Discovering Internet Resources

Engineers, as a professional group, have generally been quick to adapt to the benefits of the Internet; but how well has the Internet adapted to their needs?It is safe to say that nearly every engineer working at a mechanical/electrical design firm has access to-and regularly uses-the Internet in the office.

By Jeromie Winsor, Web Editor March 1, 2001

Engineers, as a professional group, have generally been quick to adapt to the benefits of the Internet; but how well has the Internet adapted to their needs?

It is safe to say that nearly every engineer working at a mechanical/electrical design firm has access to-and regularly uses-the Internet in the office. In fact, over 99 percent of the firms responding to Consulting-Specifying Engineer’s 2000 Giants survey claimed that their workplace had Internet access. And while this high level of use remains true throughout much of the business world, engineers have rather specific informational needs. Finding the industry news, component specification details, codes/standards requirements and other professional information that pertains to engineering can sometimes be a challenge.

It has been many years since the Internet’s wild early days, but that does not mean that it is no longer a jungle out there. The sheer volume of information on the Internet is astounding-and continues to grow. According to research conducted by the computer corporation NEC last year, an average of 5 million new pages are added to the Internet every day. As the Internet continues to grow, there is an increasing chance that the information needed is only a click away.

It’s out there. It’s often just a matter of discovering it.

Start spreading the news

Internet news sites are nothing new, but good coverage of the news related to the engineering profession is. What is most noticeable in this area is a greater fragmentation of quality news sources. Even the largest general news sites have compartmentalized, like a newspaper, making it easier to find specific news items.

Beyond the major online news sources, however, standard print media-such as magazines and newsletters-have also migrated coverage over to the Internet, often offering information above and beyond what can be found in their traditional print versions.

Most of these magazine and newsletter sites now give the user access to daily or weekly news updates, lists of industry links and events, as well as the chance to search through past or current articles.

Product and specification information

One of the best online resources for engineers is the wealth of sites offering product and specification information. According to Consulting-Specifying Engineer’s 2000 National Engineering Survey, 80 percent of engineers go to the Internet for product information and about 70 percent access specification data from the Web.

The fact that this overwhelming majority of engineers is searching out product information on the Internet not only shows that the engineers are going to the Internet, but also that the information is out there.

A quick search of the Web reveals some very slick and deep manufacturer sites. Over the last few years, the sophistication of manufacturer Web sites has greatly increased, coupling more information with better design. Many also have “customer service” invoicing and order tracking on-line. For most of these companies, there has been a growing recognition that their corporate Web site is a major branding and business statement.

Often, the information on these sites is geared toward consumers, operational managers and staff engineers. But quite a bit of the content is also very useful to consulting engineers.

Commonly, these companies set up Adobe portable-document format (PDF file) versions of their print catalogs and specification data. PDF files are very handy for printing-much better than standard Internet pages-if a decent-quality printer is used.

Additionally, quite a few of these sites offer a wealth of background information about their products and services. This often includes market data and project profiles that offer the reader a chance to see much more about a product or a company than a specification sheet can relate.

Codes, standards and professional organizations

Another useful Internet resource for a current project is information on local building codes and authorities having jurisdiction (AHJs).

Nearly every state has a building-code adoption organization, and these building commissions and bureaus have, for the most part, some type of Web site. However, while some states have devoted a great deal of time and care to making an informative and useful site for building-codes, others are lacking.

The best sites have full lists of localities throughout the state with their specific codes and AHJs. The least informative sites do not even have basic information. Generally, it is a matter of finding the state or municipal site where a project is located and drilling down into the corresponding areas. The amount of information on these sites varies greatly, but most have some good contacts for further inquiries.

In addition to government building-code sites, there are a number of sites that can give you details on the codes from the organizations that created them.

Most professional and standards organizations have detailed sites, although some are primarily vehicles for selling proprietary code information. But this does not mean that there is not a wealth of useful information, especially for members.

Some organizations, such as the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE), provide special online services for their members, who can use a login name and password to access online content that the general user cannot. These special membership options offered by Web sites are a new addition to the standard “brochure-ware” information, and are sure to become more popular in the future.

And even more …

Besides the major areas above, there are many other resources to be found on the Web, including licensing information, research sites, continuing education, environmental initiatives and employment opportunities.

Nearly every state has an online professional-engineer licensing site with information about the organization, licensing process and meetings, and online forms that can be printed and filled out. As with many government departments, Web sites are making it easier to do official tasks.

Engineering schools and departments in universities and colleges have sites that lay out their various programs and offer continuing-education class catalogs.

Some of the more in-depth engineering, technology and science research groups at these educational facilities-as well as at government departments and private firms-offer comprehensive looks at their research projects, complete with summaries and online ordering.

With a number of organizations devoted to environmental initiatives, ranging from energy efficiency to sustainable design to indoor-air quality, a great deal of information relating to these topics can be found on the Internet. These sites include government departments such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency-which offers a great deal of information on environmental regulations and best practices-and nonprofit organizations that can offer valuable news and publications.

Some of the biggest sites on the Internet are now employment outlets that offer the lure of searching hundreds of thousands of jobs all over the world. More narrowly focused sites offer only engineering jobs, and may do a better job of pinpointing the kind of job one is looking for.

While these are often very useful sites, perhaps some of the best resources for finding an engineering job are individual firm and organization sites themselves. Often the job information on these sites has not already been seen by thousands of others, and the user gets a chance to find out what qualifications a firm may generally look for. One drawback to this approach is that there is a tendency on smaller sites for information to be updated and reviewed slowly. For example, a job posting may be outdated by many months-or even longer.

As the Internet grows-as it is sure to-the number of resources for engineers will continue to multiply. While some engineers may prefer to get their news, product, membership and other information the old-fashioned ways, as the information and usability of these Web sites improve, they will increasingly become readily accessible, user friendly resources. The computer and the Internet may never completely replace the library, but its potential as a resource is nearly endless.