This article explores engineers’ diverse ways of using the explosive growth in social networks that has taken place during the past 5 years. Engineers Looking for Stuff (ELFS) is a group for engineers available on both the LinkedIn and Facebook social networking sites. Engineers are turning to sites like Facebook, LinkedIn, Meetup, Twitter, and a growing number of more specifically tailored sites to find jobs, get questions answered, and connect with people who share professional interests. The L.A. Robotics Club takes advantage of Meetup, which is intended to bring like-minded people together for live events. The club is home for anyone interested in robotics. Members work together on robotic cars and drones and on their own products. Inventor Matt Ferguson and his colleagues used Twitter to help market the Ankle Foot Maximizer (AFX), a device which strengthens foot and ankle tendons and muscles. The AFX is used in sports medicine and physical rehabilitation and in athletic training to enhance jumping and running.
Are you looking for inexpensive 3-D software in order to trim a particularly large stereolithography file? Want to participate in an open design contest? Looking for guidance on the Kalman filter? Or to unload the electronics you’ve left from a calibration business you formerly owned?
All this and more is available to you on Engineers Looking for Stuff, a group for engineers available on both the LinkedIn and Facebook social networking sites (though the LinkedIn group is considerably more active, said group founder Richard Savoie).
ELFS, as it’s affectionately referred to by its 2,135 LinkedIn members, is but one example of the way engineers can make use of the explosive growth in social networks that’s taken place during the past five years.
In 2013, engineers are turning to sites like Face- book, LinkedIn, Meetup, Twitter, and a growing number of more specifically tailored sites to find jobs, get questions answered, and connect with people who share professional interests.
Social networks have changed how people and many businesses communicate, said Robert Preville, founder and chief executive officer at IndustryPigeon, a site started in June 2012 that bills itself as “a social trade network for industry and manufacturing to meet, share, and transact.” Communication is never ending on social networks, Preville said. You can hop on at midnight and join a conversation as it’s happening.
“Social networks have revolutionized how people communicate,” he said. “And now businesses have embraced them and seen a need for them.”
Preville, a mechanical engineer, said his site is designed so that people within a specific business niche can meet online, collaborate in real time, and transact business.
According to Preville, “IndustryPigeon is a culmination of playing around with social networking tools and adapting them in a way that makes sense for practical business.”
His site is free for users.
NineSigma, an organization founded in 2000 that helps clients find technology solutions through open innovation, launched its own social networking site, NineSights, in June. Clients can post a project or design at the site and receive feedback from other users. The client pays to post a project, said Kevin Stark, vice president of technology solutions at NineSigma and at NineSights.
“Either way, this is our type of traditional technology scouting done on a new platform that allows for broader conversations.”
Currently, Scientists Without Borders has posted a project at the site asking for ideas on how to package nutritional pouches for delivery into third-world areas.
“The NGOs [non-governmental organizations] have the delivery mechanism to get the pouches into the location, and a nutritional company is providing the ingredients, but they need an interesting way to think about doing the packaging,” Stark said. “We got a large top consumer food products company that says it has a number of designs perhaps applicable. So that could be new partnerships with the company, which has the material and manufacturing capability to assemble these packages. Or the project could end up being pieced together with bits and pieces of technology.
“Either way, this is our type of traditional technology scouting done on a new platform that allows for broader conversations,” he added.
But will users want to help out NineSights’ clients with their problems just for the pleasure of having helped? Stark has an answer for that.
“The incentive model has to be really well thought out,” he said. “A mechanical engineer asking for help improving a product might offer to pay for an hour of time for users. Not many people will give up their free time to have fun being intellectually engaged.”
Property and Other Problems
The push toward social media for professional and industry users doesn’t come without some attendant problems. For efforts to work, creators have to understand how to best harness the collaborative powers of today’s social media tools and to provide a way for users to protect intellectual property while they collaborate.
“Far too many social media endeavors are failing because the managers leading the efforts lack knowledge of the fundamental principles of mass collaboration,” said Anthony Bradley, group vice president at technology research firm Gartner Inc. of Stamford, Conn. “Business and IT leaders must understand the basic nature of mass collaboration and how to deliver on its unique value.”
No social technology is great enough to save efforts that ignore or omit the fundamental principles of mass collaboration, he added.
A site has to let users collaborate in real time, for instance, and also must have a way to vet users to ensure they have credentials in the field. The site must be secure and password protected. It can’t include interested users, such as those who want to advertise on the site or view intellectual property without permission.
What’s more, questions need to be narrowly worded to elicit explicit feedback and not open- ended such as: ”What do you think of this idea?”
“When these efforts are omitted, people don't view the social media environment as a place for them to meaningfully collaborate and adoption never really takes hold,” Bradley said. “Initial interest wanes quickly as community members realize that collaborating in the environment is too difficult. Participation lacks focus, and critical mass never materializes around a common cause.”
The behaviors in mass collaboration can’t be controlled like those in other systems, he added. Such behaviors emerge over time through the interactions of community members and are what allow social networking communities to come up with new ways of working and new solutions to problems.
Stark at NineSigma pointed out that protecting intellectual property is always an issue for industry users, regardless of how rules of collaboration play out. There are, however, ways for users to protect their designs, inventions, and other intellectual property.
“We do some stuff for Philips, which is always looking for new kitchen appliances,” Stark said. “So maybe a small business or startup selling a product in a small market, Philips could acquire that and take it global if it’s patented or protected already.”
But if you have an idea that has no patent protection, “it’s difficult to engage with us because we can’t protect your IP,” Stark said.
Preville pointed out that employees from different companies—including sales people, independent contractors, and engineering groups—already work together on product development in a number of ways, including by e-mail or on the phone.
His own social media site allows users to keep chats that include intellectual property specifics private.
Beyond Business as Usual
Of course many engineers who use social media don’t rely on it strictly for work; they use it for purposes that may stem from their profession or their interests, but also fall into the personal category.
Richard Savoie came up with the idea for Engineers Looking for Stuff after using a similar type of list to publicize his alternative rock band, Sad Marvin, which played throughout the Boston area before breaking up. He realized engineers could use just such an online meeting place to ask for ideas, get feedback on projects, and exchange equipment they no longer need.
One engineer may be looking for a specific tube for an old radio; another engineer may be interested in creating a hand washing machine for third-world use. What they seek is often outside their regular work and across engineering categories. But of course, one could certainly ask a question or look for stuff having directly to do with the day job.
“We teach people how to build these things because we found people are really interested in robotics but they don’t necessarily have the expertise; so we’ve been offering that for free.”
Recently, Savoie, who works as a research and development manager at cardiac stimulator provider Micropace Pty Ltd., posted a poll on the ELFS group site asking if members would be interested in a group design challenge. Quite a few are, he said.
Memorable postings include an engineer who formerly ran a calibration lab and was looking for homes for all his interesting equipment.
“That’s exactly what I’d hoped I’d get by founding ELFS,” Savoie said.
LinkedIn has other groups where engineers can find specialized engineering topics, but those sections often play host to many engineering recruiters, Savoie said.
“I’ve had to restrict membership and hand-pick people I’ve let in or else it’d be nothing but job listing after job listing,” he said. “You have to keep things technical and in the spirit of engineering.”
The L.A. Robotics Club, meanwhile, takes advantage of Meetup, which is intended to bring like-minded people together for live events. The club publicizes its meetings through the Meetup network, said Simon Nielsen, a mechanical engineer and managing director at product development firm, Black Design Associates, in Los Angeles. The 900-member club founded in April 2012, meets twice monthly at Black Design.
The club is home for anyone interested in robotics, Nielsen said. Members work together on robotic cars and drones and on their own products.
“We teach people how to build these things because we found people are really interested in robotics but they don’t necessarily have the expertise; so we’ve been offering that for free,” he said.
Along the way, Black Design Associates has picked up a few new clients via club-member referrals, he added.
Matt Ferguson, one of the inventors of a medical device, said he was initially skeptical about using Twitter to publicize the product, but now he’s changed his mind. Ferguson is one of the brains behind the Ankle Foot Maximizer, or AFX, which strengthens the muscles and tendons of the foot and ankle. The device is distributed by Progressive Health Innovations Inc. of Port Moody, British Columbia, where Ferguson is president and chief executive officer.
The AFX is used in sports medicine and physical rehabilitation and in athletic training to enhance jumping and running, Ferguson said.
The developers used Twitter sparingly but successfully during the latter stages of product development to get the word out about the device and to build relationships with doctors, clinics, and athletic trainers, Ferguson said.
Social Networking at ASME
ASME will be launching its own social networking initiative, open to anyone who wants to talk about or find out more about mechanical engineering.
Potential participants who are interested in mechanical engineering topics, news, or trends, or in networking with colleagues can join at www.asme.org and participate in nearly all aspects of the site, said Nakiso Maodza, ASME’s director of web and online services. The site will be free.
The social networking site will include all the ASME official groups, including its divisions, institutes, committees, and student sections.
“We have around 2,000 groups, of which about 1,800 are student groups, and all participants can join any public group. Some may have some group requirements, but the majority will be public and open,” Maodza said.
To join a private group, a participant might have to, for example, show he or she is a nuclear engineer, Maodza said.
The new social networking site will allow participants to network with others, to share information, to have conversations about engineering, and even to see what events others from a network plan to attend, he added.
“It’s a good way to see what others in your network are thinking about and what products they’re purchasing,” Maodza said. “And it’s a way to learn what colleagues are doing and what patents they hold. You’ll have access to their profiles. Those kinds of things are an indication of the trends in the industry.
“So if you’re looking for a consultant or for management advice, you can find those things, whether it’s for a project or a job opportunity or a professional conversation,” he said.
The biggest benefit is access to knowledgeable technical professionals within the mechanical engineering profession and the capability to hear about trends and follow pertinent conversations as they happen, Maodza said.
“At the time I was very skeptical about Twitter,” he said. “I thought it was populated by people saying what they were eating or talking about Justin Bieber’s new hairstyle. But at the same time I knew a few different companies were using it. I decided to give it a look, and it quickly became evident Twitter would allow us to listen in to see what was important to potential customers.
“I realized there were key opinion leaders on there, whether a top NBA trainer or a top dancer, and they manage their own account. There’s no PR person managing them,” he added. “So you get to hear what’s really important.
“And let’s be honest, competitors are also on there and there’s a lot of information divulged that you could kind of listen in on,” he added.
It seems that more engineers all the time are coming to the conclusion of Robert Preville at IndustryPigeon.
“Social networks are, after all, a way to collaborate and get visibilities into trends and topics you maybe didn’t realize you were missing,” he told us.
What will social media mean to engineers in the long run? We’re in no position to predict. But judging by what we see now, we expect them to be involved for years to come.