Design engineers, by and large, are a conservative lot, presumably made so by the serious nature of their job. After all, who wants to trust a product conceived by someone with a devil-may-care attitude? It's not surprising, then, that engineers are approaching the Internet with some caution. Other web users may be more aggressive in their downloading, or their willingness to try new web site functions, but engineers seem to prefer using the Internet as an online library, and as a speedier means to communicate with colleagues, whether they work down the hall or half-way around the world.
"The web is like an electronic version of the Thomas Register," says Steven Unikenicz, a senior engineer at Northeast Generation Services (Rocky Hill, CT). "If I'm looking for pumps, for example, I can go to a web site and get preliminary design information without having to wait for a catalog, but I'll still call to request a catalog, because the web isn't as good as hard copy, where you can page backward and forward. Maybe in a few years, it will be." Engineers' hesitance to rely too heavily on the Internet may be partly due to habit and partly due to delays attributable to a slow connection, clogged traffic on the 'net's main arteries, or a combination of both.
But Unikenicz and others do appreciate the benefits of e-mail. "(E-mail) is the preferred method of communication now," he says. "There's practically no down-time waiting for a response, and the contact base is much broader. It's practical with e-mail to communicate with someone who has, or has solved, the same problem."
At the same time, Unikenicz recognizes the potential downside of e-mail communication—a decline in face-to-face dialog. "You lose something when you don't have eye-contact, or can't see someone's body language."
It's also easy for an engineer to become insular, Unikenicz adds. "It's possible for an engineer to stay in his or her cubicle and communicate via e-mail and never see anyone, but I don't know how someone can be a good engineer without spending time in the field. After all, we design for other people."
Without such reality checks, engineers can become overly dependent upon electronically generated data. "Newer engineers don't have a feel for temperatures, weights, pressures, and forces," Unikenicz says. "They presume that if the computer says something's right, it must be okay, but they also have to know whether or not what the computer is telling them makes sense in the real world."
Speed is arguably the Internet's greatest benefit, but engineers can have too much of a good thing, according to Unikenicz. "There are times that an engineer needs a day or two to let things incubate. Creative ideas don't always come immediately, and decisions can sometimes be made too quickly.
"Something was lost when the slide rule gave way to the calculator," he cautions, "and something is being lost as the calculator now gives way to the computer and the Internet. The Internet is a wonderful tool, but it isn't the be-all and end-all. It's a great way to get information and to communicate, but it doesn't take the place of solid engineering experience and judgment."
Ken Crater runs a down-to-earth web site (www.control.com ) where engineers help each other solve machine/motion/process control problems. It contains chat threads on myriad topics plus new job opportunities and links to other web resources.
"Like a professional society, our site is a community of interest for automation professionals," Crater says. "We host a very active forum through which professionals can interact with their peers. For the first time in history, engineers can have daily contact with their peers even if they work in small organizations or in remote locations."
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The Internet also facilitates collaborative projects that cross company lines, according to Crater, who cites the Puffin PLC project as one example. It's an "open source" software project to develop a free programmable controller application. Open source means that all the authors—individuals from all over the world—agree that the results of their efforts will be available at no cost to anyone who wishes to download the application, including its source code.
Crater notes that without the Internet, such a collaborative project would be logistically impossible. "The ramifications for this form of interaction are profound, and as yet are not fully understood," he says.
A company/website, webPKG, is focused on collaboration for profit. Its mission is to transform the way product packaging is developed and managed throughout the supply chain. The site provides online tools said to increase efficiencies throughout a package life cycle by lowering costs, improving communication and improving package quality.
The "eHub" provides a "uniform process and work environment" that encompasses specification management, packaging engineering and supply chain collaboration. The idea is that companies can standardize and manage various product packaging components and details across geographically dispersed sites and supply chain partner organizations. Engineering tools are available for package design automation and analysis.
Increasingly, vendors can be expected to make tools and services available over the Internet, and to provide capabilities that help customers use the Internet more effectively. SolidWorks Corporation, for example, recently launched a 3D CAD software tool called 3D Instant Website to help users create and publish web pages with interactive 3D content. Pages can be published to a customer's own web site for viewing by designers, manufacturing or personnel, vendors and customers. As an alternative, the pages can be published to a password-protected site hosted by SolidWorks, which eliminates the need for SolidWorks users to concern themselves with the intricacies of web hosting.
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Professional engineering organizations such as ASME International (the American Society of Mechanical Engineers) are beefing up their web sites to enhance the benefits of membership. Its site (www.asme.org ) has a message board to stimulate online discussions, it makes white papers and journal articles available (some free and others that can be purchased online), provides links to educational resources and enables members to sign up for conferences and even pay their membership dues electronically.
Visitors to the ASI (Actuator Sensor Interface) web site (www.as-interface.com ) can request quotes on the ASI fieldbus, according to AS-Interface spokesman Mike Bryant. The quotes are relayed to AS-Interface members who sell the requested products. "The system looks like it's working, says Bryant, "but some vendors pick up their e-mail faster than others." The association has no immediate plans to sell directly through its web site.
"It's great to make detailed specs available online, but engineers still need to be able to talk with someone, see a machine working somewhere and kick the tires," says PMMI communications director Matt Croson. "A year or so ago, the thought was that engineers would want to buy equipment on the Internet, but that idea has been reined in a bit, and the industry is taking smaller steps toward e-commerce, at least for machinery; materials and commodities may be different."