Always on the prowl for new resources to help them do their jobs,
engineers are looking to add the Internet to their tool boxes. And, the
companies that supply the materials and components they need are scrambling to
fine-tune their websites to meet engineers' growing expectations.
Many vendors are searching for ways to sell technical products over the Web--a move that could reshape traditional distributor channels.
Others, however, are finding that engineers are more interested in technical services than electronic purchases.
In both cases, they're finding that the age-old en- gineering questions are as critical to answer in the electronic age as they ever were: Does the component meet spec? What does it cost? Can I get technical support? And, can I get it when I need it?
That last concern--speed--has become especially important as engineers are forced to work at an increasingly blistering pace. Simmons Market Research documents that the number of projects engineers work on annually has jumped from 10 to 18 over the last decade. If the Internet is to help, says Steven Gilliom, director of digital media for PHD, Inc., websites must be structured so that "engineers can quickly find the products they want, get technical specifications and CAD files, and even order online."
Patrick Yanahan, president of the advertising and marketing firm USA Chicago,says the Internet fills those needs three ways: through I-commerce (information), E-commerce (electronic purchasing), and T-commerce (technical assistance).
Information is key
"I literally get all my standard product information over the Net," says Sean Halpin, engineering manager for Eifel Mold and Engineering (Fraser, MI). "I download complete specs for products immediately, and I return to sites that offer cross-referencing of components from other vendors."
If Halpin is typical, then the most useful websites for engineers are those with the freshest information, regularly updated.
But some suppliers go even further than merely updating information on their sites. Latch and access-hardware supplier Southco (Concordville, PA), for example, has added a feature called ZOOM, which takes users through a series of questions about their application requirements and then narrows the list of possible solutions it can offer to a few that most closely match the users' needs.
In addition, Southco provides a 24-hour-a-day application engineering service, manned by Southco personnel throughout the world. These experts answer e-mail queries about products and applications within hours.
Like an increasing number of suppliers today, Micro Mo Electronics (Clearwater, FL) gives users of its website the ability to find its miniature motors and other products by category, get a brief overview of specs, access full data sheets, get exploded views of the products, view tutorials, and download CAD drawings.
And Algor (Pittsburgh) offers engineers interested in its finite element analysis software tutorials and webcasts, in addition to product information.
Websites become distributorships
Mirroring the efforts of their cousins in the consumer-goods world, many suppliers of engineering tools, components, and materials are moving toward using their websites as virtual distributorships where engineers can log on and order products.
The change is not occurring without a lot of soul-searching. This is particularly the case with OEM suppliers who market their products to engineers largely through distributors. In such setups, direct sales through the Internet could threaten traditional distributor networks. As a result, industry experts believe that many suppliers will first use the Internet for sales to engineers at larger companies that they have traditionally served directly rather than through distributors. Others may limit their internet sales to small quantities, such as prototypes.
Even so, companies like Automationdirect.com (Cummins, GA) are already selling a broad range of automation components via the web. In many instances, sales involve standard products, such as programmable controllers, that are used as replacement parts by end users. As products move up the scale from standard components to systems and custom solutions, it gets far more difficult--if not impossible--to sell via the web.
But what could quicken the pace of e-commerce for engineers, some say, is development of configurator technology. That would increase the comfort level in web-based engineering transactions, says Micro Mo. A configurator is an intelligent feature that would help users design, specify, and purchase engineered products vs. commodity products. Configurators could check the appropriateness of recommendations for specific applica- tions, configure all components, and generate a bill of materials.
While the engineering world awaits that technology, some suppliers are actually using the Internet to retool the ways they help customers use theirs and other products.
Both MSC.Software (Los Angeles) and Parametric Technology Corp. (Waltham, MA) have leveraged the advantages of the Web to change the way they offer their software products. MSC, for example, now provides on-demand licensing for its flagship MSC/NASTRAN finite element analysis software through its Engineering-e.com site.
"Simulation is the killer application for engineering," says Doug Marinaro, the engineer who leads MSC's E- commerce efforts. The company plans to not only license its own products through Engineering-e.com, but also others' products, even those of competitors. "Anyone with a design need can click on their web browser to visit our Simulation Center and see how their product will move and where it will break," Marino says.
Likewise, Spatial Technology (Boulder, CO) has introduced 3DModelserver.com, a web-based service that repairs faulty engineering models. Engineers send their 3D models to the site over the Internet, where Spatial uses its technology to correct surfaces, blends, tangencies, and other elements that aren't just right. Spatial's fee for the service is based on the megabytes required to fix the model. If it can't fix it, the company doesn't charge.
Virtual tool box emerges
Finding the right component for a design is one thing. Getting it quickly is another. "I don't use standard components unless I can download them into my CAD drawings," asserts Don Hartinger, an engineer at Textron Automotive (Dearborn, MI). There's too much work associated with redrawing components from catalog copy, he says.
Most manufacturers of standard products like switches, latches, connectors, and motors provide downloadable files. Southco, AMP, Parker Compumotor, Turck, and Fasco are just a few. Hoffman Engineering allows customers to use the web to configure their own modular enclosures by selecting styles, sizes, materials, finishes, and accessories. The system can also create a bill of materials. Rittal offers a similar service over a special website, and claims that 10% of its 30,000 monthly hits are for downloads of CAD drawings.
But, once again, engineers say that often the download advantage is for commodity products, not highly engineered products. Dan Krupp of Universal Air Filter (Sauget, IL) says increasingly engineers looking for prototypes will turn to the Internet. "They will e-mail drawings and specifications to a select number of vendors, who will review the prototype request, give a response time, and meet the engineer's production-run timetable, quantity requirements, and other specifications." Already, he says, Universal gets nearly 30% of its prototypes requests through its Internet site.
Of course, just as important as product information and prototypes is technical support, engineers say. Chat rooms and open forums help. CADKEY provides a web forum, and President Bob Bean says it's one of the company's most-used links on its website. "Users answer each others' questions and comment on the usefulness of our products," he explains. The forum also provides some of the most credible feedback the company gets. Says Bean: "Users are completely honest with one another."
Sharing data is also important to engineers. CoCreate (Fort Collins, CO) developed its OneSpace product to enable engineers to collaborate on designs in real time over the Internet. And visualization software, such as that from Solid Concepts, Vuent, and Actify, enable design-team members unfamiliar with CAD systems to manipulate drawings. Until recently, says Eifel Mold and Engineering's Halpin, "visualization was the missing tool in the industry." Without it others outside engineering had difficulty engaging in product discussions. Now, says Ed Probst of Profile Plastics (Lake Bluff, IL), products like Solid Concepts help engineers produce slide shows of their designs. "That way, communication takes place through the ability to follow a process, whether in design or manufacturing," he claims.
And what are the implications of that enhanced ability to communicate? Says Roger Lobdel, vice president of Information Technology for Kollmorgen: "The Internet will soon become an interactive environment that allows engineers to work together with engineers at Kollmorgen and other companies to find the right solutions."
Allen Johnson, manager of collaborative product commerce solutions for the Business Critical Computing Unit of Hewlett- Packard, says that web-based collaboration has moved beyond e-mail to connecting the entire supply chain, and extending the reach of product data. "The web now sends product data wherever it needs to go to accelerate product development and improve supplier relationships."
For more information
Here's a listing of websites for companies
mentioned in this article
Algor Inc. (www.algor.com)
CADKEY Corp. (www.cadkey.com)
Eifel Mold and Engineering (www.eifelmold.com)
Hewlett Packard (www.hp.com)
MSC.Software (www.mscsoftware.com or www.engineering-e.com)
Micro Mo Electronics (www.micromo.com)
PHD Inc. (www.phdinc.com)
Parker Compumotor (www.compumotor.com)
Profile Plastics (www.profileplastics.com)
Rittal (www.rittal.com or www.riquest.com)
Solid Concepts (www.solidconcepts.com)
Spatial Technologies (www.spatial.com)
STEP Tools (www.steptools.com)
Textron Automotive (www.textron.com)
USA Chicago (www.usachicago.com)
Universal Air Filter (www.uaf.com)
Share your web experiences
This is the first in a continuing series of monthly articles 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. So please share with us your experiences with websites that help you do your job better and faster. We also invite OEM suppliers to keep us posted on successful new features that you are offering on your web site.