When I began my mechanical engineering career in the materials handling industry 30 years ago, go-to resources primarily included engineering books and handbooks on the bookshelf in your office. Experienced engineers were adept at knowing which resources had answers for the problem or task at hand. If the resources were not on your bookshelf, you either borrowed from a senior engineer in your workgroup or from your corporate library. For newer engineers, it took a while to accumulate a bookshelf full of go-to resources.
Information at your fingertips
Today, a new generation has vast resources available electronically on desktops, laptops and mobile devices. It’s easier and much faster to find data from online resources. However, with the amount of information available, and a flood of results following a search engine query, information literacy is more important than ever. It’s not just about finding information, but understanding whether the sources are trusted.
Recent engineering graduates are comfortable with online searches since they’ve learned the nuances of conducting searches online in a multitude of ways throughout their academic career. Thirty years ago, it may have taken a young engineer several years to build a collection of go-to resources. Now, it may take just a few weeks to locate and accumulate those invaluable resources online.
The dangers of online search engines
Some engineers have access to a special librarian who can be of great assistance with research. Since they are usually up-to-date on the latest electronic resources in your field and industry, they can quickly point to the best resource. However, many engineers have to perform searches on their own and tend to “Google” their queries.
Search engines are still a primary tool for research simply because of its ease of use and accessibility. Although your query may produce valid information that you can cite and use in your projects, you may also come across poorly referenced data or data from sources that aren’t trusted.
One of the greatest concerns for engineers is filtering through the information available online. The challenge is to sift through the search results to discover what is valid and vetted. Even if you find what you believe is the right answer, in many cases you may have to delve further and search for additional resources to determine whether that data is of good quality. This becomes a time-consuming process.
A special librarian can teach you how to find reliable sources as well as interpret and evaluate the quality of that information. Those firms without a special librarian need to be especially careful with the information they find. Invalid data, especially properties data, can be catastrophic in the end. If you're dealing with combustion properties or fatigue properties, you can build something that could fail at the absolute worst time.
Electronic aggregated interactive content
In an online search, if you know the information is validated and published in a reputable source, it can be counted on and you can comfortably cite that as your source. To ensure its engineers are using validated data from reputable sources, some companies subscribe to streamlined information platforms with interactive content. These platforms aggregate content from trustworthy publishing sources and societies making it more useful than Google and other search engines.
The information is still available electronically at your fingertips—but you can count on finding trustworthy and quality data. Like Google, these databases contain their own simple data search tool so all data is completely indexed and searchable. For instance, you can pull up specific properties of a particular material when you are working on a design project in a matter of seconds.
The greatest benefit is that engineers can find validated data all in one place. These aggregators also exist in a cloud environment allowing users to have access to an entire library of engineering and scientific data whether in the office, at home, or in the field. As a result, these tools can also be used collaboratively. Multiple users in different office locations can access the same online information simultaneously so you can discuss problems with your colleagues all over the world.
Tips for smarter and efficient online searches
Whether you use a search engine or a platform that aggregates content, consider these four tips to improve your results:
- Save your source/queries: Once you find a reputable source, bookmark or save the location to reference it again in the future. If you find your answer to a problem, chances are you will return to that source again in the future. Save yourself some time by bookmarking that reference now. Most aggregators also allow you to save your search queries so you can reference them again later.
- Start with an advanced search: If you want to refine your search results, use Boolean operators such as “AND”, “OR”, and “NOT”. For example, if you are researching the best alloys to use in a diesel engine, you need to split your search into two concepts: alloys and diesel engines. Searching for “Alloys AND Diesel Engines” will retrieve data that mentions both of these terms. Searching for “Alloys OR Diesel Engines” will retrieve data that mentions either term. A query with the terms “Alloys” NOT “Diesel Engines” will eliminate results containing the phrase, “diesel engines.” In this case, AND is more appropriate because you want data regarding both terms. In some search engines, the AND Boolean is implied and you need to only search for “alloys diesel engines” to get complete results.
- Use wildcard truncation: By truncating your search terms, you can retrieve all variants of a term. Truncation symbols vary depending on the search engine or information database. One example is the asterisk symbol (*). So if you search on the term carb*, you will retrieve information on words or phrases containing carb, including: polymer-carbon, carbon, carbides, and carburetor. Learning the nuances of your search engines can help uncover desired data and required answers more efficiently.
- Use Company Resources: Many companies offer employees access to aggregated content from trusted and reliable sources. Sometimes, these resources are listed on intranets or promoted in internal newsletters. If you are in a large company, you might have to dig a bit to learn what is available. If you rely on search engines, try to find peer-reviewed sources, content from societies, and other industry publications where data has been reviewed and validated.