It seems that every manufacturer's representative who visits an engineering office these days has a new or updated catalog on compact disc for the engineers to try. What was once considered a novelty in the industry, only several years ago, has quickly become standard, if not universal, practice among manufacturers. While three-ring loose-leaf binders are still the status quo, it seems that a CD catalog is either available or on the way for just about every product line. What is the point of all this? Is it simply keeping up with the Kohlers and Zurns, or are these CD catalogs really a better format for engineers to use?

It all seemed to start about five years ago, when the development of electronic media finally made CD creation and distribution both economical and convenient. There is no question that the CD catalog is a benefit to both manufacturers and manufacturers' representatives. CD catalogs are less costly than the traditional binder, more convenient to carry or mail, and easier to update.

The cost of providing a CD catalog, independent of developing the information contained on the CD, is currently about $2.00. The days of a manufacturer's representative sitting for hours in a firm's catalog library updating binders are disappearing rapidly. With a CD catalog, the old version is simply thrown away and a new CD provided to replace it. A manufacturer's representative who in the past would travel with a two-foot-by-two-foot catalog case on wheels now only has to carry a regular briefcase. With this new ease of distribution, it won't be long before manufacturers are reluctant to distribute binder catalogs at all.

Examining the benefits

But what about engineers? Do they really want CD catalogs? Are they easier to use? Do they save time? The answer depends on the engineer, the company he works for, and the types of projects he does. A clear benefit of the CD catalog is its low cost of distribution. It is more likely with this decrease in cost that catalog libraries will be more up-to-date. Smaller firms, especially, will benefit from this, as in the past they may have suffered some "attention deficit" from a busy manufacturer's representative. While larger engineering and architecture firms had little or no trouble keeping their catalogs up-to-date, the smaller firms and the one-man operations had to go out of their way to stay current.

With the reduction in cost and the ease of mailing CD catalogs, there is no reason why any firm should not be able to obtain any catalog they want whenever they want it. In fact, the development of CD catalogs and manufacturers' websites has gone hand-in-hand, such that with Internet access it is now possible to obtain needed information without even having a catalog. I have found myself using the Internet more often recently to obtain product data from manufacturers whose catalogs are not in my office library. While this is effective, I still believe it is better for engineers to maintain a relationship with the representatives of the products they specify.

Space savings are another clear benefit of CD catalogs. A fairly complete mechanical catalog library using traditional three-ring binder catalogs can take up as much as 30 linear feet of floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, assuming that there is a central library of catalogs. If each engineer feels it necessary to maintain his own personal library of favorite catalogs at his work area, an additional four feet of bookshelf space can be required per workstation. Contrast this with a central or even private library of CD catalogs, and the space savings are obvious. A sophisticated office can even utilize networked CD catalogs, so that the full library can be accessed without ever leaving individual workspaces. These savings in office space and information access time can help make a firm more competitive.

Computer proliferation sets the stage

But what of usage? Are CD catalogs easier to use or even as easy to use as the traditional three-ring binder catalog? While in the past I did not think so, my opinion is now that it depends on the engineer and the computer hardware with which he is provided. The CD catalog is a natural extension of the use of computer technology in the engineering workplace.

The instigator for the use of computer technology in our industry was the development of computer-aided drafting (CAD). A little over 10 years ago, CAD drawings were a new technology to many offices. Many projects were still drawn by hand, and those that were drawn on CAD were drawn by CAD technicians at the three or four computers a mid-sized office would have. In the late 1980s and early 1990s there was a transition to almost complete CAD drawing production. This was in part driven by the decrease in cost of computer hardware. Where there were once only a few computers in each office, many offices now have a computer for each individual working there.

Where computers were relatively slow in the past, newer, faster machines have enabled the use of larger networks and a greater variety of applications. Computers are now used for drawing production, calculations, interoffice communications and word processing. The development of larger and more complex computer software has forced the need to provide CD drives on personal computers. Almost all new personal computers now incorporate CD drives. The table has been set for CD catalogs.

In the recent past, it may have been necessary for an engineer to go to a centralized computer workstation, log on, insert a CD catalog, and browse through information with a computer whose speed was not very impressive. When this was the case, it was definitely less time-consuming (and therefore easier) to use a traditional binder catalog. But now, depending on where an engineer works, he more than likely has a computer on his desk equip-ped with a CD drive and networked with other computers in the office.

Engineers are also more likely to use e-mail for both intra-office and inter-office communication, so they will normally be logged on to their computers while in the office. If this is the case, all the necessary ingredients exist to make CD catalog use both easy and effective. With a central library of traditional catalogs it was necessary for an engineer to leave his desk and collect the binders that were needed. They also had to return the binders to the library when they were through with them. If they wanted to include a product cut sheet with any of their correspondence, they would have to remove a page from the binder and make a trip to the copy machine. Now, all they have to do is open their CD drive and drop in a CD catalog, which in some cases is quicker than walking to the old catalog library. If they want to incorporate catalog cuts into their specifications, they can do it electronically so that it is all stored in one place. Project standards can be developed and transmitted between offices without the use of paper or fax machines.

In addition, through these CD catalogs engineers have access to product-searching capabilities by type or model number, product selection software, sample specifications, symbol libraries and even installation details that can be incorporated into their own drawings. There are also CD versions of national codes and standards, reference books and other educational materials. At the recent ASHRAE National Meeting in Chicago, the CD version of the four ASHRAE Handbooks (which are all contained on a single disk) was less than the cost of just one of the handbooks in printed and bound format. The future will see more and more of this information contained on CDs, which will make the use of CDs easier as everyone becomes accustomed to using them.

Looking Ahead

So what do we do with all this? It is apparent to those of us starting to use this technology that while it is useful, there are ways it can be better adapted to meet the needs of engineers.

A couple of years ago, I was approached by a stainless steel sink manufacturer who wanted to create a CD catalog with an electronic symbol library. They wanted to make each symbol appear exactly like the product it represented and also contain the necessary information in attributes to describe the product. The program they proposed would allow users to select the symbol and then insert in it the features they wanted with each item indicated on the drawing, a form of specification within the document itself. I explained to them that while this was a great idea and the effort was to be applauded, it did not seem like something that could be incorporated into the way electronic drawings are created today. Although we currently produce most contract documents in electronic format, the vast majority of document distribution is still via printed drawings.

Contractors are already using computer programs to make estimating easier, and are starting to utilize computers for reading drawings. Unfortunately, until such a time that contract documents are distributed electronically, intelligent icons with specification attributes connected to them will not be too useful.

But who knows? Maybe we need to think of different ways of doing what we do. For the time being it is up to us as users of this technology to provide feedback to the developers of these tools. We need to tell the manufacturers what we like or need in their catalogs and software. We also need to anticipate ways we can use these developing technologies to work easier and more efficiently. So, try out that new fixture selection CD or water heater sizing program you recently received. If it doesn't work the way you'd like, let the manufacturer know. Maybe someday it will.