Virtual Simulation Tools Allow Engineers to Work Together in an Electronic Environment

E-Design Tools Improve Collaboration, but Face-to-Face Discussion Remains a Critical Need

By Dan Hebert

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June 2009Face-to-face meetings used to be the primary method of communication among machine builders, customers and suppliers. Phone calls were the only practical way to supplement face-to-face interactions, and conference calls were a rather complex novelty.

Every phase of a project now can be conducted either face-to-face or remotely using e-design tools. Best practices come from selecting the right type of meeting for each phase of the project and using the correct e-design tools as needed.

The Internet has spawned a host of e-design tools including virtual meetings, file-sharing sites, video conferencing, 3D publishing and viewing software and, of course, email. Most of these tools are low-cost or free, and ease-of-use and performance have improved dramatically.

But despite the ubiquity, low cost and ease-of-use of these new design tools, there are some instances where face-to-face meetings are required.

The Whites of Their Eyes

Remote e-design collaboration saves travel time, is cheaper and is easier to set up, but face-to-face meetings deliver advantages. “There is a genius to human interaction only brought out by close face-to-face involvement,” believes Jim Butler, president of IntePro, Waynesburg, Pa. IntePro builds manual and semi-automatic workstation setups that are integrated into continuous-flow manufacturing lines (Figure 1). “Direct human interaction is needed at specific times throughout a collaboration to create the atmosphere for truly effective brainstorming and creativity and to make the leaps of progress that bring high achievement,” adds Butler. “The cost and time concerns for such progress are insignificant in the context of a well-balanced face-to-face and e-design collaboration.”

System integrator Optimation, Rush, N.Y., currently is setting up secure client portals accessible through its website to share documents, manage schedules, support project blogging and provide revision control for shared data.

Despite this commitment to e-design, Optimation knows it can’t fully replace on-site meetings. “From a service supplier point of view, e-design can have some drawbacks for new customers,” says Dan Curry, PE, senior process engineer at Optimation. “It can take longer to build a relationship and form trust when you’re not working on-site, so we try to meet with each client face-to-face before a project begins. No form of e-design will ever be able to give you the nonverbal cues that you get in a face-to-face meeting. A client’s nonverbal communication often is more powerful than what is said.”

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