In the 1950s, Ernest Hemingway really had the lifestyle down: Live in a sub-tropical paradise like Key West or pre-Castro Cuba. Get up at first light. Write brilliant prose until noon. Then gas up the boat. Fish for marlin in the warm waters of the Gulf Stream until sundown. Drink. Do it again the next day. It was a good life. Very good.
In fact, he caused millions who couldn't put two sentences together to aspire to write the Great American Novel. Not because they cared one whit about writing, but because they longed for the Hemingway lifestyle.
Locked into boring daily schedules, long commutes and grinding deadlines, would-be writers wanted the freedom to work anywhere, on their own schedule. And back then, you pretty much had to be a successful novelist to have that kind of independence and flexibility. Now, thanks to the Internet and wireless telecommunication technology, just about anyone can work their own hours in Margaritaville if they want to - at least, that's what the advertisements tell you.
The concept is great. With just a computer, modem and cell phone, someone can work in isolation, yet be completely connected to headquarters, co-workers, e-mail and work-related information. With these tools you'll never be an island, so to speak, even if you're living on one.
Okay. Maybe these new digital technologies won't enable technical folks to go fishing for marlin every afternoon, but they might allow you to catch an extra 40 winks one morning, or avoid a last-minute trip to say, Kansas City or Newark.
Imagine, for instance, the time and cost savings if a design engineer sketching out a new door were able to find and quickly identify the lowest-cost commodity components for the door (latches, electric motors, etc.) on his company's e-commerce supplier web site. And then imagine he'd be able to access digital models of the devices and incorporate them immediately into the new design.
"We need to think of the engineer as not sitting there drawing out the design, but becoming more and more interactive with data exchange platforms," says Michael M. Heidingsfelder, partner at Roland Berger & Partner LLC, a Troy, MI-based automotive and e-strategy consultant.
Or picture an engineer working in a remote location who's able to discuss an interference problem on a new assembly line by dialing up a 3-D simulation model of the line on her laptop computer, and trading e-mail and voice messages with industrial engineers at the plant.
Here's how it can happen:
A new improved Internet. Most of us still call it the World Wide Wait instead of the World Wide Web, but new protocols, data-compression technologies and software strategies promise much faster data transmission in the future. And in fact lots of attention is being lavished especially on enabling the Web to transmit especially large data files faster and more efficiently - not specifically for automotive engineers, but they certainly will benefit.
New lower-cost software tools. Big and small engineering software companies are offering a variety of Internet-enabled software tools designed for "collaborative engineering" on high-end engineering tasks that allow geographically dispersed engineers to work together as a "virtual team." Proponents of Internet-based engineering tools also point out that lots of engineering work does not require accessing or manipulating big data files. It is instead merely basic communication.
New hardware. Increasingly powerful desktop and laptop computers allow more sophisticated engineering tasks to be done remotely.
Better security. Despite some recent high-profile problems caused by ambitious criminal hackers, confidence in the ability of most new software products to provide a secure environment is relatively high. Nevertheless, some big hurdles remain.
Here are some of the benefits:
More manpower, higher productivity. Automotive engineering staffs now are chronically overtaxed by an engineering shortage showing no signs of abating (see story, p.49). Using the Internet has the potential to reduce product development time by speeding communication and cutting bureaucracy. Engineering productivity could increase 25% or more says Dr. David E. Cole, head of the University of Michigan's Office for the Study of Automotive Transportation. That could greatly ease the burden on current engineers. "Engineering productivity is a very significant issue, it really hits home," says Mr. Cole.
Difficult-to-find expertise is more accessible. Automakers can more easily tap into areas with concentrations of engineering expertise, such as Bangalor, India, without having to worry about relocation hassles and work visas.
Easier globalization. Companies now are looking for globalized engineering and R&D, and that's facilitated by Internet and wireless technology, says Ashok Boghani, vice president of A.D. Little's North American Practice. And, by having widely dispersed engineers working on the same project, it could actually allow for work around-the-clock, he adds.
Nice tans for engineers. Long maligned for their studious natures, engineers could finally break free of their negative stereotypes and become hip surfers and snowboarders - or perhaps just see their families more often.
It all sounds great. the Vstream website (www.vstream.com) promises in ads in major business magazines that you can sit on top of a snow-covered mountain with your laptop and work. Icon Multimedia Publishing, Inc. (www.iconmulti.com), which advertises in publications such as Ward's AutoWorld, offers the beach.
Neither is specific about exactly what kind of work can be done, but one thing is for sure: The woman sitting in the snow on Mt. Kilimanjaro is not running a finite element analysis of a new suspension system, and the guy on the beach isn't working on a sophisticated three-dimensional computer-aided design (CAD) model.
That's because most of today's hardware, software and telecommunications technologies can't yet handle the huge data files that are an integral part of automotive engineering. And then there's the matter of some potentially huge phone bills. So while your ears may hurt from hearing so much about e-this and e-that, little has been said about e-engineering - yet.
Soon, however - within the next few years - the sun will also rise for engineers who long for the beach - or just a little more autonomy. Mr. Heidingsfelder, the e-strategy consultant, says the "e-engineering" buzzword definitely is coming, because it will help boost productivity and slash product development lead times. But he says automakers are focusing first on the areas where they will get the quickest - and biggest - bang for the buck, e-commerce with suppliers and the entire vehicle-retailing environment.
Plus the technology to be able to literally sit on a beach with a laptop somewhere and do collaborative engineering work with cold, pale engineers in Dearborn, MI, for instance, isn't quite here yet, adds Bill Carrelli, vice president of Marketing for Structural Dynamics Research Corp.,Motor Co.'s primary engineering software supplier.
The telecommunications capacity could be in place in two years, and suitable software could be available even sooner, he says, but it's likely the changes will occur in about 2 to 5 years.
"We have engineers today that work at home, and support our suppliers and they have laptops that can run Unigraphics (powerful engineering software), says Ken Lenneman, automotive marketing manager for Unigraphics Solutions,Corp. engineering software supplier. "The real difference is the type of job. There is very little collaboration (with other engineers.) "If you want to collaborate over the Internet, it is fairly difficult today, you may have to transfer files back and forth."
The ability to transfer giant engineering files via cell phone, or even over regular telephone lines remains a stumbling block, agrees Walt Davison, marketing executive for IBM Automotive.
Today, most automakers use special dedicated T1 lines to trade sophisticated engineering files back and forth with suppliers, special Extranets or industry Internets set up specifically for the auto industry, such as the ANX (see p. 46). But these avenues currently limit engineering information to strictly engineers and those who have been trained in the use of engineering software such Unigraphics, CATIA and SDRC products.
Proponents of e-engineering and "collaborative engineering" want to allow non-engineers - such as supplier, marketing, purchasing and service folks to be able to access some of those engineering files as well. The idea is to digitally tie together the entire automotive operation, from initial design through the entire supply chain.
Proponents also argue that it doesn't have to be as complicated as it sounds. And in fact there already are numerous Internet-enabled products available, from SDRC's and Unigraphics' numerous products to those offered by relative newcomers. Among the second group are NexPrise, a spin off from Lockheed-Martin's Palo Alto research lab, and CollabWare Corp., an Idaho Falls-based application service provider and software developer which is offering a high-end solids modeling 3D computer-aided design system for use on the Internet. CollabWare also is a spin off from Lockheed-Martin.
But capturing computer-generated information doesn't always have to begin with a computer-aided design drawing; it can begin with a requirement, points out SDRC's Mr. Carrelli. An OEM refines requirements, and systems then capture those requirements. In a collaborative engineering environment, engineers can see how those requirements - and changes - influence how a product is designed or configured.
And by starting with a set of requirements and collaboration tools rather than just a design, it allows different people into the product development process that can provide valuable input, and that leads to "more robust data," says Mr. Carrelli. For instance, he says procurement might want to get a view of the product or parts that is relevant to a particular activity. And the system can be designed so that it recognizes the user and what type of data he or she needs. This selectivity minimizes the amount of data that needs to be accessed and transmitted.
Complex 3D models are "manifestations of a final decision. Before you get there, there are tons of decisions and transactions that go beyond the 3D models that get communicated," says Ram Sriram, president of NexPrise.
NexPrise's product allows OEMs and suppliers to work together in virtual teams throughout the product development process, using the Internet as the meeting place. Now being used byand GM's Truck operations, it is designed as a secure environment that sits outside the OEM Intranet "firewall" and serves as a virtual community where teams can communicate and access all kinds of real-time product development data. That can be a huge benefit to engineers, who sometimes spend 50% to 70% of their day just trying to track down the most up-to-date information on a project.
"We provide a business-to-business hub, an activity center where all these design activities and process design issues get worked out," Mr. Sriram says.
CollabWare boasts that its product - GS-Design - is the first high-end solids modeling 3D CAD system designed from the ground up for use over the Internet. Originally developed to manage extremely complex design programs such as the F-22 Stealth Fighter, GS-Designis claimed to be capable of modeling ultra-large assemblies and managing an almost limitless number of design configurations. Its web-based architecture allows for true collaborative design, "whether members of a design team are located thousands of miles apart or just around the corner from each other."
It's also supposed to be priced "to a level where companies can afford to put it on the desk of every person who needs it."
With more and more engineering work being outsourced by OEMs to suppliers, coordinating and keeping track of the most current information is becoming a nightmare, says electronics industry analyst Martin Piszczalski of Sexton Research in Ann Arbor, MI. Having one portal or Web site where everyone working on the same part or project can go to access the same information - plus leave e-mails or voice mails - is a dream come true to many flustered engineers, he says.
Even so, he adds that no amount of collaborating over the Internet will make regular meetings and face-to-face communication obsolete. "Sometimes you just need to see if a chief engineer is sweating or not," he says.
And security still remains a very legitimate concern. Ian R. Simmons is president and chief executive officer of PGAM, a German-based engineering services company that is opening three new facilities over the next two years in metro Detroit to capitalize on the auto industry's growing need for engineers. He says Internet security must be lock-tight before significant engineering work is conducted electronically.
"There's a great deal of concern over any chance of proprietary information that belongs to an OEM or a Tier 1 supplier coming into the wrong hands. Therefore, there is a reluctance to open the floodgates until they're absolutely sure that it's risk free," Mr. Simmons says.
"When you just send an ordinary e-mail from home or from your office, it disappears, you don't get a reply. You have no control over which server it goes to, where it's bouncing around, before it arrives. That to us is a risk we can't afford to take because it would only take one bad instance to be publicly highlighted and our business is finished."
Once the security hurdle is cleared, Mr. Simmons sees great potential for his company to access information from its customers, and vice versa. Still, this scenario would not eliminate the need for personal contacts between supplier and customer.
"This is still very much a people business," he says. "When you want to interrogate math data or design data, it's a creative process."
Even so, the industry is moving ahead. Mark Hogan, head ofCorp.'s new e-commerce operations, says GM already has "virtual focus groups" where specially selected consumers view 3D models of future vehicles on-line and give designers their opinions. It promises to be an invaluable tool to designers seeking consumer feedback very early in the design process. It also saves the cost and effort of trying to physically assemble focus groups in one place, at one time, in a secure area to view clay and fiberglass mockups.
Many Internet-assisted engineering tools already are in use, but many, many more are on the way. Together they will allow more geographically dispersed engineers to work together daily on a real-time basis. Some manpower and expertise problems will be solved by recruiting the services of engineers from all over the world without forcing them to move. And at the very least, many tasks will become faster, more efficient and less frustrating because the latest information and computer models will be more easily accessed. Problems will be found earlier and faster.
"The real key, where the real impact can be, is on the product development process," says SDRC's Mr. Carrelli. "People like Ford are reducing time to market from five years to less than three years, and they want to get it down to 24 months. And even then, market conditions can change. You want to be able to collaborate with consumers and suppliers, and build in flexibility so that a company can continue to evolve, and meet the consumer's needs at that moment in time. We are focusing our company on the ability to d eliver this product development and lifecycle collaboration."
But alas, IBM's Mr. Davison points out that no matter how sophisticated technology gets, engineers may never be able to realize a lifestyle like Hemingway. The simple fact is, it only takes one person to write a novel, but it takes thousands to design, engineer and build a car. Those folks do have to get together and talk face-to-face a lot.
Of course, it's easy to see what the ultimate outcome of all this grand new Internet-enabled engineering technology will be. It will be the same as all the other communication miracles of the last decade: It won't allow us to vacation while we work, it will allow us to work while we're on vacation.
Automotive engineers and purchasing agents may find a lot of unfamiliar company when they venture out onto the Automotive Network eXchange (ANX), the auto industry's private Internet.
But there is no cause for alarm. The ANX, created in 1995 by the Automotive Industry Action Group, now has a new owner, Science Applications International Corp. () of San Diego, CA, a company known for data encryption, information security and, on a sexier note, experiments for the space shuttle program.
The purpose of the sale was to help ANX fulfill its goal of being a truly global network, one with trading partners around the world representing industries beyond automotive.
With, the auto industry gets a more neutral partner that can make ANX more attractive to other industries, albeit connected to automakers, such as rubber, steel, aluminum, plastics, and chemical producers. Could a name change for the network be far behind? Perhaps.
Tying in other industries to the network increases "critical mass," which reduces the cost to operate it, meaning lower service fees for those hooked in.
Already, the Greater Detroit Area Health Council has signed on to ANX. Granted, the organization has major ties to the auto industry, but its arrival is symbolic and significant.
In early February, a dial-up service was offered for smaller companies not needing dedicated lines for the ANX, partly because of complaints about hookup fees.
Joining in the marketing initiative for ANX is business-to-business specialist VerticalNet Inc. of Horsham, PA.
The companies say the alliance will allow subscribers to reach new markets and customers and will add new features such as videoconferencing to support broader use of ANX.
The sale of ANX to SAIC (terms were undisclosed), as well as the linkup with VerticalNet, is a "tremendous positive," says Doug Buchanan, business technology manager for Dofasco Inc., a Hamilton, Ont., steel producer. An ANX proponent, Mr. Buchanan's company was the first of two trading partners on the network.
He says the plan always was to break off ANX as a separate business. "We realized that ultimately the ANX is more efficiently run in a for-profit environment," Mr. Buchanan says.
The sale did not occur, he contends, because ANX was taking off more slowly than originally expected. "The growth of the ANX community has become significant in the past six or seven months," he says. "Has it reached tens of thousands? Obviously not. But we have four or five hundred companies, and it's an attractive offering. Add up their revenue, and it's over $300 billion."