Finding unusual components or services was once a trial. Now, several Web sites are dedicated to pinpointing special products and shop capabilities.
Way back in 1995, before almost anything interactive was happening online, some Internet cheerleaders suggested the technology was already a veritable mother load of engineering information.

Please.

By one count, there were only about 23,000 Web sites at the end of the year, only 31% of which were commercial, many of those still were under construction, and most would be little more than brochure kiosks. Nevertheless, there was a sense this Web thing had great potential.

Today it's difficult to imagine a company without a Web site. In fact, sites have evolved to the point you now expect several features and well-organized sections. Users expect, for instance, that home pages include a detailed description of company products, a what's-new icon, a tab for contacting the company, a search function, and maybe a download button for relevant articles and sizing guides.

The best stuff, however, may be what you don't expect. For instance, companies are slowly moving beyond 8.5 3 11 presentations. Flipping through an electronic brochure might be good, but typing in specs for a nonstock item and seeing a 3D model and part number for it would be better. This is available on a handful of sites and will probably turn into a standard item.

Got an unusual manufacturing process to promote? Put a movie file of it on line so viewers can see it whenever they want. You don't have to make them read anything. Show them. Got a tough analysis problem? Get online and let your FEA vendor show why your boundary conditions are incorrect.

To better serve potential customers, many commercial Web sites are turning into information warehouses that include easily accessed electronic libraries.
Another engineering trend is to farm out entire subsystems. Here, Internet can help find the right company for the job. For example, rather than designing a specialized lift mechanism, search sites could locate and subcontract the task to High Lifts Are Us. This gives everyone the benefit of "virtual" engineering staff along with expertise in areas outside their company.

Applications online are just now coming into their own, according to several Web gurus. For instance, a few sites find off-the-shelf components to fit your specs. The next step is to build the component the exactly match the requirements. Soon, years of company experience and know-how will be at your fingertips.

It's not hard to see that some energetic companies might streamline their operations to the point where they just throw away their product catalog. If you need several components, you'll type the specs for the product into their order form and it will generate a cost for the requested quantity and a delivery date. If that's acceptable, you supply a purchase-order number to kick off production. A CAD system will generate drawings, an ERP system will order material and start production, and a PDM system will store all the related information for quick retrieval.

A few companies with well-defined products such as kitchen cabinets, office partitions, and architectural products already let users run sizing software through browsers to design just-for-you products in seconds. Believe it or not, even rapid prototyping service bureaus are feeling the need for speed. One bureau based its future on the promise to deliver parts in 48 hours. In a test, the company delivered the promised part in only 18 hr. Now they say if you get them an .stl model by 1 p.m., they can get you a part the next day. If it can be done with rapid prototypes, why not with a real production part or two, or 200?

We are still in the Model-T era of the Internet. If you can imagine a faster way to design and deliver products, it will probably happen thanks to the Internet. n

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