What's most beneficial about the Internet is that it can be changed quickly and relatively painlessly. Companies are able to use this ability to provide information to designers with continual updating and correction. Literally every company with an Internet strategy is working hard to provide information to its customer and potential customer base. There is a move toward inclusion rather than exchange.
Rather than eliminate a feature on a company site, the trend is toward adding more capabilities. Some of these additions include sound and motion, while others include higher levels of searches, such as selector guides. In past columns we've covered many of the options a company might offer over the Internet. Which Internet capabilities have been adopted most by engineers?
According to engineers interviewed over the past few months, the inclusion of up-to-the-minute component specifications is still one of the highlights of their Internet use. What engineers need for their jobs on a daily basis is the latest information on a component line. Wayne Lorenz, an Electrical Engineer at Nilfisk-Advance, claims, "I go directly to company sites whenever I can. The only thing I use the Internet for is to source purchases." Wayne will often look for switches, terminals and semiconductors on line, then go through purchasing if the specifications meet his design needs. Nilfisk designs and manufactures floor maintenance equipment for commercial and industrial applications. When asked about downloading component specifications, Wayne explains that he doesn't feel the need to do that anymore. "The Internet is quick and easy to use. I'm comfortable with looking things up when I need them and confident that I'm getting the latest information."
As mentioned in a past column, engineers have become proactive in their searches for immediate information. Steven Gilliom, Director of Digital Media at PHD, Inc. said it months ago, "The Internet has created a self-serve environment that manufacturers have had to prepare for."
A number of engineers, when asked how they keep up-to-date on the latest component changes, said that they subscribe to on-line newsletters, primarily those provided by industry magazines such as Design News . The unbiased opinion of industry journal editors is still important to designers who easily have access to individual company newsletters as well. "For companies we do regular business with, we subscribe to their newsletters, too," one engineer from the semiconductor industry said.
Regardless of the newsletter used, engineers interviewed are unanimous about the need for deep links to company sites. The deep link provides a direct path to the information the engineer is interested in at the time. If a newsletter passes the user off to a home page where any confusion sets in, engineers will often stop searching.
The two places on the Internet that appear to be increasing in usage are training and collaboration. According to Derek Gordon, Corporate Communications Director for Digital Think, "We sign on new companies every day for custom course work." Digital Think creates both off-the-shelf and custom training for a broad list of companies. "Of course, early adapters were pretty much all high-tech companies," he explains. The company has increased in revenues over 400% when comparing the first quarter of '99 to the first quarter of 2000.
When a company's able to handle the bandwidth, coursework includes written, audio, and video. Even off-the-shelf materials include streaming audio right now. Through a series of strategic alliances, the company also offers custom coursework in several other languages, too.
Design engineers are exploring and experimenting with the Internet in a number of directions. For those using on-line CAD collaboration, the capabilities continue to expand. Engineers have had the ability to view, measure and mark up drawings over the Internet for some time now. Actual near real-time collaboration is a more recent benefit. Howard Crabb of Interactive Computer Engineering, a consulting firm that provides process improvement strategies to companies, was quoted in the May Design News issue as saying, "Simultaneous engineering must become the standard workplace environment."
On-line collaboration has become the ideal platform for design firms. Interfacing with customer engineers, manufacturing engineers, and anyone else who needs to have input to a design is much easier when using Internet collaboration tools. Not only does travel become unnecessary, but misinterpretation the bane of long range engineering has been literally eliminated. Mike Pelland, President of Visualize, a product development company, reiterates by saying, "On-line collaboration is one of our primary business tools."
Mike believes that collaboration software has not changed product development time. What he believes is that, "A better product is produced in the same amount of time." For instance, according to Visualize's experience the product under development can now go through more turns, or variations along the design path. "Because marketing and manufacturing can now get into the design cycle much earlier, supplying much needed simultaneous input, more iterations of a design will happen along the way. The final outcome, though, is a more refined product," he says.
The other users who benefit the most from being able to lease on-line collaboration software are job shops. These users often find that they need to be involved in minor design adjustments or changes. For example, several models of the same medical equipment need to mount differently for home versus hospital use. One job shop, which asked to remain anonymous, said that they could hire an engineer on a per-project basis to complete the design, but didn't have the computer software to allow them to do the work in-house. Since his type of work is not the norm, buying CAD software would be very expensive. Further, with all the software packages to choose from, any one buy would limit the job shop's customer base to those companies with the same package. Leasing collaborative space is the best solution for such situations.
While talking with Hyrum Anderson, a Mechanical Engineer with Synthesis Engineering Services, Inc., an interesting story emerged. Recently, Hyrum was working on a packaging project where he needed to design a plastic enclosure for a small circuit board. "This is where the Internet has made my job easier," he said. Typically the BOM for such a project would include a lot of necessary research data such as the vendor's phone number and a contact name. Added to the other data, including part numbers, quantities, etc., the BOM could get pretty long. "Engineers at the company we were working with e-mailed a standard spreadsheet in Excel format, which included deep links to the component specs," Hyrum explained. For packaging projects it is more important to know how high the capacitor stands than the part number or electrical specifications. "The deep links saved hours of research and phone calls."
As the usefulness of the Internet increases, so does the familiarity engineers have with it. Many engineers would find working without the Internet a detriment. It has become an engineering tool, ever evolving and ever growing in capabilities.