Working the Web

As product development becomes more and more a collaborative effort between OEMs and their suppliers, the chances that a development team will be in the same physical location shrinks. But organizing a project team doesn't necessarily have to mean hours of conference calls and flights to remote locations. It could just mean logging on.

Although plenty of people use the Internet for recreational activities and even some business, it can actually be a useful tool for product and process development. This can be realized through the creation of a project team web site. A site of this type lets project team members design, research, engineer and communicate in real time, despite the fact that they're in remote locations. These sites look exactly like any other web site on the Internet. In fact, they run on commercially available browsers (like Netscape or Microsoft Explorer). Using common html, vrml, CAD/CAM translators, and database formats, the Web sites can contain as much or as little information as necessary. The potential reduction in design cycle time is great, enticing many engineering teams to look into using the `Net as their latest tool.

As with any tool, however, proper implementation is key. The first thing a team has to do is determine what types of information are going to be involved (CAD data, database data, text, etc.), and whether technology will let them post the information to the Internet. The team also has to decide who gets what information and when (including pertinent people outside the team, like production managers and cost accountants). To make all of this organization easier, several software companies have introduced project management software tools. One of the most comprehensive comes from Framework Technologies Corp. (Burlington, MA).

Called ActiveProject Version 4, the web-based communication system lets teams collaborate over the Internet in real time. While similar solutions exist, some are so complicated that a systems administrator has to tag along for most (if not all) of a project. This one has a GUI that is intuitive enough to let a project team build and administer its own site. And the team doesn't have to start from scratch. A built-in template to generate the site guides users through integration of graphics and button layout, among other things.

The software system includes the ability to review and red line designs directly. As information is published to the Web site, its publication history and all other related information are managed and maintained by the system. And when new drawings publish to the site, a preview is automatically generated, letting users get a look at the latest drawing without waiting forever and a day for it to download.

The system also has an "information request module" that lets team members request things from each other directly (fancy way of saying e-mail). Both requests and responses are kept in a log, and a tab listing of all team members and their contact information is automatically included on the web site.

Plugged In

ActiveProject makes it easier to build collaborative sites, but what a site can do is just as important as how it's built. Some of the application tools that can be plugged in to a site (or soon can be) can add a lot to the average web site. Surveying capabilities, for example, can give a team a better shot at truly customer-oriented product development.

International TechneGroup Inc. (ITI, Milford, OH) has already developed a WWW survey tool as a part of its quality function deployment (QFD) suite of software and services. QFD/Capture captures and analyzes web-based survey results.



There are several technologies now commonly used to build your average, every-day web site that can be used to build an effective project site. According to William G. Beazley, PhD, president of Information Assets (Houston, TX), these are the most commonly used.

One of the more basic Internet technologies, e-mail can be used to distribute lists, documentation, work assignments, and other pieces of information.

Usenet News Groups
Yes, these are the message-based bulletin boards X-files fans use to exchange conspiracy theories. But they can also be used to find help from resources outside the group. There are several engineering groups, as well as CAD user groups, and software programming groups.

Direct Communication Support
Internet phone, video conferencing, and electronic white boards can be used to replace "traditional" conferencing methods. White board applications let engineers and designers red-line drawings in real time, as well as add sketches or notes and keep an audit trail of changes.

Search Engines
There are tons of search engines on the `Net. Key word searches can be used to find everything from product information to shareware software upgrades.

File transfer protocols (FTPs) are used to download and upload files to and from web servers. It's how sites are updated, but can also be used to catalog pieces of information. It can also be easier to transfer large CAD files using FTP rather than e-mail.

Push Technologies
When you post data to be accessed by someone else, it's a "pull" technology. "Push" technology lets you automatically distribute information to authorized receivers. An example would be software companies that automatically send upgrades to users (usually for an extra fee). Project teams can do similar things, including sending change notifications, database updates, and the like.

Formats and protocols like JAVA beans and VRML (virtual reality model language) models let users do things like set up web pages with multiple formats, animation, and hyper links. This lets text live on the same page as CAD and simulation files, and helps teams organize information, using hyper links to direct the flow of information. There are also application sharing programs out there that let several people use a single application (like a virtual reality model).