The one-stop shop has been a lifelong dream of the retail world. After all, were it not for this the beloved strip mall would never have been born. In the business world many equivalents have been attempted, from huge industry exchanges to the all-in-one Web site but often success has been ephemeral at best. So it is with an up-hill challenge that ENGINEERING.com enters the world of the comprehensive Web site.
Launched earlier this year in its true post-beta form, the site offers engineers of all disciplines a place to go to get the information they need to help them do their jobs. Whether you are an environmental, nuclear, industrial or electrical engineer, the site probably has something for you, according to its designers. Maybe you forgot something as simple as the atomic weight of Einsteinium (252) or you need a matrix inverse calculator for your aerospace creation.
The site is divided into four sections: marketplace, community, directories and the solution machine. The four categories are specific to each branch of engineering. Marketplace offers everything from free applications to services and software. Community can enable you to find a specific consultant or set up a Web meeting, a popular choice in this post-Sept. 11 world. Directories will eventually offer a list of discipline-specific manufacturers. The solution machine has industry specific calculators, a library and a discipline-specific search engine.
It might well be the latter which acts as a big draw to the Web site. Today’s search engines are great for general research and discovery, but not ideally suited for those who need very specific information. After all, a cursory search on Google, arguably one of the best engines out there, does come up with 53,000 sites when queried about field effect transistors. The information is undoubtedly out there, but with that many pages to search, it is unlikely anyone would try to get past the first few dozen.
“You can go to a yahoo.com and do a search on steel (and) it will come up with a wide variety of things from razorblades to toasters, but none of it really applies to what we do as a business,” said Hugo Blasutta, an engineer and partner at the Yolles Group Inc. in Toronto.
“Because ENGINEERING.com is focused, it allows us to reduce that search time.”
Not surprisingly Frank Baldesarra, CEO of ENGINEERING.com in Toronto, agrees. “As good as Google is, I don’t get good information anymore.”
But it is not just about getting information from the search engine.
“We have organized all the publications and the libraries (on the site)…and are able to help all of our engineers get [important information] in a very, very efficient way,” he said.
What do you need to know?
ENGINEERING.com was not set up as just a search engine, in fact extensive surveying was done to try to ensure the site’s success. Baldesarra said they sent out 20,000, hundred plus question surveys to engineers. From the almost 2,000 respondents they got a strategy was formed.
They built a prototype, beta-tested it and fully launched in January of this year.
There is some question as to whether something as broad as engineering can be corralled under one roof. The field is as diverse as any science field yet most of those disciplines either have no go-to site or opt for the more general hyperlink reference site.
“It is the only place that we can go to that is tailored specifically to our profession,” Blasutta said.
But Bernard Ennis, manager of professional practice of the Ontario Professional Engineers of Ontario in Toronto, is not too sure the site will be of much use to engineers. “I found it a little thin really, nothing that would really make me come back.”
“I was in the architectural engineering construction field for many years…I designed heating, ventilating equipment, I designed fire protection equipment, plumbing, there is nothing on the site that is even aimed at those areas at all,” Ennis said.
Though Blasutta is a fan of the site, he does admit it is in its infancy and needs to grow. “I think generally right now they need to focus on just increasing content, connectivity and links and things of that nature,” he said.
Baldesarra does not necessarily disagree. He readily admits the mechanical engineering, architectural engineering and construction portions of the site are the most developed. Other areas of the site are constantly being added to but the company didn’t want to rush out in too many directions too quickly, he said.
Ennis’s other complaint is that engineers are a specific lot who tend not to venture far from their field and, because of this, are more prone to go to engineering Web sites which are designed with very specific disciplines in mind. He cited his own area of expertise in heating, refrigeration and air conditioning. The American Society of Heating, Refrigeration and Air-conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) has its own Web site, one he said he is much more likely to visit.
Shayne Smith, vice-president and general manager of the Southern Ontario division of Wardrop Engineering Inc., both agrees and disagrees with Ennis.
“Engineers are the kind of people who are only comfortable in their own kind of technical vein…so I think it is very important for engineers in any discipline to have some resource that they can go to that they can get basic information on other disciplines,” he said.
“There is a lot of cross pollination between the engineering disciplines,” Blasutta said. Engineering disciplines have become more and more specific in terms of application knowledge, while at the same time you need to have a keen understanding of other disciplines, he said. The site is a good place to gain this knowledge, he added.
The key, as is always the case, is to know the needs of your visitors.
“We try to profile all of our members because the engineering world is so big and it is so diverse, that what we want to do is have a bi-directional interaction with them that allows us to pinpoint what they are interested in give them relevant information,” Baldesarra said.