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Feature - A Web of Connections

Engineering Firms are using the Net to bring projects together when people work apart.

By Stephen Budiansky

Illustration by Robert L. PrinceMark Wheeler certainly doesn't try to hide the fact that his mechanical engineering company, Tri-Cycle Product Design of Ayer, Massachusetts, has a grand total of four employees. But on the other hand, there's no particular reason any of his clients would suspect. Wheeler and his co-principal Steven Slavsky have as many as four projects going at once, each with as many as 15 engineers working together to design mechanical housings for manufacturing machinery or electronic devices.

Outsourcing is, of course, nothing new in the world of engineering; many companies bring in teams of short-term contractors to work on specific projects. The difference is that Wheeler and Slavsky don't even bring their outside experts in. For example, the team for one project they began last year includes a materials scientist in New Hampshire, plus various other experts scattered around the Boston area, all working under an umbrella contract being managed by a firm in Rhode Island for a client in Holland. All are linked together through a Web site that allows team members to work from the same drawings and documents, pass information back and forth, and even mark up diagrams and blueprints electronically.

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Technology Erases Distances

Large companies such as Boeing have been moving in this direction for years, linking members of a design team on internal networks so that project documents are stored on a central file server and available to all. The company's 777 aircraft was designed in just such a paperless process.

The Internet, however, is now making it possible for even small firms to do the same thing. By erasing distances, small firms are becoming big firms; barriers between disciplines are falling; and work that used to mean getting on an airplane and flying to a meeting or endlessly shuttling drawings back and forth by FedEx is being done in, as they say, real time. "This is the way of the future," says Wheeler. "We can bring together materials scientists, electrical engineers, control engineers, process engineers, experts on stress analysis, thermal analysis-a team of people who specialize in whatever the client needs. It's too expensive to keep that in-house. So we become a virtual engineering department for folks who don't have one," he explains.

Companies can now buy off-the-shelf software to create their own project Web sites, or they can hire firms that maintain sites for a monthly fee. Project Web sites typically contain a repository of drawings and other information such as parts lists, schedules, and requests for information; they automatically keep track of all messages exchanged and modifications made in a design throughout the process; and many include plug-ins that allow complicated CAD drawings to be viewed on standard Web browsers such as Netscape Navigator and Internet Explorer. That way, even users who do not have the specialized training in using CAD programs-or who blanch at the hefty price tags on advanced CAD software-can view drawings and even mark them up with suggested changes (the process known as redlining). The incompatibility of competing CAD software, which has been one obstacle to passing files back and forth via diskette or FTP, is also circumvented by the ability to use standard browsers.

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Streamlining the Review Process

The greatest and most immediate impact of project Web sites has been felt in the architecture-engineering-construction (AEC) business. It's a natural fit there, since an architecture firm may be in one city, an engineering firm in another, the project site in a third, and the client in a fourth.Illustration by Robert L. Prince

From the very start of a construction project, project Web sites can save time and reduce costs dramatically. Decisions that previously required multiple consultations between architects and clients can now be handled electronically. In the design-review phase, a client can go to the Web site, call up a detailed drawing, and use a mouse to draw directly on the plan to indicate desired modifications-for example, crossing out a partition wall, or circling a doorway and writing an annotation such as "wooden door." If necessary, the architect can then refine the client's request and instantly show the result for the client's OK. According to users of the software, one of the real advantages is the automated logging, time-stamping, and storage of each successive plan-which saves a huge clerical workload.

Putting out a project for bids is another part of the process that project Web sites are already streamlining. In the past, design firms often literally produced 50 bid packages, each containing a full set of completed plans, and sent them out to prospective contractors or subcontractors. Now many AEC firms simply post the finished design on their Web site and send prospective bidders an e-mail containing the URL for the site, a password that provides read-only access, and a deadline for bids.

Finally, during actual construction, a project Web site ensures that everyone is working from the latest, updated plans-and equally important, that all changes are completely documented. If modifications require the consultation of the client and other experts such as engineers, both can instantly have access to a proposed change; the contractor on the site can view the latest plans from a laptop in a construction trailer. Many software packages for project Web sites have a feature that automatically notifies all affected parties by e-mail whenever a design change is logged. If problems crop up, the site crew can even upload a photograph for the architects, engineers, or clients to view and decide what action to take. When a project is done, the contractor can hand the building owner a CD-ROM that includes the complete plans and history of the project.

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Software Innovations

Modern Continental, a major civil contractor in Cambridge, Massachusetts, found itself managing construction of a $12 million condominium tower complex in Brazil last year-and, not surprisingly, kept hitting communication bottlenecks.Illustration by Robert L. Prince "It was a real challenge to keep the team up to date," says Joe Peck, the company's planning and scheduling manager. "Every time a business decision had to be made, a parcel was sent express air freight, which took about four or five days to arrive." In June the company began using ActiveProject, a project Web site application produced by Framework Technologies. Not least among the benefits was saving thousands of dollars in air freight and travel costs. "I can more or less be a project engineer in Brazil from here," Peck says.

Other leading project Web site applications now on the market include e-Builder (MP Interactive), ReviewIt (Cubus Corp.), and ProjectNet (Blue-line/On-line, Inc.). The vendors either charge a monthly fee ($100 and up per Web site) or sell the software to users to set up their own sites (ActiveProject goes for about $15,000 for a 10-user license) .

Paperless communication obviously saves money, but it has other, and potentially far more important, benefits. Wheeler notes that much of Tri-Cycle's work involves the design of complex three-dimensional parts. The 3-D CAD programs provide a complete and accurate representation of such designs; when everyone can access those original computer models, they are, in effect, going straight to the source. Before the company started using its project Web site, production of two-dimensional drawings from 3-D originals was the norm, with the ever-present danger of losing information or introducing errors into the process.

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Increased Productivity

A number of trends taking place across disciplines in engineering favor broader use of project Web sites in fields beyond construction. One idea that Web site developers and engineering educators believe may be the real wave of the future is "24-hour global engineering." In such a system an engineering project would be constantly in progress, every minute of every day, by passing the work from team to team in offices spread around the world. Few companies are ready, either culturally or technically, for such a leap yet. Indeed, the Internet firewalls that many companies have installed to ensure computer security can make it difficult even to exchange e-mails outside some firms.

But test beds for globally distributed collaboration are in development and some are already running in some educational settings. At Stanford University, mechanical engineering professor Larry Leifer and his colleagues have developed a series of courses in which students work together in teams, usually of three students, with corporate partners on real design problems. In several of the projects, students at remote locations have worked as part of the team by using e-mail, teleconferencing, and the project's central Web site. For example, for a project sponsored by Boeing Commercial Aircraft Co.-the design of a stowage bin-the team included one student, Keith Ip, who was at the same time working full-time as a designer at Hewlett-Packard in Santa Rosa, California, under Stanford's Honors Co-op Program. The team made extensive use of distributed modeling tools, and its design went on to win the Gold Award in the Lincoln Arc Welding Foundation Graduate Design Competition.

Another factor that is sure to make distributed engineering more necessary in the future is the simple reality that knowledge is becoming ever more specialized. Sidney Burrus, Rice University's engineering dean, says the possibility that a single company can assemble, in one place, the range of expertise it needs on a given project is becoming a thing of the past. "No one person can bring all the skills to a problem that it needs-maybe that's because the problems are getting bigger, but also because the world is getting more complex," Burrus says. "There's more data, more techniques than there ever used to be, and it's just more than one person can master."

Moreover, Burrus says, "there's a lot of engineering where the bottleneck is in fact the locality" and where the "ability to have geography vanish" is the key to getting a product designed and to market. "The cellular telephone is one example. That requires an enormous variety of technologies. You need people who know about antennas and people who know about modulation techniques. You have semiconductors-people building the chips," he continues. "You have to have people who know about batteries. Then you have the physical device you hold-you want it to be lightweight, strong, environmentally benign. All of a sudden you realize you've covered all the areas of engineering." If you're a company like Nokia, the cellular-phone manufacturer whose headquarters are in Finland, you are probably not going to attract the best people from all of these disciplines to move to the environs of the Arctic Circle.

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Uniting Disciplines

If the Internet is making geography vanish, it also may help make the barriers between disciplines vanish. In traditional companies, disciplines have tended to develop their own cultures within their own departmental hierarchies. Illustration by Robert L. PrinceBy facilitating one-on-one collaboration directly, project Web sites may further undermine those walls, which are already under siege by many forces. And that, Burrus notes, adds to the reasons to start teaching students how to collaborate from the very start of their formal education. "One thing I find ironic," he says, "is that from kindergarten up through a Ph.D. program, students are basically encouraged not to collaborate. It's called cheating-when you turn in a piece of work it has to be your work and no one else's. And then you graduate, and we say, 'Oh, by the way, we'd like you to collaborate.'"

Leifer's course at Stanford is an interesting exception to that rule. The corporate sponsors are required to put up actual funding-$5,000 for preliminary projects, as much as $31,000 for more advanced ones-and the problems that the student teams tackle are ones that companies have a genuine, real-world need to have solved. Recent projects have included the design of a pedestrian-safe car bumper for Ford and a simulator that provides realistic tactile feedback to train surgeons to perform very difficult endoscopic sinus surgery. But most of all, the entire focus is on collaboration, exchanging ideas freely, and thoroughly documenting and presenting results.

As an initial project, the student teams are directed to design, build-and race four laps around the Stanford quad-bicycles whose structural components must be fabricated entirely from paper. Scores are awarded on a formula that combines weight and performance-very real-world measures of success. The philosophy of the course-"collaborative design, collaborative learning, real time, with the real world," as Leifer describes it-is one that the changing nature of engineering is increasingly going to demand, and which the availability of Web-based collaborative technology is increasingly making possible.

    Stephen Budiansky is a correspondent with The Atlantic Monthly.

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