Misconceptions Regarding IT in the Engineering Industry

Over the past 20 years, technology has advanced at a remarkable rate. And the engineering community has already begun to embrace some mind-boggling technologies such as satellite-based global positioning system (GPS) units, mobile computers, 3-D digital graphics and the Internet. But when it comes to understanding and implementing these resources, we are still in our youth.

By Steven Ward, IT Solutions Specialist, Terracon Consultants, Inc., Lenexa, Kan. November 1, 2004

Over the past 20 years, technology has advanced at a remarkable rate. And the engineering community has already begun to embrace some mind-boggling technologies such as satellite-based global positioning system (GPS) units, mobile computers, 3-D digital graphics and the Internet.

But when it comes to understanding and implementing these resources, we are still in our youth. This has led to many misconceptions regarding the application of information technology (IT) to our work. Engineers need to address some of these misconceptions in order to better understand how we may benefit from IT in the engineering industry.

Misconception #1: Technology isn’t critical, because your business has succeeded for years without it. Engineering is a proud vocation, standing on a heritage of thousands of years of research and science. It can almost seem as if we are betraying ourselves by using technology that allows us to take shortcuts in our work. I have met with individuals who have objected to using handheld technology in field collection, because in their view, it “took the thought out of the work.” Another common objection I hear from people is that their companies have been successfully operating without this new technology for so many years that there is no reason to begin implementing it.

These are valid arguments. However, there are compelling responses to them. IT applications should not be designed to “think” for the user; they should be designed to make the transfer of information more efficient, thereby giving the user more time to apply his or her knowledge and wisdom to their trade. In other words, the purpose of IT is to reduce the time spent doing things that have traditionally slowed down work. The intent is to streamline data collection, eliminate repetitive data entry and decrease downtime by making communication more effective.

Technology gives us advantages if we use it correctly. The old way is not necessarily the best way, even if we have taken pride in it and it has worked faithfully for us for years. If your company is not using IT to gain a competitive advantage, be advised that your competition is. Whether we like it or not, engineering will continue to evolve, perhaps even quicker than we expect.

Misconception #2: Common “off-the-shelf” technology is ready for engineering use. On the other end of the attitude spectrum is the overly aggressive embracing of IT—the belief that we can send someone down to the nearest electronics store and buy software and hardware that will perfectly fulfill our needs. Perhaps the most common example that I have seen of this is the use of GPS units. I am continually amazed at the number of engineers that do not realize the limited accuracy of the low-end units.

This is not meant to imply that all technology is not ready for engineering use. There are GPS units that are accurate enough for this work, and there are mobile computers rugged enough to withstand moisture, dust, heat and even being dropped onto concrete. However, these are not typically the units available at consumer prices at your local brick-and-mortar retail store. It will take a little research to find the best sources for this technology. If you do not have someone in your company that is good at researching technology, find a vendor you trust. There are many surveying product manufacturers that are very knowledgeable of both hardware and software for engineering purposes.

Wireless technology has also proliferated in recent years, making it possible to transmit data from remote sites back to an office using cell phones or other wireless standards. The cost varies tremendously. You can find reliable cellular data services for as little as $20 per month. Wireless data transmission can be easy to use with little training, but is not foolproof yet. Mastering the technology will take patience, but the results can be very rewarding.

There’s no doubt that there are high-end and low-end engineering products. It will take research and testing to determine which is best for your needs. Is a rugged handheld computer worth a $1,200 premium when there are programmable handheld devices that would do the job and only cost $200 to $300? Determining return on investment is very difficult when prices fluctuate and technology advances on a semi-annual basis.

Misconception #3: IT developers and vendors can read your mind. Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of implementing IT applications is that we find that engineers and IT developers speak different languages. In our company we have recognized this difficulty. In fact, my position was created specifically because I have knowledge of both IT and engineering. This has led to success for both the internal and external solutions we provide. Not every company has this luxury, and many times you will find yourself in front of a group of developers that have no idea of the terms that you use or the logical process of your work.

Many IT applications have been unveiled only to find that the development staff did not understand what the client was looking for. The most important thing that you can do to make sure your project is a success when implementing IT applications is to spend a lot of time up front in planning and communicating to the development staff what you do, how you do it and how the proposed application should assist you in that process. The old engineering proverb “measure twice, cut once” should be applied in IT work, as well. The time spent in planning will be well rewarded.

One other thing to consider is that less functionality does not necessarily mean a cheaper IT solution. When you meet with IT developers, think big! Tell them what would make your life easier. If the price is too high, then ask them how the project could be cut back. You may find that you will get more than you thought you could.

Misconception #4: No hacker would want to break into your systems. Security can be expensive and it can be complex to implement security policies into your IT systems. But you can be assured that it is worth it. I was recently asked by a friend who is a financial advisor to remove some spyware from his computer. Spyware is hidden software on your computer that collects information about your behavior and sends it to others without your knowledge. It can be installed on your computer through viruses or websites that are less than honest with you. I noticed that my friend was not using a computer that had been updated with the latest security patches and protection software. I told him of the urgent need to protect his computer. His response was, “Who would want to know what I have on my computer?” He looked a little shocked when I told him, “Anyone who might like your user names and passwords to financial sites, or who might want your client list, or who might want to use your computer to make money by sending spam from it.”

There are hundreds of reasons hackers may want to get into your company’s computers. Valid e-mail addresses are worth a lot of money. Computers and servers can be “hijacked” in order to launch attacks against other web sites. Amateur hackers may simply be looking for “practice ground” before they move on to bigger and more difficult targets.

Engineering data is becoming even more sensitive with the rising threat of domestic terrorism. Floor plans, mechanical and structural design, and especially the location of potentially hazardous materials have become much more sensitive in respect to homeland security than ever imagined a few years ago. Exposing this data through poorly secured IT systems can be a large liability. Security is complex, but it is worth your time to protect your company’s and your clients’ data.

Live and learn

Implementing technology is not painless. It will take research and also some trial and error. If you wish to gain a competitive advantage in your marketplace, you will have to experience both successes and failures. Ultimately, you will need to learn from both. It will be difficult at times because of the culture of engineering firms. Traditional methods are often hard to break, especially when there are misconceptions about new technology. Do your best to inform and encourage. Create an atmosphere that is flexible and rebounds quickly when there is a glitch in the technology. The results can be very rewarding to those who are patient and persistent.