A few thoughts on BENEFIT and collaborative engineering

Adam Pawlak

BENEFIT project

e-mail: AdamPawlak@compuserve.com

Abstract: The BENEFIT concerted action has been launched by EC in 1995 with the mission to stimulate pan-European co-operation in the areas of microelectronics and signal processing. The paper briefly summarises some of the results of BENEFIT which ended in December 1997. Workshops, summer schools, and special events organised by the project are listed and their objectives and results shortly characterised. The role of BENEFIT Special Days as a forum for discussion, reflection, and inspiration of the pan-European collaboration is explained in more detail.

Further on, the paper focuses on the new Internet-based technologies supporting collaboration over wide distances, and points to their innovative and fundamental role in development of pan-European academic and industrial collaboration. The main characteristics of WWW-based technologies for collaborative engineering are identified and discussed, and a need for an awareness action promoting these new technologies is finally underlined.

1 BENEFIT mission

BENEFIT - Concerted Action of the COPERNICUS programme has commenced in 1995 with the mission to:

promote and stimulate European collaboration among research groups from Central and East European (CEE) countries and those from the European Union in the fields of microelectronics and signal processing.

During the last three years BENEFIT was providing with its numerous scientific and technical events, like: workshops, schools, and special days, enabling conditions for building pan-European links and projects. One of the distinguishing features of BENEFIT was that in addition to its scientific events, it was bringing the "methodology for collaboration" with the series of unique events, called BENEFIT Special Days.

2 Three years of BENEFIT

The BENEFIT Special Day on pan-European collaboration in Budapest and the panel discussion on "Collaborative Engineering based on Web" hold at the EMMSEC'97 Conference in Florence are the last events in the series of BENEFIT actions which were commenced in 1995 with the Workshop and Special Day in the Smolenice castle in Slovakia. All together, in the years 1995-1997 BENEFIT has organised two workshops with accompanying Special Days, four summer schools, three Information Industrial Days, three BENEFIT contact points, and two panel discussions. In addition, a number of events [4-7] were sponsored by BENEFIT and run with an active participation of BENEFIT partners. Programmes of all these events with an accompanying material are available on the BENEFIT WWW server [1].

Information dissemination activities of the project, and especially the BENEFIT IDN - Information Distribution Network, as well as "Who is Who" data base, which constitute an important and useful part of the project mission and activities could be accessed at easiest through WWW [1].

2.1 BENEFIT Workshops

Two BENEFIT workshops addressed advanced topics in:

- Design Methodologies in Microelectronics [3]: Electronic Systems Modelling; Architectures for High Performance Signal Processing; Field Programmable Logic; Neural Networks; Artificial Intelligence Techniques; Hardware/Software Co-Design; Design for Testability; Mixed D/A Design; Performance Driven Synthesis; Applications: DSP, Telecommunications, Biomedicine and Biocybernetics, and

- Design Methodologies in Signal Processing [2]: Multi-Scale Signal Processing; Wavelets and Filter Banks; Nonlinear Systems for Signals; Morphological Signal Processing; Chaos and Fractal-Based Methods; Microelectronics Implementation Issues; Applications in all areas: Neural Networks, Biomedicine, Speech Imaging etc.

A few additional workshops closely related to BENEFIT objectives were sponsored by the project. Those were the workshops on:

2.2 BENEFIT summer schools

Three summer schools organised by the Silesian Technical University were devoted to various technologies and mathematical models as applied to signal processing, namely:

The fourth school was dedicated to standards in electronic design automation. Standards play an important role as means to transfer new technologies to manufacturing. They promote re-use of designs of existing electronic systems and components. Thus, they enable increase in productivity. Standards are also a universal platform facilitating collaboration among industrial partners, and between research groups and industry. Here, the mission of the BENEFIT project met the objectives of ECSI - European CAD Standardisation Initiative and resulted in the Summer School which presented the state-of-the-art standards in Electronic Design Automation (EDA). The school was organised in Prague in July, 1996 [9].

2.3 BENEFIT Special Days

BENEFIT Special Days on pan-European Co-operation and Technology Transfer were established in order to: present to its Central end East European participants: a concise introduction into the research and technology development programmes of the European Union: their underlying principles, objectives and contents, as well as their operational characteristics. In addition, they became a forum where many difficult problems related to building pan-European projects in science, technology, and education were presented and discussed. Originated as the accompanying event to the Workshop held in Cracow, Poland, in Oct. 1993, Special Days (SDs) were organised by the BENEFIT project in the following places: Smolenice (Slovakia) and Vienna, in Sept. 1995, Zakopane (Poland), in Sept. 1996, and in Budapest in October 1997. Before BENEFIT was inaugurated by the European Commission in April 1994, seminars similar in goals and scope were also organised in Moscow, in June 1994, and in Gliwice (Poland) in October 1993.

The information distribution role of the Special Day, although very important was systematically extended in order to tackle with the whole conglomerate of problems related to the East-West collaboration. In addition to the European Union perspective, the research and development policy of the government of the country hosting the SD was expected to be presented, followed by the policy of research and technical associations.

The specificity of multinational collaborative research done in the programmes of EU, required the special emphasis on methodological and technical issues related to the project consortia build-up, and project management. Especially during the first Seminars on Pan-European co-operation these aspects were exposed. These presentations were done by experienced project co-ordinators.

Second very natural extension was, to open the Day to the reports monitoring the actual experiences in the first running collaborative projects. This monitoring aspect, and the identification of obstacles in building the pan-European consortia were also intended as an feedback to the European Commission. Further, the Special Days were an ideal forum for sharing the experience on collaborative undertakings among the CEEC partners.

In fact, from the very beginning it became evident that the main challenge faced by the newly built consortia would be to involve the industrial partners in order to guarantee the beneficial for both sides transfer the research results from academia to industry. This challenge has motivated BENEFIT to discuss models of technology transfer, and to stimulate such transfer by organisation of the specialised event [3] devoted solely to this mission. In Zakopane [12], we intended to make one step further and to investigate a particular models of technology transfer, namely the technopark structure.

Finally, we have intended to discuss the positive role the INTERNET and its specialised tools and services can play for the collaborative undertakings in general, and for the pan-European projects due to the geographical distribution of their partners in particular.

3 From collaboration methodology to the technology of collaboration

The last three years constitute a remarkable period in the history of the European integration. They are marked among others by the rising awareness about the whole European potential in research, and technology, on one side, and by the first elements of the Information Society being implemented in Europe on the other one [13]. Three years ago, as already indicated, one of the first postulates was the access to information e.g., about the European programmes. Recently, an efficient access to information became obvious almost to everybody. Internet with its World Wide Web (WWW) interface offer a perfect access to all sorts of databases, electronic boards and journals.

In fact the new information and telecommunication technologies offer much more than just an access to information. When widely adopted they will change conditions of life and work. The technical possibilities for collaboration over wide distances are especially appealing in the context of pan-European co-operation.

Simplifying, one may view the BENEFIT Days as events which brought the methodology for collaboration. The paper advocates for the need in continuation of BENEFIT line of actions in the form of the special awareness and demonstrator project devoted to the promotion of the new Internet-based technologies for collaboration.

4 Internet and WWW as enabling technologies for collaboration

4.1 New paradigm of network-aware engineering

Collaboration is one of the central requirements for engineering today. The shifting from the traditional manufacturing paradigm to a new, virtual and agile model is generally observed. Whereas the traditional model is characterised by the very limited information sharing, static organisational structure, and almost no co-operation among the competitors, the virtual and agile model exhibits information sharing, collaboration, and dynamic organisation.

Collaborative engineering is an innovative method for product development which integrates widely distributed engineers for virtual collaboration. The reasons for widely geographically dispersed teams are various, like: locality of certain resources and competences, and perhaps different production costs.

4.2 Internet and WWW as enabling technologies

A rapid development of Internet-based technologies with steadily increasing easiness in accessing any kind of information through World Wide Web profoundly changes engineering practice. Already, much of collaborative work is based on Internet. This includes global collaboration, as well as enterprise-wide collaboration based on Intranets. New models of work are being created with tele-working and mobile working. The unique synergy of technologies developed both, for Inter- and Intra-nets is responsible for the profound change in information infrastructures becoming available to enterprises [23].

Group of collaborating individuals working towards a common goal has a need for communication and for accessing some shared workspace through a common interface. The Internet with WWW provides an interface and infrastructure for world-wide access to data. Due to a low bandwidth of networks being used, communications rest fairly simple. With the higher network bandwidth, more complex interactive tasks, in real-time, could be undertaken over the Internet.

4.3 WWW in Internet-based collaboration

World Wide Web has been conceived as a means to support collaboration among researchers, and as such proves to be extremely useful. In the very beginning, this most often meant asynchronous collaboration and electronic publishing. Recent developments in WWW browsers extend however systematically their characteristics. Apart from providing machine independent front-ends they support also information sharing. Synchronous collaboration tools, like video conferencing systems are entering the market.

The Java network interface and execution environment have presented a new opportunity and paradigm for distributed computing and collaboration. New projects, like CoopWWW [14] aim at development of a shared workspace as a (virtual) place where the co-operation is centred. This shared information workspace in the case of CoopWWW contains objects which are primarily electronic documents. The other project following this philosophy of extending a WWW browser with the functionality supporting collaboration, is Tango [15].

Some of the elements of the Web technology which are of direct consequence for collaborative engineering are listed below:

-extensions of HTML and the HTTP protocols; content languages;
- navigation, annotation, and visualisation of complex engineering objects;
- new types of "engineering" links;
- intellectual properties protection in the context of W3C PICS;
- indexing and retrieval of complex objects;
- collaboration-oriented developments in WWW browsers;
- engineering databases infrastructure for WWW.

Further, collaboration-oriented, innovative applications using Web interface, like: audio and video conferencing, collaborative editing, screen sharing, and shared whiteboard are of interest for distributed work. All these items are the objects of intensive research and developments. Once the underlying standards and based on them tools reach a mature state, the WWW-based technology for collaboration will profoundly change the engineering practice.

5 Collaborative engineering based on WWW

Engineers are just commencing to leverage the possibilities which Internet technologies can provide, especially in complex engineering design, modelling, and verification. New design methodologies based on re-use , accompanied by appropriate standards, and tools, have to be developed in order to fully exploit the possibilities given by: an on-line access to digital engineering libraries, virtual design environments, and a simplified on-line access to engineering experts. It is expected that the full deployment of Internet in engineering will dramatically increase productivity.

New Internet-oriented engineering applications are becoming possible due to new standards and IT infrastructures.

5.1 New technologies and applications

The envisioned virtual design environments (tools over the Internet) in which a designer will be able to configure his/her set of tools suiting at best his/her engineering tasks and distributed over Internet, will be available to engineers, either through Internet or on their enterprise Intranets. Work within virtual design environments will be much easier to be shared since files with engineering data will be exchanged between tools distributed over the network in new, neutral, and secure data formats. Highly complex, and proprietary engineering data needs new solutions supporting re-use, security, and intelligent search (indexing).

Electronic systems engineering is particularly well suited for using Internet. The first reason is the multitude of available tools covering various phases and elements of a design, modelling, and verification processes. Nor single vendor is in position to cover the complete workflow. Diversity, of highly specialised tools seems to be the destiny of this engineering domain. When accessible over Internet, flexibly configurable into user-specific virtual design environments, would dramatically increase engineer's efficiency.

Design of new systems on a chip is particularly well suited for new collaborative engineering technologies. Designs exceeding 10 mlns of transistors per chip would require hundreds of man-years effort if designed from scratch. The viable strategies are those based extensively on re-use. Re-use crossing the enterprise borders require however, new standards and solutions including those for intellectual proprieties protection.

5.2 Engineering libraries and services on Web

Digital engineering libraries

Digital engineering libraries are central to collaborative engineering design. Collaborative engineering effort in an Internet-based environment is based on reuse and composition (structural design). In order to enable these strategies, digital engineering libraries accessible on-line will store and appropriately organise information about engineering product types, functions, and specifications. Organisation (classification and systematisation) of engineering knowledge and expertise is needed.

Visualisation tools integrated with Web browsers helping a designer to navigate through large information sets are necessary. In addition, an engineer will require an intelligent support in searching and browsing libraries in order to find an appropriate product/model with a required functionality.

The commercial issues related to a particular business model are of predominant importance for engineering practices which will be developed.

Engineering-oriented services on Web

Engineering libraries require intelligent: search over and retrieve, product request, and directory services in order to support a designer in finding an appropriate product/model given a required functionality.

More complex queries concerning the utility of available components for a specific design, their functionalities, rest without support. This is an open area to design wizards, intelligent agents, and search engines which will have some "knowledge" about the designer's task and will be able to search the libraries for appropriate for a designer solution. In very complex cases, the Internet could help providing perhaps an direct access to an human expert.

Network-based information brokers

Having access to different vendor catalogues, various libraries, and services available on-line, an engineer will be again exposed to a multitude of engineering information sources. Searching on-line through all these sources may be tedious. Here, he will be supported by a new kind of information brokerage service capable of searching and retrieving the required data, as envisaged in [18].

Digital engineering libraries require an intelligent interface in order to support an engineer in finding elements with required functionality. Also new tools will be necessary to support a designer in a redesign process. These, and many other sophisticated tools may be available on Internet as new services. Main obstacles are: the size of engineering models, proprietary and security issues.

5.3 Strategic goal - global engineering networks

"Working together through shared knowledge" was one of the original goals of the WWW according to Tim Berners-Lee, the WWW inventor. Further on, in his talk on "Collaboration on the Web" [20], he stressed the need for "sharing knowledge - with semantics ". In fact, before engineering expertise could be accessed over networks a common understanding of engineering artefacts has to be established.

One may expect that the Internet-based engineering services will cluster into networks specialised for a particular engineering domains, like DSP design, mechanical and building, or chemical engineering. All these engineering networks will provide access to specialised libraries collecting domain-specific knowledge and expertise.

Before these global engineering networks are established, research and development into the following directions is required:

In order to assure a coherent rules for building libraries and services in different engineering domains, standards are necessary. Here again, we observe a positive result of basing all those so different engineering domain-specific tools on one Internet and WWW paradigm. For example, search and directory browsing tools can use directly results of work of Internet Engineering Task Force WGs.

6 Conclusions

The breakthrough in information and telecommunication technologies creates a special situation in Europe where a few years after the dramatic changes in the political scene, a special momentum exists for consolidation of pan-European engineering and research efforts. New techniques and tools based on Internet and World Wide Web which emerge offer unprecedented possibilities for realisation of collaboration over wide distances.

The awareness about the potential of the new technologies, the motivation, and the access to high speed networks aren't equal. Due to the confluence of factors the penetration of the basic Internet services (e-mail, WWW) progresses however extremely fast.

The paper advocates for the continuation of BENEFIT Special Days in the form of an awareness action which would be specifically devoted to the new technologies of collaboration. Such an awareness action should perhaps be supported by a demonstrator project, which will prove the feasibility of engineering based on Internet and WWW on the pan-European level. This proof-of-concept action should be strongly based on the TELEMATICS programme results, and especially on the emerging TEN-34 pan-European high speed network infrastructure. The supporting climate is there, created by the Forum EU/CEE on the Information Society [13].


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