufacturing information. Even manufacturers in China, India, or Eastern Europe can view CAD data without possessing any software other than the freely downloadable Adobe Reader.

Standardizing on Adobe Acrobat 3D eliminated concerns about protecting intellectual property as it travels across the global network.

“[Protecting intellectual property] had become a big concern with buyers, because companies don’t want their designs floating freely around Web,” Free explains. “By leveraging Adobe’s‘rights management’ technology—embedded in its LiveCycle family of applications—documents effectively ‘phones home’ to see if the person trying to open them has permission to do so. Plus it adds revision control: If version two of a document has come out, you can nolonger open version one."

Adobe also dramatically improved the user experience by using Adobe Flex technology to build a new user interface. Adobe Flex is a cross-platform development framework for creating high-performance, interactive Internet-based applications that run smoothly on all major browsers and operating systems, explains Mike Morel, director of manufacturing solutions at Adobe.

“Building the user interface around Flex allows users to interact with each other and with the application in a much more meaningful way,” Morel says. “They can build RFQs by dragging-and-dropping from back end systems, and deliver information in a way that allows it to be used far more effectively. It’s about many-to-many collaboration, but it’s also about making that collaboration process more efficient. Particularly for the smaller players in the supply chain, who struggle to use the same technology as larger players, it levels the field.”

Benefits accrue to as well. The Flex-based interface provides with much greater visibility into the transaction and tendering process, says Morel, enabling it to drill down into the data in a lot more detail. “Ultimately, they’ll be able to predict with some precision just how much a part will cost to produce, and how long it will take to manufacture,” he says.

The platform upgrade has boosted investor interest in the privately held The company recently announced the receipt of $26 million in financing from a group of investors led by Fidelity Ventures and Fidelity Asia Ventures. Other financial backers include Bezos Expeditions, the private investment firm of founder Jeff Bezos. management says the latest cash infusion will support continued global expansion and technology development, as well as the creation of innovative new online services and potential acquisitions.

“Our continued global growth was not dependent on raising additional capital, particularly given the profitability of our core business and the commitment of our existing investors,” stresses Free. What swung the deal, he explains, was Fidelity’s global reach and domain expertise—as evidenced, for example, by its successful investments in other online B2B marketplaces, including Asia’s “Fidelity’s investment and involvement will further accelerate us along the path of becoming the dominant platform upon which the world’s manufacturing community conducts business,” Free concludes.

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