The automotive supply industry is a major contributor to the European economy. Every year, 45,000 small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) generate a turnover of more than 230 billion euro in Western Europe alone. Yet fierce competition and rapid change are real challenges for these companies. Under pressure to cut costs in today's global marketplace, they must also continually enhance both the quality and safety of their products. Better learning and training are essential to their long-term survival. Which is why many of the sector's workers follow traditional classroom courses. But most are considered inefficient and companies cannot afford the associated travel costs, the long absence of employees from work or customised training. E-learning - networked solutions for distributed learning - may be the answer. Modern information and communications (ICT) technologies allow training techniques and delivery methods that enhance motivation, performance, collaboration, innovation, and are a commitment to life-long learning. If delivered over the Internet, these technologies can be highly effective, flexible and low cost. These were conclusions drawn by ELSA, an IST project that set up a multilingual e-learning portal for Europe's automotive sector. "ELSA is a Web-based version for SMEs of the successful Virtual Learning Environment [VLE], developed five years ago under the EU-funded project Total Quality Management Online," says project coordinator Amalia di Stefano, from CLEPA, the European Association of Automotive Suppliers. The ELSA project consortium includes both the suppliers and current and future users of the e-learning solutions for these suppliers., ,Virtual learning environment,The VLE platform - available in four different language versions - offers training courses on quality. It also has course-management functions and a suite of value-added services, which support collaborative training sessions, online tutor guidance and knowledge sharing. But it is an intranet-based platform for large multi-plant automotive supply companies, rather than resource-limited SMEs., ,The ELSA system's main component is the Web portal. It provides automotive SMEs with a range of training content, focused on quality management and tools. These courses are available in English, French and Italian. Other features of the portal include access to online tutors, for collaborative learning, as well as advice, feedback and self-assessment. "Our training courses are modular," adds di Stefano, "so companies can customise their learning paths." She says this system also suits big firms, which can trial the courses for six months and, if they like them, install them on their servers. Each course has the same 'look and feel' and navigational functions, plus features such as technical glossaries, extensive interactivity, self-evaluation, and links to external websites. Testing times,During the project's pilot sessions, a handful of SMEs tested the ELSA portal and the e-learning material developed in the project. Study hours totalled almost 1,500 hours, plus more than 700 devoted to tutoring. Most students took no more than four weeks of study to complete their chosen course; a few took up to three months. Students generally adapted to e-learning with little difficulty, especially staff and management. People with limited PC experience needed more initial assistance. Some students also had problems finding time to study during their working hours. One of the testers was Vimercati, a small Italian firm making mechanical components for some of Europe's largest car companies. "We have long used traditional training methods for our management, designers and engineers," says Mirella Brambilla, from the human resources department. "They have studied subjects such as quality, plastics, mechanical and software design." However, the firm also wanted to experiment with new methods, such as ELSA. "Four of our employees have been studying Failure Mode and Effects Analysis under the project," she adds. The conclusion? "We have not yet reviewed their final impressions. But we already know that they liked the course and found it helpful." Flexibility - the ability to study when it is most convenient - was seen as very positive, as were the portal's content and lower cost, compared to normal courses. The firm will decide in early 2004 whether to follow another such course. Would Vimercati now do all its training online? "No, we still think traditional training has its benefits. For example, you can't beat close contact with real people in some practical situations," she admits. Commercial solutions,Feedback from the project participants helped to refine the ELSA products. These are now being marketed by CLEPA, through three different solutions. The Internet access version is hosted on the ELSA servers and can be customised for a company-specific version. The 'à la carte' solution allows firms to buy and access courses from the online catalogue. Lastly, under the Corporate version, companies license the ELSA platform and integrate it into their intranet. Several leading automotive suppliers have already taken up this option. "SMEs need very flexible training, in terms of pricing and modules," says di Stefano. "They also told us that they can't spend more than 50 euro per hour for each trainee." ELSA meets all those requirements. The next step is to translate the courses into German, Portuguese, Spanish and Swedish, hopefully under a new project. Source: Based on information from ELSA,The IST Results service gives you online news and analysis on the emerging results from Information Society Technologies research. The service reports on prototype products and services ready for commercialisation as well as work in progress and interim results with significant potential for exploitation.