Not that long ago, Engineer David Merriman was excited to start a new job. But on the first day, he learned about a corporate policy so surprising he'd never thought to ask about it. By his second day, he was already thinking about who his next employer would be.
"The company would not let engineers have Internet access. Only managers had it," says Merriman, now hardware engineering manager who surfs the Web freely at Millennial Net Inc., a Cambridge, MA, sensor maker. "How insane is that?"
That may sound almost unbelievable, with more and more people gaining 24/7 access to the Web—thanks to their Crack Berries and other wireless connections. In fact, most engineers feel the Internet is an indispensable tool. In a recent Design News survey, engineers reported that they averaged 4.5 hours per week on the Web, roughly 10 percent of a normal work week. But they say getting the information they need still can be a hit-or-miss proposition.
An indispensable tool
Most engineers turn to the Web to get information on products and standards. They say that data sheets, application notes, and pricing are must-haves for the websites they frequent. And they appreciate the fact that the Internet is open 24 hours a day, especially when schedules are tight and they are thinking about projects around the clock. Of course, that's both good and bad for busy engineers trying to balance home and work time.
More engineers also are now using the Web to procure free samples or order parts. "The purchasing decision component of the Web is becoming more important," says Christer Ljundgahl, director of Web Marketing for National Instruments of Austin, TX.
The Internet also is becoming more businesslike in many ways. Engineers find they can get credible information and good, useable tools. Downloadable programs and online tools (see our article on power supply design tools in this issue on page 66) prove helpful and can save time. And many engineers say that they don't mind giving up a bit of their anonymity when websites require users to register in order to get additional information or services.
However, those on the receiving side of these registrations say that the willingness to register is not unanimous. "We get a lot of Mickey Mouse registrations and a lot of abandons," Ljundgahl says.
Though the Web has become the standard tool for information gathering, there are other areas where it hasn't evolved as expected. During the dot-com boom, many promoters predicted that engineers in various sites would be collaborating on designs in addition to sharing the same files over the Internet.
But many engineers Design News spoke with for this article say that collaboration hasn't really materialized even though they think it would be cool. "I have not used collaborative tools other than just sending files back and forth across the Pacific. It would be great to have something that pointed me to the changes they made rather than me scanning a 10-Mbyte ACAD layout of a production line to find the new changes," says Jim Biller, Equipment Engineer, MT Picture Display, a Troy, Ohio-company owned by Matsushita Toshiba Picture Display.
While they're generally happy with their online experiences, engineers find no shortage of things that aggravate them.
One of their most common gripes concerns the companies that treat their website as the ultimate communication port that replaces human contact entirely. "Technical support links need to be on the home page, and they need to be obvious and intuitive," says John Suchya, 8-bit MCU application manager at Freescale and an avid Web user. "Too often they're hidden, so then I'll just go somewhere else."
Engineers who want to find out whether a company actually exists in the real world sometimes find it's virtually impossible to track them down. "Sometimes it's difficult to even find a street address on the website. Maybe I'm planning a trip and may want to visit them, or I want to know their time zone so I can call," says David Brearley, strategic development manager at Molex Inc.
Since most engineers are looking for products that help them solve problems, they want a complete set of all information about those products in order to determine whether or not the product meets their needs. "The worst thing is when a company doesn't put complete documentation on the site. You find the part, but the mechanical information or materials properties or whatever is not presented in a way a normal, educated person can understand," says Merriman.
Even when a website makes product data readily available, there are times when engineers want to talk to somebody. "Some of the semiconductor companies are great, you can get all kinds of information without signing secrecy agreements. But once when I was looking for a particular type of chip, one company wouldn't give me direct access to someone internally, steering me instead to a rep. I got frustrated, started searching elsewhere, and found a startup company who was happy to work with me," Brearley says.
Idea Incubator: The Web is an indispensable tool for engineers, particularly during the plan and design stages of product development when they are looking for ideas and products that meet their specs.
He feels the first company was screening contacts to avoid dealing with low-volume clients. "I quickly concluded that the way you're treated on a website is a pretty good indication of the way you'll be treated in all your dealings with a company," Brearley adds.
Electronics distributors learned long ago that engineers are more apt to build orders online, then pick up the phone to place the order. Only between 10 and 40 percent of orders are actually placed online. "A lot of customers like the personal contact on the phone," says Rob Birse, director of marketing communications at Allied Electronics Inc.
Engineers quickly become frustrated when there's no easy way to find what they need.