Engineering News

Trying to find the best plastic for a new design? Looking for engineers to
give advice on a stress-analysis problem? Need a software update?

As the Internet's popularity explodes, an increasing amount of such engineering data is popping up on line.

Engineers with Internet access can already tap into a wealth of information posted by vendors, universities, and government agencies. And, systems now under development may soon let engineers search for products or order things like custom-made cables on-line.

Vendors on the 'Net . Many major computer companies have set up "home pages" on the Internet's "World Wide Web" (WWW). There, you can typically find product announcements and specs, company news, technical papers, and access to customer service. Some sites post software, such as up-dated drivers, for customers to download.

Among the many CAD suppliers on the Web: Digital Equipment Corp., Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Intergraph, Rasna, Silicon Graphics, and Sun Microsystems. "People can view data 24 hours a day world-wide," says Grant Smith, program Manager for the Access HP Internet project. HP receives inquiries from more than 80 countries.

Probably the hottest growth area on the Internet, WWW offers users graphics as well as text, and lets them navigate from one subject area to another by clicking on icons-even if the new menu item resides on a computer halfway around the world. As the Web expands, an increasing number of non-computer companies are setting up shop there as well. GE Plastics, for example, put up its "home page" on Oct. 13 and already averages 600 inquiries per day.

"It's extremely useful," says user Fred Schenkelberg, who designs heating cables for Raychem Corp's Chemelex Division, Menlo Park, CA. "In a 15-minute session, we got a very quick comparison of polymers. It's another resource that we don't have to keep on our bookshelf."

Many universities and government agencies are also on the Web, offering details about their research and technology-transfer projects. "It's excellent for contacts who might be working on similar projects," says Steve Waterbury, CAE specialist at Goddard Space Flight Center.

The Internet is more than the Web. Another area of interest for engineers: newsgroups, where professionals sharing similar interests can "meet" in cyberspace, ask questions, and exchange information. In many cases, engineers have access to this information from home computers or on business trips, not just in the office.

The "Usenet groups" function like electronic bulletin boards, where anyone can post messages for others to read. Postings include queries about solving software problems, recommendations on product purchases, and discussion of technical problems. Schenkelberg at Chemelex said he recently posted a message seeking advice on a mathematics problem; he received a helpful reference from a colleague in Australia within a day.

"The newsgroups are a powerful communications vehicle," says John McGuigan, MCAD manager at Sun Microsystems. "It's an invaluable way to get feedback. We monitor them." Some newsgroups are also available as e-mail distribution lists, for those with electronic mail but no access to newsgroups.

Coming soon? Projects in the works promise a major leap in on-line convenience. Now being tested: a system that

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