Ogura Industrial Inc., a serious company that claims to be the world's largest manufacturer of electromagnetic clutches and brakes, has a technical section in its website (www.ogura-clutch.com) that offers engineers conversion calculators for unit measurements and a formula worksheet for selection. The site used to have an inertia calculator in the same section. However, Frank Flemming, the company president, found that the website was getting 84,000 hits per month from people wanting to use the inertia calculator. With that kind of volume, Ogura spun off the inertia calculator to its own site — www.inertia-calc.com . (Use MS Internet Explorer—you can't get there with Netscape.)
With the inertia calculator, you can calculate the necessary torque to start or stop an application. Flemming says, "In most applications, inertia is the key factor in determining the correct size of a clutch or brake—particularly a clutch, because the clutch typically accelerates the load from zero speed, while the brake gets assistance from friction to slow to a stop." In addition to a weight formula, three common formulas can be used to calculate rotation inertia—varying in accordance with the shape of the rotating piece. The Ogura calculator walks engineers through all the steps and formulas until they determine torque. Once a user knows the torque, the application will determine the proper service factor.
Many users, from such companies as John Deere, use Ogura's inertia calculator frequently. But 84,000 hits a month struck Flemming as a very large number, so the company checked to see where the heavy traffic originated, and found, to their surprise, that many visitors got to the site through a link within a website called Howstuffworks.com (www.howstuffworks.com ).
The brainchild of the aptly named Marshall Brain—who has degrees in electrical engineering and computer science—Howstuffworks.com (HSW) started out geared to the needs of teenagers. Brain, who wrote nine books about advanced software and another, called Teenagers' Guide to the Real World (that tells teens what they needed to know to create useful lives), thought it would be a good idea to give young people information to show them how the things they learned in school could be applied to real life careers. Brain says, "Schools don't do a good job at relating math and science to the real world. But, if somehow the teens got interested in science and technology, then I wanted to show them how they could create it."
The only books he could find were meant either for graduate engineers or children. He says, "There was nothing in the middle. So I decided to develop a little website that would show teens how to create technology. I started part-time with an article I wrote at my kitchen table about how the internal combustion engine works. It turned out that a lot of people want to know how things work. I like that stuff, and wanted to help other people see how cool technology is."
It's cool enough to get two million people (people, NOT hits) to visit the site every month. As Ogura Industrial found out, within that two million can be found professional engineers who want to calculate inertia and torque for designing clutches and brakes.
Brain's rationale is irresistible: "Every device has an essence, and the articles on HSW deal with that essence," he says. "Our audience is smart and curious, and they send thanks and hundreds of questions every day." In fact, Brain found he was receiving so much e-mail that he had to build a business to handle it. HSW now has six people writing articles, each of them a specialist in a particular field of technology. "For example, we have a mechanical engineer, an electrical engineer, a Ph.D. in physics, and an Internet specialist," Brain says.
Howstuffworks.com has graphics that help explain engineering principles.
HSW finds article ideas in a number of ways, including reader requests, finding that a large number of questions get asked about a particular topic (such as the IT or Ginger project, former Design News Engineer of the Year Dean Kamen's mysterious new product), and having the site's search engine accessed frequently for something visitors can't find. Sometimes a topic will arouse the curiosity of one of the writers. Brains says that recently he became intrigued by digital TV. "If you asked retailers about it, you got very confusing information, so I researched it and found that it was much simpler than the people who sell it make it sound."
Every article offers multiple links to other articles within HSW and to other sites—with both elementary and advanced information (see list of links illustrated). A visitor to HSW can satisfy basic curiosity or do research in depth, in the process learning to use the Internet like a pro. Brain finds most of the resources to which HSW links through search engines and other internet research tools. His favorite search engine is Google. "It doesn't list as much junk as most of the others," he says.
Note to all engineers: HSW built its own search engine last year, with 50,000 sites, all checked out, and with no junk included. "It's smaller than a typical search engine," Brain says, "be we do know what's in it. Readers participate, too. It's turned out to be a huge resource for many people."
Brain's favorite site as an engineer? The patent database, he says. "It used to be on the IBM website, but you can find it now at www.delphion.com. For engineers, it's a fantastic resource that discloses the concept behind new products. It has the latest two million patents. If you want to find out what's new in touchscreens, just type in "touchscreens" and you get to see every new patent in touchscreen technology along with the backing concept."
He has a message for fellow engineers as well. "The Internet is an acquired skill," he says. "The more you use it, the more you know how to use it, and the better a resource it becomes. Some search engines make it look very Byzantine and make it hard to find information of value. Use it regularly and it becomes much more useful."
Share your web experiences
This article is part of a continuing series of monthly pieces on "E-services and the design engineer," sponsored by Hewlett-Packard. Design News will continue to report on the latest developments on the web, and how new web-based products and services make life easier for engineers. Please share with us your experiences with websites that help you do your job better and faster.
Direct information to National Editor Paul E. Teague at email@example.com, or fax him at (617) 558-4402.
HP Wire keeps you close to your PC
One of HSW's cool links takes reader to an article on new software from Hewlett-Packard that may make it possible for personal digital assistants (PDAs) and other mobile devices to access, relay, and print documents remotely over the Internet.
Web Information RElay (WIRE) software should provide secure remote access to desktop PCs so that users can retrieve documents, transmit them to a mobile phone, printer, fax, or PDA. This means that even if users aren't near their PCs, they can print documents at any nearby printer, with a portable, mobile device using the HP Wireprint application.
"HP's vision of a world where simple appliances connect to an always-on Internet infrastructure to access e-services is taking shape with technologies like HP Wire," said Vyomesh Joshi, vice president and general manager of HP's Inkjet Systems.