For today's automotive engineers, the paper memo has become nearly as obsolete as carbon copies, the slide rule, and the drafting table. It seems what the copier, fax machine, calculator and CAD-CAM computer previously did to simplify life, the Internet is now doing to revolutionize the way engineers communicate and perform their jobs.

Yes Virginia, e-mail is definitely here to stay. And while it won't lead to a completely paperless world, it seems the paper memo may soon be joining the typewriter, slide rule, et. al., in the company museum, along with the other antiquities.

As most in the industry recognize, the global explosion of the Internet over the past three years, and the universal acceptance and accessibility of "real-time" e-mail and other forms of electronic data transmission, is changing forever the way engineers function in the workplace. In fact, most engineers say they believe the Internet, still in its infancy, will create an even greater impact, given the fact that it bundles the capabilities of the Xerox, fax, engineering software and the telephone to accelerate the speed and sophistication of global communication to levels they could only dream of as recently as a decade ago.

As communicating over the Internet continues its rapid development, it's clear the kinds of data that can be sent, as well as the applications provided by this new communication technology far exceed anything previously possible by memo: the simple two-dimensional piece of paper.

>From information gathered from automotive engineers working for both manufacturers and several major Tier 1 suppliers with global operations, it's clear engineers and their relationship to the Internet is growing, and will continue to do so, as new applications are discovered almost daily.

Perhaps the best model for understanding the exploding development of the Internet was provided by Andy Boyd, director of advanced engineering for Delphi Automotive Systems. He sees engineers using Internet communication to develop closer relationships on three distinct levels: communication within the company, followed by exchanges of information with OEMs, then exchanges of information with lower-level suppliers and vendors.

n "Level 1 involves building the internal communication structures within one's own company," says Mr. Boyd, "so the engineering and design functions are well coordinated and all staff members have the ability to communicate with each other globally, within the corporate Intranet."

For OEMs, the Intranet (internal network) level has now expanded to include auto dealerships and their technicians, which broadens the scope beyond simple internal corporate communications. Materials previously mailed or faxed are now sent over the Internet, then followed up with all the repair specifications and technical service bulletins (TSBs) contained on CD-ROM.

"Quite often, if one design staff is backed up with work, it can be sent to another engineering group that has a lighter work load that week, and they can assist with getting it done," says Tony Gennari, a CAE with GE Plastics. "So with the Internet, we aren't constrained by staff workloads, if all we need is a little help with performing some standard analysis that can be done at any of our offices. By being global, we can send a project to Asia, have them crunch some numbers overnight, and have the results back on our desks by the time we arrive for work the next day."

n Level 2, explains Mr. Boyd, involves developing the capabilities to provide and transmit engineering data electronically, from the level of the Tier 1 suppliers to mailboxes inside the OEM's Intranets, for use by their engineering staffs.

Mr. Gennari notes that "sending files over the Internet allows us to transfer all kinds of technical details globally, in real time, that previously had to be placed on a tape and sent by FedEx. Now we can send the same file in about a half-hour, depending on the size of the file."

n "Level 3, as I see it," Mr. Boyd adds, "involves building information bridges between us and our vendors and suppliers." In some ways, the information could be similar to what OEMs receive from Tier 1 suppliers, namely specs required to meet manufacturing or development needs. He notes that, so far, this particular area has been the slowest of the three to develop.

But as modem speeds and sophistication of the Internet have increased, many new password-protected areas of the corporate Web sites are being developed so engineering staffs can transmit data to be downloaded.

"It's been a little tricky at times, however" concedes Paul Klapproth, director of media relations for Siemens Automotive. "We didn't want to get too technical, or give away any trade information that might be used by our competitors. So we had to build the site with those kinds of things in mind. Now we have an area that is password-protected, on which we are able to show more sensitive things."

Speaking of sensitive, Mr. Klapproth notes that the company recently was asked to remove information by one of its suppliers. "It seems one of our Asian suppliers was gravely concerned that some of the information could easily be pirated by some of its less-scrupulous competitors, then used to undercut their business. After some consultation, we agreed to remove the data. This experience helped to remind us just how international the Internet has become, and that sensitive information can be accessed globally - often in areas of the world where such things as patents and copyrights are not respected."

Naturally, engineers also use Web sites to do numerous other things, from reading the day's news, performing hard research, purchasing supplies, to downloading software upgrades.

n A Level 4 - now being used more often by engineers - includes communication with the public via the corporate Web site. Generally, a company's public relations and marketing staffs are responsible for maintaining the content of the corporate Web site, given that many of the initial applications focused on disseminating information to the media and public at large.

"Our Internet site has been up for about two years now," says Siemens' Mr. Klapproth. "Initially, it was designed to inform the media and our investors. But now more of an effort is being made to expand it so it contains more technical information, useful to engineers."

But he quickly adds, "We also find that Congressional staff members along with people at various government agencies, including people at DOT and the NHTSA monitor our site. Not long ago, we also received a call from NBC's Today Show when the air bag controversy was in the news, and wound up providing a company spokesman for their program as a result of information on our Web site."

With a growing number of OEM engineers on the net, suppliers face increasing pressure to build sites that are both engaging and valuable to the end customer. The automakers have made a clear commitment to use the Internet as an information medium. But what will the engineers find when they get there?

At Ford's Visteon Automotive Systems, the glove has been thrown down. Emmerich Christiansen, Visteon's manager of enterprise business systems, says his organization is committed to creating the best Tier 1 presence on the Internet, providing a vital link between the company and its customers.

"Our past experience shows us that people are using our Internet site more than we really expected. We got a lot of feedback. People were referring to the information. I was a little surprised about how this was picked up," says Mr. Christiansen.

"This has taught us that we really need to pay attention to this medium because people will measure us against how we present ourselves. If we want to be the No.1 supplier, we better have the best external site on the Web," he says.

Visteon still enjoys close ties with Ford that were created prior to its spin-off. But Visteon does not yet have good communication mechanisms with other automakers.

It won't be easy. Visteon plans to deliver product detail well beyond a simple overview for each of its seven business divisions and 23 business units, delivered to the right customer in the right location at the right time in as many as seven languages.

"I think this includes two things. Indeed, good product information. Don't underestimate that. I don't mean product information one-dimensionally displayed. Secondly, I think the Internet site will be the first level of communication - where communication starts. If we can attract engineers and make them communicate with Visteon, then we contact them back and start a process. If we can catch their attention and start this, the site is a success," he says.

Integrated Software Packages (ISPs) designed by corporate IT (information technology) departments at the automakers now include the tools to reach the Internet. This includes the software to browse the Internet (typically Netscape Navigator or Internet Explorer) and the TCP/IP protocol that allows for the transfer of data between a client station and Internet server.

"We are talking with people who are the information technology providers. When you talk with the IT guys, you get a good understanding of where the industry and the infrastructure is going. We see the industry is moving toward the Web," says Mr. Christiansen.

Other major suppliers also are browsing the Web for the latest product news and innovations. But they're also developing Internet content to allow other suppliers to review their products and operations - not for competition, but for cooperation.

Notes David Ladd, project manager-communications at Siemens: "Each of our divisions that procure and assemble complete systems has numerous material suppliers. DuPont, for example is our resin supplier for air induction components. We have that electronic link in two senses: engineering information transfer and education," says Mr. Ladd.

Siemens engineers are, of course, interested in DuPont's product capabilities. But Siemens Automotive is equally interested in letting DuPont know what Siemens is doing. The theory: DuPont engineers will be able to find out about product developments over the Internet, and look for new ways to apply DuPont material technologies to Siemens' programs.

The name of the game is information, and the Web has plenty to offer.

"One of the most helpful research Web sites I use quite frequently is the U.S. Patent Office in Washington," says Bruce Rohm, manager of advanced engineering for GM-Delco Electronics in Kokomo, IN, which recently joined the large Delphi supplier group. "They do a good job of keeping newly issued patents listed, so I can research what is happening within the area of patents."

Other useful sites are those operated by universities, adds Mr. Rohm. "Some of the research can be very beneficial." He says a Delco engineer working on a fiber-optics project ran across information on a new photo-emitting diode. At the time, engineers working on the project were "stumped," says Mr. Rohn. "The information on the site led us down a path we never would have thought of before, since it was 'outside the box,' so to speak. The new data broke us out of the old paradigm we had been operating under, and generated a truly remarkable 'A-ha' experience," he says.

Another hot site for automotive Web browsers is the SAE, says Fred Standish, spokesman for Nissan Motor Mfg. USA in Smyrna, TN.

He says Nissan engineers view the Internet as a research tool, much like a library. "Quite often our engineers will reference one of the research papers, and simply print out the information they need. The site provides all kinds of specifications and industry manufacturing standards that we might not have at our fingertips. And since the SAE is continually posting to their site, we can usually get 'real-time' updates any time we need them."

Internal corporate communication with the Intranet also has exploded with the last few years. It now is used to handle and process much of the engineer's daily workload.

Roger Lambert, spokesman for Honda's manufacturing and assembly facilities in Ohio, points out that the company's new Global Honda Intranet Link, used extensively by its global R&D staff, allows its engineers to communicate with offices in Ohio, California and Japan, 24 hours a day.

"The system has improved our efficiency considerably. Using the Intranet provides the company with a quantum leap in efficiency. With this technology, we can coordinate and complete a project in a fraction of the time. Not only that, we can ensure 100% accuracy of the information being transmitted back and forth," Mr. Lambert says.

Another new area in which company Intranets are being used is for problem-solving in the field. Tom Clinton, director of advanced automotive engineering for GE Plastics, says his company uses the Internet to remotely access manufacturing equipment and tell it what to do.

"One of the things that Inter-net communication has allowed us to do is make sure all of our manufacturing plants are operating properly," says Mr. Clinton. "We can now send a technician out to one of our plants anywhere in the world. As long as he has access to phone lines, we can remotely run testing on the manufacturing equipment, then monitor it to see if everything has been properly calibrated to produce the particular part or component we need. If there are any flaws, we can see them. Then we e-mail instructions to the on-site technicians with instructions on how to re-configure it correctly. And in many cases, we can get inside the computers operating the machinery and make the correction remotely, to ensure everything is operating the way it should."

Perhaps the most helpful use of the Web for many Tier 1 suppliers is the direct, secure links with the manufacturers' internal Intranets.

Tom Martin, another engineer for GE Plastics, works on projects for Chrysler. "In some cases, when working with a manufacturer on a specific project, we can't just send things over the Internet, because of security concerns." He says he and his colleagues use dedicated lines to send FTP files and 3D files to a dedicated mailbox inside the manufacturer's Intranet system.

"We do this quite frequently with Chrysler. By communicating this way, we circumvent the security concerns, and are able to send proprietary information back and forth. There are several suppliers who have mailboxes of this nature, all set up electronically with firewalls. That means none of the suppliers can penetrate those firewalls to get at information given to Chrysler by another supplier. Other information is stored in modules that are either access-restricted or password-protected."

So how important is the Internet, and how important will it continue to be for automotive engineers?

Mr. Rohn at Delphi offers an overview of the situation, echoed by nearly all the engineering and manufacturing spokes-people.

"Basically, the Internet helps us do our jobs quicker and more accurately than ever before. It has telescoped development time immeasurably, and allowed us to participate in very rapid global expansion on a scale that would not have been possible without the global, real-time communication and coordination that the Internet makes possible," says Mr. Rohn.

"It also speeds up the design process tremendously. How fast is impossible to measure, really. All I know is we couldn't be doing the things we're doing without it. We really do live in a 'Global Village.' It's not just rhetoric anymore as far as automotive engineers are concerned. We experience it daily, in many tangible ways."