Behold how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together...Psalm 133:1

As an early explorer of virtual worlds, I know their value. In fact, I have spent most of my professional career encouraging others to visit cyberspace and use it to their advantage.

But there are qualities of place and aspects of presence that have not yet been replicated in virtual worlds. Although some are elusive, they afford a variety of experience, a quality of learning, not attainable by purely electronic means. For example:

  • Contact with people. No chat-room, telephone, video-call, bulletin board, or virtual world has replicated the gestalt of a handshake—let alone a kiss or a hug. The touch, smell, taste, and aura of people—to name a few of the more evident dimensions—have eluded digitization. When you are trying to take the measure of a person, for the purpose of working with them in some way, nothing can substitute for a face-to-face meeting.
  • Playing with tools. You can download software and try it out on your own computer. But if you are evaluating a new monitor, machine tool, chair, or global positioning system (GPS), you need to touch the thing, to kinesthetically and holistically explore it.
  • Focus. Going somewhere new can take you out of your daily routine, so that your faculties are available to be devoted to the task at hand—learning new skills, selecting new tools, and so on. And the stimulation of a new environment helps, too.

In particular, traveling, to industry events and trade shows, offers opportunities to get together with professional colleagues facing similar challenges.

I recommend that employers make sure their engineering professionals go to three or more such events each year, even if they are only in their hometown. The invigoration and validation they afford more than repay any lost work time.

Here are some examples of events I've attended in the past, and my thoughts about them:

  • NDES (National Design Engineering Show; 2/23-26/04; Part of National Manufacturing Week at Chicago's McCormick Place, NDES is the largest engineering trade show. The exhibits are the main attraction; most of the presentations are sales pitches. However, many CAD and PLM vendors are finding it too expensive as a source of leads, and have dropped out of the exhibit space. If you are thinking of attending to evaluate specific vendors and their products, be sure to check the website to make sure they will be there.
  • PlantSuccess (4/22/04; is a small event held several times a year in different locations; the next one's in Houston. It is a jewel of a get-together, small and valuable for the plant design and construction industry. Presentations are in-depth, given by high-level practitioners speaking to their peers. A small tabletop exhibit area offers an opportunity to see software demonstrations and talk to vendors. The main content of PlantSuccess is in the presentations—and the chance to speak with colleagues and presenters.
  • User-group conferences. Most of the CAD, PDM, PLM, and enterprise-software suppliers have large and active user groups, which meet one or more times a year. These are excellent events for staying up-to-date with product developments, and acquiring training and product- and vendor-specific insights. Many of these have overtaken the shrinking trade shows in size and diversity of offerings.
  • Daratech Summit2004 (5/12-14/04; This is the place to go to hear top executives from the leading PLM/CAD/CAM/CAE firms speak about their companies, along with presentations by the star users of the products. Sponsoring vendors are accessible through demo suites.
  • COFES - The Congress on the Future of Engineering Software (4/1-4/04; My consulting firm, Cyon Research Corporation, created this event five years ago to bring together the top engineering software industry users, vendors, consultants, and press, and give them an opportunity to talk about the future in a relaxed resort environment. We limit attendance to ensure the right mix of people, so everyone who attends is a contributor. We stimulate discussion with world-class state-of-the-art keynotes, then make sure there is plenty of time to network and compare notes. (Our keynote speaker this year is Dr. John Koza, who invented genetic programming; and every attendee gets an iPaq that comes loaded with notes and information about the event.)

My next trip is to COFES; be sure to say "hello" if you attend. We need to shake hands and look each other in the eye from time to time, and remember that people are more important than technology.

is an author, consultant, and public speaker. He consults to Fortune 500 companies, high-tech startups, and government agencies on CAE issues. He is the founder of the League for Engineering Automation Productivity (LEAP) and has been an Autodesk Distinguished Fellow and the Bentley Engineering Laureate. A long-time Computer-Aided Engineering columnist, in the CAD/CAM monthly e-mail newsletter, Dr. Orr will continue with his reflections on all aspects of engineering. Contact him at or visit his Web site: