Engineering has a well-known parable: You can avoid a lot of trouble by talking to someone who’s just finished a project like the one you’re about to tackle.
The spread of the World Wide Web has raised this engineering maxim to a fine art. Post a technical question to the right special-interest news group and you are likely to get feedback from people with a variety of viewpoints. Only one or two of the replies are likely to be insulting, and a few of them will probably prove useful.
News groups have a reputation for rude posts and off-the-subject rant-ings, but they remain popular because they still can be a source of knowledgeable advice. Indeed, sources of good engineering advice are multiplying on the Web. These days there are several sites that provide free access to a stable of technical experts.
Some of these experts are volunteers whose only payment is the satisfaction of having helped someone solve an interesting problem. It’s also possible to find “Ask Tech Support” features on sites of product vendors. Of course, advice from vendors may have built-in biases. But the affiliation of those giving advice is clear, so recipients can judge whether there are hidden agendas in the answers.
It has also become easier to discover just who is an expert in the topic you’re researching, and where they’re located. Major engineering colleges and many technical consulting firms frequently post the names and contact information of their faculty members or principals, along with the areas in which they specialize. Of course, this information isn’t put out there for advice seekers. Nevertheless, your chances of getting feedback are probably good if you ask respectfully and have a question that is right down the alley of the recipient.
Best sites for advice
In perusing the Web for sources of engineering expertise, Machine Design editors found three sites that seemed to be particularly useful for MEs and EEs seeking help.
The Engineer’s Companion by Ron Graham provides access to volunteer engineering experts, links to a wide variety of useful engineering sites, and answers to frequently asked questions (FAQs) in several engineering fields.
“I put the site up in the first half of 1996,” says Graham. “It arose as a result of a long discussion in the Usenet newsgroup sci.engr about licensing of engineers. I started sci.engr myself in 1990. Questions about how to get a license and material on the exams came up frequently, so I decided to start an FAQ file. As time went on, there was much interest in the subject of failures, so that ended up being the second FAQ. That led to coverage of subjects such as quality and innovation.”
Graham, an engineer himself, now has a consulting practice and once worked with control systems at NASA’s Lewis Research Center. “My feeling is that you can’t trust everything you read on the Internet,” he says. “Every opinion, especially on highly technical matters, must be verified or at least come from somebody with proven savvy in that area before we buy into it. So when people come to me and tell me they’re ‘experts,’ I require them to have a Web site that illustrates their expertise. And I check it out. I have almost no paid advertising on the site at all, and I hardly advertise it myself, except that my home page says that I’m available for consulting and says what I do. So nobody’s paying me to tell the world they’re an expert.”
Dejanews is a convenient gateway to engineering news groups. Widely followed groups boast lively exchanges among their followers. An active following boosts the chances that posted questions will elicit timely answers.
Because some ISPs don’t provide direct access to news groups, the Dejanews site offers a good alternative. We counted 34 different engineering groups listed there on subjects ranging from structures to electronic controls.
To be sure, several engineering-related sites also host their own electronic bulletin boards. Engineering societies such as the Society of Automotive Engineers, for example, maintain numerous discussion groups centered on emerging technical standards. The problem is that these are frequently off limits to anyone not on the society membership roles. Other private entities or commercial firms such as IndustryNet provide discussion forums as well, but participants seem to be sparse, at least on the ones we checked.
The WWW Virtual Library is a collaborative volunteer effort that harks back to the earliest days of the Web. It includes a wide variety of engineering pages in disciplines ranging from controls to materials science. Its mechanical engineering page sprang up in 1994. Founded and still maintained by Stanford University researcher Charles Petrie, it includes a link to a directory of consultants with one free day of consulting. Also provided are links to useful sites in areas that include engineering jobs, on-line calculators, engineering databases, and search engines for engineering resources.
Petrie, a senior research scientist at Stanford’s Center for Design Research, basically adds the page links that are suggested by readers. “I filter requests slightly to make sure the links work and that the descriptions are clear,” he says. “This site is a good example of how the Web can be used in a not-for-profit manner with minimal work.”
Finally, at least one site provides access to experts who mainly seem to serve as knowledgeable librarians. They typically point people with questions to technical references that might shed light on the problem. Engineering Information Inc. provides this service for those who pay a monthly subscription fee to access its Engineering Village site.
There are a variety of sites that provide advice in the form of on-line tutorial information or calculators. The previously mentioned WWW Virtual Library site and Ron Graham’s page both are rich sources for reference material and tutorials. Also noteworthy is a mechanical engineering page maintained at the University of Minnesota.
Finally, IBM maintains a site that provides access to patents, allowing a quick search of previously brainstormed innovations. The National Technology Transfer Institute also has put a database of federally funded technologies on its site. You can search for technologies, patents, researchers and facilities that match your needs, all for free. The agency will also conduct complicated customized searches for a fee.
Engineering news groups www.dejanews.com/[ST_chan=sci]/categories/Science/Engineering/ If you can’t get to a news server directly through your ISP, dejanews is a good gateway. We counted 34 different engineering groups from structures to Pro/Engineer to electronic controls.
ASME forums www.asme.org/bboard/index2.html Collection of mechanical-engineering-related forums, otherwise known as discussion groups. Certain areas are password protected. Forums include fluids engineering, applied mechanics, internal combustion engines.
AIAA engineering newsgroup links www.aiaa.org/information/links/news-links.html Links to aerospace related newsgroups such as aeronautics and mechanical fluids, though your ISP must be able to access the news server directly for these to work.
WWW Virtual Library vlib.stanford.edu/Engineering.html Oldest catalog of the web. Run by a loose confederation of volunteers, who compile pages of key links for particular areas in which they are expert.
Ask a lubricant engineer www.nyelubricants.com/ask_nye.htm Consultation with a Nye Lubricant Inc. engineer
Plastics discussion groups www.polysort.com/discuss/design.asp Discussion group for design and engineering of plastics products. The sponsor polices it to cull out advertising material, although companies may discuss products or services in addressing specific technical issues.
Questions about electrical distribution products www.ge.com/edc/cp/contactus.htm You can submit questions about electrical distribution to GE. Also lists phone numbers of application engineers and senior product design staff.
Engineering Information Inc., Experts’ Offices www.ei.org/Vill2/TheEngiInfoVil/exclusives/engineer.htm “Senior Village Engineers” at this engineering Web site community will help you find info on the Internet or elsewhere. They can’t answer questions such as “How do I implement a TQM program in my company?” but can point you to resources—on the Internet and otherwise—that can help implement a TQM program. You’ll receive Web and gopher sites, e-mail addresses, or even phone numbers that point you to companies, consultants, research institutes, etc.
Industry Net www.industry.net/discussions/discussions.htm Provides a few discussion forums, but participants seem to be sparse. Site also provides some product data, but its more in-depth information is only available for either a yearly or monthly subscription fee.
Ask the Expert! www.broadband-guide.com/expert.html Listed companies put their experts on-line to answer specific questions related to their telecom, cable and wireless equipment, specialized products and services. They seem to be advertisers in the magazine hosting the site.
Ask a mad scientist www.madsci.org Network of scientists who answer questions in many areas. Example: Why do metal halide lamps come on dimmer after turned on, off, and on?
Ask Dr. Science www.ducksbreath.com/ask.htm Radio personality Dr. Science answers basic questions about physical phenomenon. www.ducksbreath.com/hallfame.htm contains an archive of previous questions and answers.
Engineering how-to/where-is sites
U. of Minn. engineering resources www.me.umn.edu/links.html
Calculators on-line www-sci.lib.uci.edu/HSG/RefCalculators.html Contains links to over 7,420 on-line calculators in areas that include machining, motors, pulleys, pumps, injection molding, stress analysis. Many have nothing to do with engineering. Cooking recipes, beer brewing, and interactive astrology are examples.
EE Design Center www.questlink.com/
National Tech. Transfer Center www.nttc.edu/nttc.html
Pro/Engineer resource page www.ncku.edu.tw/~ydest/www/research/proengineer.htm Links to on-line tutorials and FAQs about the Pro/E CAD program
Design handbook for Eastman Chemical www.eastman.com/ppbo/design/contents.shtml Design guidelines, tool design, failure analysis, secondary operations tutorials
Circuits archive www.ee.washington.edu/eeca/circuits/
Electronics links expert.cc.purdue.edu/~bymaster/elinks.html
Want help? Be civil.
Do your own homework! If you are thinking about asking for help, please make it easy on yourself: Give as much information as possible about what you have already done on the problem. And at least offer to summarize for the entire group’s benefit what you learn from your inquiry. Some people in this group charge a lot of money to help businesses solve the kinds of problems you are asking them to solve for free. What incentive do you offer them?
Give a good subject line! If your subject line is “HELP ME!” or “INFORMATION REQUESTED,” the chance of you getting help from someone knowledgeable goes down.
Watch out for “REAL ENGINEERS!” If you have to tell others you’re a “real engineer” and someone else isn’t, allow me to save others the trouble and tell you up front that you are a schmuck. These are people — real people — sharing their profession.
Sites listing engineering faculty or other “experts”
Expert witness directory www.expertlaw.com/experts/Engineering/index.html
Faculty engineering experts www.acad.cua.edu/pbaf/experts/enmech.htm
Embry-Riddle University Experts Guide comm.db.erau.edu/media2/expert/ExpertGuide.html
Energy Systems Experts, Arizona State U. www.asu.edu/asunews/Experts/Energy.html
Purdue University Experts news.uns.purdue.edu/UNS/Experts2/Mechanical.Engineering.html Engineering faculty members at Purdue and their specialties, e-mail, and phone numbers.