As many engineers have found, searching for information on the Internet can be a daunting experience, taking hours of precious time from projects that always seem to be in the throes of completion. Engineering portals promise to help. Some contain content. Some enable business transactions electronically.
The most useful portals must strive to bring together all the elements mentioned in previous articles in this series: news and information, parts catalogs and data sheets, downloadable CAD drawings, training courses, collaborative software, and much more. E-services are only valuable as long as they are convenient and reasonably priced.
In discussing engineering portals with designers, it is evident that the term portal itself has yet to be fully defined. Does it include only information or e-commerce as well? And how does a portal differ from a search engine? The latter is a mechanism for finding specific information, and could be part of a portal. Design News recently launched Search Engineer, a site for helping engineers find exactly the information for which they are looking.
One portal, Virtual Library (www.vlib.org ), provides not only information, but links to sites offering a number of additional benefits, including algorithms and artificial intelligence, to collaborative de- sign and neural networks. Specific links cover the gamut from acoustics to welding.
In communicating with a number of engineers concerning the idea of a portal, it was unanimous that a true portal be interactive and real-time. Anyone using the Internet knows that is a tall order. MSC.Software's Engineering-e.com was initially introduced to "Help engineers be engineers," according to Craig Lozofsky, manager of business development for the site. "We want to help engineers become more capable in what they are doing and not just offer the tools. Help them on the knowledge side." As a simulation- and analysis-software corporation, MSC had all the key technology experts in place. Transferring that expertise to the Internet appears to be a natural extension for the company.
Eric McRae of Electro-Logic Machines, a consultant for embedded systems developers, says, "The key to an engineering portal is its ability and willingness to expand beyond the mother company's own products and services." At Engineering-e.com, third-party software and services quickly became part of the mix, allowing users to go online and find the best engineering resources from around the world. Companies who specialize in thermal/fluid dynamics for electronics and CAE services were added to the site when MSC partnered with Thermal Engineering Services Inc. and Optimal Inc.
What about data, one of the more important items for the information-hungry design engineer? The MSC.Mvision Databank Library includes the company's Mechanical Solutions Analysis Databank of complete materials properties. This facility will help users select and review materials and produce materials property cards in formats directly usable by Patran, Nastran, and other popular software tools.
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The next step, and possibly the most important in providing a truly useful engineering portal, is in the availability of collaborative engineering tools. CoCreate has been offering its CollaborationCenter for real-time CAD product development collaboration for nearly eight months now.
A number of sites are available that have the potential to be worthy engineering portals. PlanetCAD.com and manufacturing.net stand out as poised to offer engineers a multitude of tools and information.
PlanetCAD will provide 3D share.com, Bits2parts.com, and 3Dpublish.com as their primary offerings for the engineering community.
Manufacturing.net particularly has the information resources behind it to excel in this manner. The site is part of Cahners, the publisher of Design News, as well as many other engineering-oriented magazines. Partnerships are being lined up to provide many of the capabilities of an engineering portal, including collaborative software, product locators, and, of course, educational information in the form of feature articles, application stories, case histories, technology pieces, and product introductions.
Finally, sites affiliated with particular companies, especially consulting-oriented firms, are cropping up as what might be considered vertical portals. These can be process specific or applications specific as the Aptec site, available at www.aptecperformance.com .
Tom Morris, chief intelligence officer at Aptec, says the company recently worked with a moldmaker in Wisconsin, an injection molder in West Florida, a materials supplier in Southern California, and a customer in Oklahoma. Through the use of a number of CAD and molding software products, Aptec collaborated with each member via CoCreate, online and in real-time, to design a product from concept to manufacturing.
According to Morris, Aptec is a product development site (or application specific portal) that specializes in plastics molding processes. Aptec claims to combine art, performance, and technology while supplying services to its customers. "Not only do we stimulate creativity, but we can now borrow creativity from anywhere in the world. It's the integration of the creativity that matters."
|A site for
CoCreate Software Inc. is a software subsidiary of
Hewlett-Packard Company. The central theme of CoCreate's products is
collaboration. OneSpace is CoCreate's next-generation collaborative
engineering solution. It enables design engineers and experts from every
discipline to work together effectively to develop new products. As a
solution for virtual product development, OneSpace puts the joint effort
of the team at the core of the product development process. Unlike other
products, OneSpace not only allows users to detect design conflicts but
also to resolve them instantaneously, at any stage of the product
generation process. OneSpace consists of a product development environment
("virtual conference room"), that provides distributed teams collaborative
access to product development data and collaborative design evolution
based on a real-time modeling architecture.
CoCreate's products include OneSpace for distributed,
collaborative product development; SolidDesigner for product modeling
design; ME10 for 2D design, drafting, and documentation; and WorkManager
for distributed, product information, and process