The internet and the plant engineer

Let's go surfin' now, everybody's learnin' how..." The well-known line from the Beach Boys song of nearly 40 yr ago may never be truer than it is today. This time around, however, it is the internet not the ocean on which everyone is surfing.
By Jeanine Katzel, Senior Editor, Plant Engineering magazine June 1, 2000

Let’s go surfin’ now, everybody’s learnin’ how…”

The well-known line from the Beach Boys song of nearly 40 yr ago may never be truer than it is today. This time around, however, it is the internet not the ocean on which everyone is surfing. Now more than ever, users from all walks of life are logging on and connecting-to coworkers, vendors, and suppliers nearby and around the world.

And plant engineers are no exception. Earlier this year, Plant Engineering magazine sought to learn more about how our readers and web site users were actually using the internet. So we posted an informal survey on our web site and asked users to tell us more about their web use patterns and how this rapidly expanding, computer-based tool was influencing their workday.

About 100 respondents filled out our questionnaire. Some responses were predictable. The internet is an important tool and becoming more so. Those who use it believe their workdays are more efficient because of it. Almost everyone uses e-mail. What is surprising is the overwhelming enthusiasm with which this technology is being embraced and the impact it can be expected to have on both plant engineering activities and everyday life. Here are some of the statistics, comments, and insights that we uncovered.

And the survey said…

According to at least one respondent, the internet is probably the greatest information tool ever invented. All companies can benefit from it, says another. It is very valuable for locating technical information, says yet another. The statistics from the survey bear out those comments. More than 80% of those responding use the internet daily at work (Fig. 1). More than 55% use it daily at home. And more than 70% are using the web more than they did last year. Nearly half of those are using it significantly more than they did a year ago. More than 3/4 of those responding expect to use the web more in the future than they do now (Fig. 2).

Most respondents (more than 70%) browse the internet using Microsoft’s Internet Explorer and when they get online they turn to Yahoo (34%) and Alta Vista (nearly 20%) to find what they need. Other search engines popular with our respondents are Excite, Infoseek, MSN Search, Lycos, and GoTo (Fig. 3). Users learn about available web sites in a variety of ways: mostly by surfing, but also through friends and coworkers, newsletters, trade publications, and periodicals.

Perhaps surprisingly, more than 40% of our respondents said they would pay for useful information on the web. Nearly a quarter said their companies had already paid for them to purchase information from the web. Respondents use industrial web site resources heavily with nearly 40% turning to the electronic Thomas Register, a quarter using the Grainger site, and close to 20% consulting Plant Engineering magazine’s Product Supplier Guide.

What are they looking for?

Why are plant engineers turning to the web? What are they looking for? The top three reasons our respondents said they surf the net are to learn about and compare products, to locate vendors, and for news and information. More than half those answering this question ranked these activities first, second, or third. Obtaining technical help and seeking parts information are two other popular reasons respondents gave for turning to the internet.

And what benefits does searching the internet bring? Nearly a third of those responding to the survey said the web increases job efficiency. Another third said it increases available options and product choices. More than a quarter said it saves time (Fig. 4). On the down side, nearly 40% said the web provides too much information and nearly 15% said it wastes time (Fig. 5). Other disadvantages specifically noted within the “other” category include difficulties locating the correct site, poorly organized information, and lack of useful material.

Is e-commerce catching on? More than 63% of our respondents felt web transactions were very safe or relatively safe (Fig. 6). Less than 5% said such activities were unsafe and that they would never buy over the web. These figures are supported by action. Nearly 85% of all respondents have registered to use a web site. Nearly 3/4 have purchased products or services over the web for personal use. Nearly 40% work for plants who have purchased products, equipment, or services over the internet. Although in most cases (approximately 60%), those purchases were for items costing $1000 or less.

Web purchases are typically initiated by either the plant engineering or the purchasing department. About a third of the respondents indicated that any department may initiate a web purchase. A third said plant engineering may approve web purchases. More than 40% indicated that function remains with purchasing. Nearly 3/4 said that the approval methods and procedures for web purchases are no different than for other types of purchases. Perhaps most surprisingly, respondents reported no particular problems with making purchases over the web.

E-commerce, e-mail, e-verything

Nearly 90% of all respondents said their companies have a corporate intranet. Some 60% indicated that all employees have access to that intranet. Nearly 3/4 said they personally use the intranet to communicate information to their staffs. Respondents communicate a variety of information to their employees over the intranet from job assignments (45%) to employee benefits and activities (68% and 65%, respectively) to educational and training opportunities (76%) (Fig. 7).

More than 60% of those responding said their company used web resources to perform plant functions and operations. Most frequently cited web-based plant activities are automation and process control, safety training, material handling, and environmental management (Fig. 8).

Undoubtedly, the most popular internet activity is e-mail. Nearly 90% of all respondents use e-mail daily and more than 83% say it has made their work life more efficient. Nearly 2/3 subscribe to between 1 and 5 newsletters. Some 70% say e-mail has reduced the number of phone calls and letters received either somewhat or significantly. Less than a third say e-mail has had no effect on the volume of calls and letters.

More than 70% of our survey respondents prefer e-mail to other forms of communication. Just under 45% say it facilitates or ensures communication and a quarter say it saves time. Disadvantages of e-mail include junk mail and unnecessary communication.

Although our survey was not a scientific one statistically, the responses we received reflect the enthusiasm with which electronically connected plant engineers and facilities managers are embracing web technology. (For additional perspectives, see the accompanying profiles on how several respondents are using the internet. See also the list of favorite sites at the end of this article.)

Overall, respondents agree this tool is a boundless source of technical information that is presently underutilized. Comments were almost unanimously positive: “It allows me to distribute information to employees faster without having to make copies and distribute them.” “The internet has given me an invaluable tool for finding those next-to-obsolete parts.” “It has connected me to a source of peers for exchanging ideas and soliciting suggestions.”

Although respondents recognize that the web, like every other technology, can be abused, they also know that the benefits outweigh the disadvantages. It is a resource in its infancy that needs to grow and mature as sites are improved, secured, and organized. But it is also undoubtedly the way of the future.

And finally, if mere mention of the Beach Boys has made you nostalgic for the good old days, tear yourself away from and for a moment, pick up your mouse, and surf on over to and listen to some samples of their greatest hits.

-Jeanine Katzel, Senior Editor, 630-320-7142,


Survey respondents say they use internet resources often and expect to use them more in the future.

Don’t be afraid to surf the net. Just do it, survey respondents advise.

The need for supplier and product information is one of the most common reasons for using the web.

&HEADLINE>Profile: Ken Mendelson, PE, Glidden Co.&/HEADLINE>

“One day web-browsing will be as popular as watching TV”

“I remember working with VisiCalc years ago,” observes Ken Mendelson, PE, an electrical engineer with Glidden Co., a paint manufacturer based in Cleveland, OH. “And I’ve been working with personal computers ever since.”

Mendelson, who has been with Glidden since 1989, has corporate responsibility for electrical and instrumentation activities on all major capital expansion projects at several of his company’s plants. He also handles the safety aspects in these areas. “I started using the web on a personal basis early on. My son was familiar with the web and introduced it to my wife and me. We were using it before the company made it available to employees.”

Glidden Co. initially created a private network to interconnect the computers from all of their sites. Internet access was added about 2 yr later. Access is now available to every employee. A set of corporate rules governs general use of the web.

According to Mendelson, the web has had more influence on plant operations than on just about any other plant activity. “We buy a lot of Allen-Bradley equipment and the manufacturer has all its manuals on its web site. When we need information, we just go to the internet, download the manuals, and we’re all set. We don’t have to contact the vendor. We don’t have to wait for a fax to come. We print them out on our own printer. In the case of Allen-Bradley, we also use their knowledge base to find solutions to problems.”

He continues, “Internally, we can communicate more effectively on the web. The web lets people think about what they are going to write before they write it. The recipient can read a message at his convenience. And the internet lets us contact outside vendors and get information fast and conveniently.”

The company is not fully using the web for purchasing yet, but Mendelson sees it moving in that direction. “You can get a lot of information from a web site and narrow down your choices without having to make phone calls or wait for someone to call back. It is extremely beneficial for those kinds of searches. We are looking at web-browser-based solutions for the plant, though we are not using any yet.”

The web is as secure as anything else is, Mendelson believes. “More and more people will use the web in the future. It will become like a yellow pages directory, a place to showcase products and services. And if one company does it, others will have to follow suit or go out of business. One day, it will be as commonplace as a TV set. We need to get web browsers out on the plant floor to the worker level. We need industrial terminals for that and right now they cost too much. But that will change.”

Mendelson says the best way to learn about the web and various web sites is by word-of-mouth. He advises those just starting out that “most learning comes through mentoring from a neighbor. Although there are courses available, few people have time for formal training. It’s easier to ask someone and learn from each other. Ask your son or daughter, your grandson or granddaughter. They’ll teach you. Jump on the bandwagon and stay current. If you don’t, you’re going to lose out.”

&HEADLINE>Profile: Teresa Morris, Bayer, Inc.&/HEADLINE>

“The internet has grown faster than I ever imagined.”

“I can’t remember what we did before we had e-mail,” observes Teresa Morris, a chemical engineer at Bayer’s synthetic rubber plant in Sarnia, Ontario. Morris has worked in plant engineering and production for several operating units at the synthetic rubber and petrochemical complex over the past 20 yr and has been plant engineer, waste operations, for about a year and a half. She is presently responsible for the wastewater treatment facility at the 1400-employee operation.

“We have a CMMS,” she continues, “but are in the process of replacing it. We need more speed, a larger system. I spend a fair amount of time on the computer-based maintenance planning system, which also interfaces with our purchasing system. I use my PC and the web for e-mail, report writing, calculations, HazOp studies, and regulatory information. The computer has helped with so many things.”

Morris describes her experiences with the PC’s infiltration into the workplace: “When we first got PCs on site, I was doing a lot of steam distribution accounting calculations. I found I could use the PC to do the same calculations I did on a mainframe. So I got permission to use another department’s PC and came in at night to use the Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheet. That was the start of it all. After I did a couple things like that with it, I realized I could use this equipment all the time. We went from that point to having one PC per department. Then, gradually, everyone got one. Now PC’s are an integral part of the job.”

The computer has crept into and become an integral part of our lives, notes Morris. She elaborates: “The web makes it a whole lot easier to look for new technology, for advice, or for different suppliers. The web is the fastest way to find out about a product, who makes it, and where to get it. It also has made a big difference in the amount of paper that goes by my desk. There’s no point in having a hard copy of something if you can access it electronically.”

Morris finds that more and more when she looks for a piece of equipment to solve a problem, she goes to the internet to look for the newest technology. “Last fall,” she explains, “we had a problem with our plate-and-frame filter press. We contacted the manufacturer on the web and asked a few questions. From the inquiries I made on the internet and the answers I received from the people that got back to me, we received a number of good suggestions for what to do with the press and in the end we solved the problem and got it running efficiently again.”

In another instance, the only supplier for a piece of equipment the plant needed was in the southern states. The vendor wasn’t enthusiastic about making a trip to Ontario in the winter to look at the installation. “So we took digital photos of the area in which the equipment was to be installed-especially the problem areas-and e-mailed them to the vendor,” says Morris. “E-mail and web technology came together to solve this problem. I find I’m doing much more of this.”

There are drawbacks, admits Morris. “The web has grown faster than many people can handle. For example, some searches are hit and miss because information isn’t well organized. Even a straightforward search can produce some strange results. But I definitely use the web daily. There are more advantages than drawbacks.”

Morris lists water and wastewater sites among her favorites, noting that the wide range of government regulations available on the web is a definite benefit to those who work with safety and environmental issues and need to access current data in these areas regularly and immediately. Although Morris admits that anyone can learn the web on his own, she advises the uninitiated to sign up for a course as well. “It might be more efficient to spend about a month becoming familiar with the web, then taking a short course early on. You need to have access to it for a short time before taking a class so that the class material makes sense.”

Overall Morris says she’s surprised at the popularity of the web. “It has infiltrated into our overall culture faster than I ever would have imagined. That in itself is a measure of how useful people find it. If a company isn’t on the web, they’re going to have to get there or they won’t survive.”

&HEADLINE>Profile: Everett Scott, Whirlpool Corp.&/HEADLINE>

“Find yourself a good search engine and go with it”

“I won’t say I’m proficient in computers,” says Everett Scott, “but I can get around. I’ve learned the programs, a lot of them on my own.”

Scott has seen a lot of changes over the years. The facilities engineer has been in the appliance industry since 1966 and has worked for Whirlpool for 22 yr. He has been at his present plant in Oxford, MS, nearly 10 yr and has been in maintenance his entire career, coming up through the ranks. Scott went back to school while on the job to get his degree.

“I’ve seen lots of changes in maintenance,” he says. “Today, everyone at my company who needs a computer has one. The company is very good about that. The corporation keeps things up to date.”

A corporatewide maintenance management system is part of Scott’s daily activities. “It handles MRO buying as well as maintenance activities,” he notes. “We conduct regular training on the system, and we have regular meetings. We get together every 6 to 8 weeks to review any problems we’ve had with it. As of April 1, the company will embark on an e-commerce effort.”

Computer technology overall has made so many things so much easier, observes Scott. “A good CMMS is wonderful. I can do a whole lot more in one day than I did before. And that’s good because we run a lean operation.” (About 500 employees work at the Oxford site.)

“I use the internet a lot to look for suppliers, and for ideas,” notes Scott. “I can look at a number of suppliers more easily than ever before. Having everything on line instead of having to drag out the big Thomas Register volumes is a big help. Publication web sites have also been helpful. There is just a wealth of information out there.”

Scott finds and particularly useful in his job and says he turns to them regularly. He exchanges ideas more on the company intranet than on the internet. “I know people in all 11 divisions of the company here in the U.S. We talk back and forth online all the time.” (Whirlpool worldwide is connected via the company intranet.)

The internet hasn’t yet reduced business travel, but Scott believes it may in the future. “I don’t get to as many shows as I used to. There isn’t as much need to go anymore.”

His advice to those unfamiliar with the internet echoes that of Glidden’s Mendelson: “Don’t be afraid of it. Just go for it. It won’t hurt you and you can’t hurt it. And once you’re out there, you’ll find it can be a lot of fun. I have a bigger computer at home than I have at the plant. The computer is a way of life today. We have one son in Oregon, a daughter in England, and two more children in Illinois. The internet keeps us connected. Whatever your age, get with it or get lost. Find yourself a good search engine and go with it.”

&HEADLINE>Profile: Roland Robison, Thiokol Propulsion&/HEADLINE>

“Instead of calling vendors, I go directly to their web sites”

“The first time I used the internet was about 2 yr ago right here at this plant,” explains Roland Robison of Thiokol Propulsion. “Employees who need computers have them on their desks and also have internet access. We use it for e-mail, for looking at specifications, products, and equipment.”

An electrical engineer by degree, Robison is a project engineer in the Facilities Engineering department, which is in charge of major facilities services. They are responsible for modifications to buildings or new buildings, control systems, distribution systems, and similar installations. About 3500 people are employed at his plant, which is just outside of Brigham City, UT.

“We’re in the desert away from most everything, but it’s a good-sized plant,” observes Robison. The facility makes solid rocket motors for the space shuttle. Robison has been with the company more than a decade.

“When I started working, my only computer experience was with punch cards,” he recalls. “We got our first computers at work in the early 1980s and I didn’t use them much then. I got a home PC around 1985-an old 286. Now, instead of calling vendors, I go directly to the company web sites. I download the catalogs immediately instead of having them sent. It cuts out the middle man and this is an advantage most of the time. It’s certainly quicker and it lets me make better decisions.”

Robison shops on the ‘net and lists among his favorites. “We use a lot of Allen-Bradley equipment so I visit that site often. Square D and Rockwell Software also are good, as are professional organizations such as ANSI, NEMA, IEEE, and IEC. We use a lot of fiberoptic cable out here so we keep in touch with sites related to those products. I’ll also pull down maps for directions and other pertinent information before making a business trip.”

His advice to internet novices: “Don’t be afraid. Get online and play with it. You can learn a lot without having any specific training. Although training is good if you can get it, you can learn a lot just by experimenting.”

Robison sees plantwide data acquisition systems as a primary focus for the future. “Right now we have separate business units that compile their own reports. Not everyone who needs the reports has access to them. The internet will help people do that more easily. Our plant is moving in that direction, changing a number of systems around to give easier access to those who need to have it through the web.”

&HEADLINE>So many sites, so little time…&/HEADLINE>

Searching the internet for information, both technical and personal, is an important activity for nearly all our survey respondents. We asked them to share their favorites, and compiled this list of 25 sites from those frequently cited or noted as highly useful. Popular locations concentrated in several areas: general sites and search engines, professional associations, manufacturers, government agencies, and suppliers and distributors. If you don’t see your favorites here, let us know. We’ll add them to our list and periodically post them on our web site. -This vendor site is a popular one with survey respondents, many of whom use industrial control and automation products. -“The network of sites led by expert guides” includes a variety of portals, start pages, free e-mail, and more. -Navigation system lets users ask questions in plain English, then delivers an answer. It combines a natural language engine with a proprietary database to help order and organize web resources. -Site of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers offers membership information, industry news, codes and standards catalog, surveys, more. -Leader in uninterruptible power systems designs, manufactures, markets, and services power protection products for industry. -“The source for computers and technology” offers hardware and software reviews, top tech news, free downloads, information on business computing, finance and investing, more. -Offering “total search technology,” this site includes personalized start pages, free e-mail, customized searches. -Site dedicated to the electrical construction industry provides a variety of electrical information including definitions, formulas, downloads, more. -Billed as the hot spot on the web for engineering professionals to meet and talk, the site includes people forums by engineering discipline and thing forums covering such topics as codes and standards and engineering computer programs. -U.S. government environmental site offers a wide variety of information about the agency plus information on laws and regulations, publications, other resources. -Personalized start page, news, stocks, and a variety of services are part of this search engine. -Search engine designed to bring order to information chaos and return relevant results to every query. -One of the leading business-to-business distributor’s of maintenance, repair, and operating supplies is now online. -Free e-mail, personalized start pages, news, and other information are part of this search engine. -General search engine offers news, shopping, and personalized start pages. -Manufacturing e-marketplace for industry now features the SuperCatalog of products. -Search engine, portals, start pages, broad selection of information, topics are included. -Occupational safety and health administration information site provides information on regulations, events, news, regulations and compliance, new standards, more. -Home page of the Society of Automotive Engineers offers information about the society, technical information, continuing education. -The Wall Street Journal magazine of personal business includes breaking business and financial news, today’s markets, stocks, more. -Construction and building products marketplace includes a comprehensive database of more than 25,000 items plus product news, directories, more. -The popular directory of American manufacturers is now available online. -Home page of the WSJ looks at the world of business news. -Well-known search engine offers portals, start pages, free e-mail, more. -“Where technology takes you” site has free downloads, software guides, all types of computing information, plus its own list of top 100 web sites.

E-mail your favorite work-related site and why you find it useful to

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