Many of the best business services on the Web offer ways for manufacturers to outsource manufacturing and design services. MSC.Software's Engineering Exchange goes the next step, and provides a way to obtain a broad range of engineering services specific to individual projects, products, or jobs. More than 670 engineering consultants have signed up with the service—offering consultation in such areas as mechanical design, general engineering, mechanical analysis, and software development.
Not too long ago, large companies had specialized internal departments to perform those functions. Today, however, while basic capabilities still reside in-house, many companies often outsource advanced engineering. And companies that still have high- level experts on staff find it economically advantageous to offer that expertise to others during slow periods.
The Engineering Exchange—http:// exchange.engineering-e.com (that's right, no www)—takes engineering expertise and makes it available to those who need it in the same way a part-procurement site helps companies procure product components.
The front page offers entry into password-protected client and consultant sections (both accessible for companies that want to fill both roles), as well as a link for those who want to view comprehensive profiles of the consultants. In addition to being able to choose consultants' bids on the basis of price, technical merit, experience, management team, and schedule, the site offers a number of other services:
Non-disclosure agreements (either one belonging to the proposing company or one supplied by MSC)
A message board that captures the thread of a discussion or question-and-answer session between a consultant and a client who are located at a distance, and allows continuation of the dialogue despite different time zones
Meetings that take place in a secure project meeting space hosted by the site, where participants can share information, models and control of the session for collaboration.
Robert Swette, director of Strategic Marketing for MSC.Engineering-e.com, the overall services site and designer of the Engineering Exchange, says, "We can have maybe 100 collaborative meetings going simultaneously. The service isn't resource-intensive, and if the demand grows a great deal, we can add more servers."
Hot time. One company that has benefited from the service is Ontro, a San Diego, CA-based company that makes self-heating containers and does R&D in exothermic chemical reactions. "We need to do a lot of nonlinear finite element analysis," says Michael Slocum, chief scientist. Because the analysis need is sporadic, Ontro outsources it. "We found out about the Engineering Exchange, and found that we could post a proposal easily and get notified of quotes by e-mail. We used to have to search out consultants and then check out their credentials one by one, explain the project one by one, and get individual bids. What we need, more than anything else, is proper analysis that gives us good results, solutions, recommendations, and validation. The Engineering Exchange gives us vast time savings."
Just as important, Slocum believes, is that he can view a number of consultants' credentials easily, and have the security of knowing that they have already been checked out by MSC. "These jobs can cost $10,000 or $20,000—or as much as $100,000," Slocum says. "It's a lot of money and we don't only select a consultant based on the price. The consultant's references are just as important, and we want to know that a reputable company like MSC stands behind the service."
To post a proposal, the user follows a well-thought-out template step by step. "It takes you through the project description, any milestones, budget, lead times, and so on," Slocum says. "It enables a comprehensive project description."
Electronic Systems Associates (ESA), headquartered in New York City, specializes in analysis, simulation, and test correlation. Martin Martinez works out of ESA's Phoenix, AZ offices, and has worked on two projects posted on the Engineering Exchange. "The Exchange has increased my exposure to many interesting jobs posted by companies," Martinez says. "I like to use MSC.Dytran to do things like non-linear buckling, airbag inflation simulations, seat belt tests, hydrodynamic effects, and vibration analysis. This site has fun stuff—different kinds of jobs that are really interesting."
Martinez looked for other sites offering competing services, but can't find any. "SBIR (Small Business Innovative Research), which is run by the government, has some interesting things that might turn into products, but no other commercial sites really offer complex engineering work. I've found some generic sites, but they're looking for people who can use CAD, or even for draftsmen, and we don't want those jobs. The MSC site has really neat stuff, and they're very responsive to suggestions for improvements."
MSC's own professional services group posts projects and acts as consultants on others. "Large companies used to have pockets of expertise spread around their organizations—experts in high-end analysis, for example. Those companies now have fewer special purpose groups, and the Engineering Exchange performs their functions and provides people when the companies are in 'crunch' situations," says Bill Jones, who heads a group within the professional services group.
Right on time. Jones' group specializes in one-of-a-kind projects on a deadline; and optimizing company processes by capturing expertise, defining best practices, and automating procedures. "With our help, client companies can reduce product development time dramatically," he says.
But he also had to post a job for development of automated electronic product drop testing. "At the moment, MSC doesn't have anyone to do this, so we put it on the Exchange and found a consultant—who happens to be Martin Martinez of ESA," Jones says. "He took the idea and created a model and part and analyzed it to see if the existing approach is feasible. We're now at the stage of needing to simulate the analysis results in bench tests. The whole project will help us develop a product we can sell to others."