Back when I was an engineering student at the University of Michigan, some of my classmates passed around a petition that I found alarming at the time and have since recalled with great indignation. The statement, followed by a number of signatures, called for an immediate end to all communication courses for engineers. “We don’t need writing or speaking classes,” the author of the petition said, imploring a group of students to sign. “We’re problem solvers.”
Fortunately, the petition was ignored by the administration-if it indeed made it that far. But after entering the workforce, I was dismayed to find that a similar feeling prevailed among many engineers in industry. The attitude was clearly, "Give me a problem and leave me alone; I'll show you the answer when I'm done."
Many years have passed, but, alas, this independent spirit lives on. In fact, I now hear engineers grumble that the open communication that the new "collaborative" environments demand is the antithesis of the solitary engineering process. "That's not how we work," an engineer complained to me recently, "with people looking over our shoulders."
Well, it appears that with the advent of the Internet-a communication vehicle like no other in history-the days of engineers who operate as islands unto themselves are finally coming to an end. At least that's the conclusion I reached after attending the recent COFES (Congress on the Future of Engineering Software) event in Scottsdale, Arizona.
Indeed, one of the major themes of the three-day conference-which brought together 160 of the leading thinkers in the engineering community to explore issues in computer-aided design and manufacturing-was that Internet-based communication and collaboration was radically transforming engineering from a singular process to a group effort. In fact, in a workshop on Web implications, the underlying theme was that engineers had better prepare for the new collaborative work style because the potential benefit is so huge that no company can ignore it and hope to survive.
Of course, one of the greatest benefits is that all departments within a company will have input early in the product development process. An order of magnitude more people, beyond engineers, now want access to CAD models, noted one industry pundit. Thus, the biggest challenge lies not in creating that data, but in managing it and communicating it to marketing, sales, manufacturing, and other groups. That is what the Internet can provide. An additional benefit that's not so obvious, another attendee pointed out, is that the Internet has the potential to put the engineer directly in touch, perhaps for the first time, with the most important group of all-the end users.
The engineering leaders at the conference understood the benefits of open communication and collaboration that have always existed, and they are embracing new Internet-based technologies that will make this style of work standard operating procedure. For others, changing long-held attitudes won't be easy. To emphasize this point, COFES co-chair Joel Orr quoted philosopher Bertrand Russell, who said, "Every man, wherever he goes, is encompassed by a cloud of comforting convictions, which move with him like flies on a summer day." Engineers must shed outmoded convictions. Failure to communicate is no longer an option.
Phil LoPiccolo: Editor-in-Chief