When IEEE luminary Vint Cerf invented the Internet, his original vision was nothing like the business tool it has become. The inevitable introduction of e-commerce and other server-based applications moved the Internet from the realm of hobbyists and academics to the mainstream of many industries, including our own. The implications of the Internet are so far reaching that your business must embrace it or risk falling behind. Not only must you know what it's about today, but you must also prepare for what is coming so you can compete on the rapidly changing landscape of cyberspace. That applies whether your role is within a design firm, contracting company, or maintenance organization.

Many businesses initially assumed that making use of the Internet meant having a Web site. So, they developed a site with a links page and some free information for visitors. Some of these sites are elaborate. However, most of them are brochureware; their purpose is to list products, services, and contact information. Such an approach to a Web site is fine for most businesses in this industry. However a Web site is but an asteroid in the universe of cyberspace. To be a star, you need more. Think of the Internet as a tool you can use for increased productivity and profitability. The question now is how you can use the Internet for those purposes. The answer is not as elusive as you might think.

Research

Most of us use the Internet for its intended purpose: to find information. EC&M and CEE News research indicates “finding information” is the number one use of the Internet among electricians and engineers.

The way we do research online today differs from the way academics did it in the early days of the Internet. In the past, we might have looked online for a “white paper.” But because today's infrastructure wasn't in place, we'd have found this too difficult. Most likely, we'd find a paper resource offline by calling someone in our network of contacts, and we'd wait a couple of weeks for it to arrive by “snail mail.”

Today, we can use Internet-based “Yellow Pages,” online buyers' guides, single-topic sites, article archives, and other resources that give us immediate access to information. The speed advantage is increasingly crucial in competitive situations. But, it comes at a cost. That cost is credibility, and often, accuracy. Much of the information you find on the Internet is little more than gossip or unresearched opinion. How do you address this?

In most cases, the reliability of the source indicates the reliability of the information. If the site belongs to a university or a major player in the industry, consider it reliable. What if you don't recognize the site's owner? Look for professionalism. Sites with gratuitous animations, poor layout, grammatical errors, and poor navigation are probably sloppy in research and verification.

Design

In the past, design collaboration was difficult if your designers worked among several offices. With Internet-based collaboration, however, two people 4000 miles apart can work on the same drawings at the same time. Alternatively, one designer can lock a drawing for exclusive use, modify it, save it, unlock it, and then notify a counterpart across the country that the drawing has modifications.

Project Engineer Barry Clegg says design firm Black & Veatch in Kansas City, Mo., uses the Internet to interact with vendors, partners, and clients.

“We use custom applications that allow customers to review components, correspondence, and specifications,” he says. “We also use it for material and inventory monitoring. This shortens our development cycle and increases our accuracy.”

Project management

Just as it does with design, the Internet makes collaboration much easier. Big jobs that include shared resources, multiple contractors and subcontractors, or participants spread across a wide geographic area call for the flexibility of online project management. Along with asset tracking, the Internet can offer some other unexpected benefits.

“The wireless Internet allows you to track the movement of trucks and other expensive assets in real time,” says Keith Peck, President of Electricsmarts.com, an electrical resource site that covers everything from training to e-commerce. “In an age of accelerated vehicle theft, this is a welcome development. You can use this same system to locate an electrical supply house in an unfamiliar region right from the job site.”

Project managers and project team members are finding other payoffs from Internet use. Tim Johnson, Director of Project Controls for MA Mortenson of Minneapolis, uses the Internet for a variety of tasks.

“We make our software accessible to all of our client sites via thin client technology over the Internet,” he says. “You can be in a hotel room or client's office and call up project data. If we write an RFI to an architect, he has it instantly. He can respond, attach a sketch, and give us a complete answer in minutes — rather than days.”

What about those RFIs? “The typical RFI takes 14 days to be answered, according to a study done by Fails Management Institute (FMI),” says Bruce Bronge, Executive Vice President of International Contractors, Inc. in Elmhurst, Il. “FMI also says the response time is four to six hours among the Internet-based systems. I wanted to make every team member accountable, and now I can do that. I see this as becoming a standard in a few years.”

Arnie Tupuritis, Vice President of Development for U.S. Equities in Chicago, uses the Internet to post important project information.

“We can all see the same information at the same time,” he says. “We used to try this kind of thing via e-mail, but that just doesn't work well. Posting to a central location via the Internet enables us to keep the project documentation from fragmenting.”

Such an approach has a real and measurable impact on project performance. Clark Jacobson, a Principal Engineer and Substation Department Manager at design firm Burns & McDonnell, Kansas City, Mo., also uses the Internet to make sure everyone can get the information they need to do a job.

“It allows us to cut down the amount of time required for transfers,” he says. “It definitely promotes clear understanding of when documents are available, and provides a means of quickly obtaining those documents — no matter where you are. As long as you have access to the Internet, you can do it.”

E-commerce

The subject people misunderstand most about the Internet is e-commerce. But reality is finally settling in with sellers.

Jim Harrod, President of Electrical Controls, Inc., Holbrook, Mass., says e-business is “way overblown.” Many companies have built e-commerce-enabled sites that don't meet the basic needs of customers. Even the sites that do “get it right” run into customer resistance. One New Mexico contractor said her company's suppliers have Web sites and online ordering, but she prefers the personal sales rep because it's “a person we can talk to and hold responsible for their service and products.”

Also, buyers frequently give the online buying experience a poor rating. If you're considering an investment in an e-commerce site, keep these problems in mind. Brick and mortar operations are doing fine, especially in the electrical construction business. What's keeping e-business from becoming more successful?

“Even in a cyberworld, it still comes down to relationships, reputation, competence, price, and delivery,” says Harrod. And so far, nobody has been able to develop a Web site that will open up shop and deliver the fuses you need to get your production line running again at two in the morning.

But despite the difficulties buyers and sellers face, the inherent advantages of e-commerce mean it's here to stay. No other medium brings you the ease of locating a product by typing a few search terms. No other medium allows you to download software. No other medium allows the vendor such an affordable way to provide you with real-time or near-time information. For example, with e-commerce, you instantly receive software, e-books, e-courses, images, and sound files. Vendors can save a considerable amount of money by using e-commerce. Buyers realize savings, too.

Education

Now that universities are going online with degree programs, formal education is not always necessary. You can save time and money by tapping into specialized online courses in project management, time management, and problem-solving. Some sites use downloadable text files, while others use online presentations.

You can divide online courses into two groups: academic and practical. The academic courses are usually accredited and offered by colleges and universities for college credit — often toward a degree. You can usually use these for the continuing education requirements of professional licensing and certification. However, these courses tend to be very expensive. Practical courses are usually less polished than the academic ones, but they are also less expensive and more flexible in their development. They tend to focus more sharply on a particular subject and take less time than the academic courses. If you want the latest information and techniques you can apply today, these are probably the way to go. If you want to build toward a degree, these practical courses are good for background but otherwise usually not applicable.

Monitoring and control

As information systems become more pervasive and more critical, so do the electrical systems that power them. The Internet allows power engineers to do more power engineering and less traveling. That's because they don't always go to the information — it comes to them. And it does so without the long wait involved when relying on planes, trains, and automobiles.

Facilities managers have long enjoyed the ability to control the HVAC and security systems of several buildings from a single remote location. Gas pipelines used to require crews to monitor instrumentation at each compressor station and operate controls locally. Today, operators in Houston are operating motorized valves in New Jersey and other points along that pipeline. This same functionality extends to electrical power systems. For example, a control room in Vienna, Va., monitors three data centers and the conditions around them. When a storm is within 10 miles of a particular data center, the control room signals that facility to go off the grid and on to generator power.

Service and maintenance

How can the Internet possibly help you work on power systems? After all, someone has to rack out a breaker, repair a bad connection, or take that transformer oil sample. And what about adding instrumentation, circuits, and controls? This is, arguably, where the Internet is the most helpful. The Sidebar, on page 26, explains why.

Firms like McBride Electric, San Diego, have seen impressive results with wireless field service. They have facilities in 14 metropolitan areas, primarily in the Midwest but also in California, Texas and Georgia. McBride has expanded into data cabling, keeping a hand in the latest technology. The company's primary business focus is in the smaller service calls, with 80,000 work orders completed in the past year with an average billing under $1,000. For many companies like McBride, the administration costs of such projects eat up the profits. Not so with McBride. According to Dana Katzenmeier, the company's CFO, the Internet benefits customers, technicians and stockholders alike.

He says customers want efficient technicians with a knowledge of the company they're serving, and the wireless Internet is vital to those needs. A critical part of making technicians more efficient is reducing paperwork, and Katzenmeier sees wireless devices doing just that.

In the end, streamlining the process and keeping the customers happy benefits the stockholders through savings to the company.

What does the future hold? In the electrical world, the Internet hasn't started some mythical “new economy” or made real-world concerns obsolete. What it has done, and continues to do, is improve the flow of information.

It's quite likely that within the next five years, nearly every new electric product will have Internet capability. And it's likely that within three years all business processes — including design, construction, and maintenance — will be Internet-based. At some point, we'll see wide adoption of the wireless Web in all aspects of our industry — an industry that is becoming increasingly competitive. Those of us who embrace the Internet and the advantages it offers will be ahead of the pack. And those who don't will fall dangerously behind.