Do you use an engineering notebook?

If I asked that question to engineers 15 years ago, the answer would be an unequivocal YES. Today, however, I don't think it would be an easy question for engineers to answer. As I wrote in a series of posts (link to first post) on the modern equivalent to the engineering notebook, there are lots of tools out there that each do some aspect of it. But there's no single tool that does it all anymore.

That's not to say, however, that some software doesn't come close. PTC's Mathcad has always been one of those tools that I though might provide capabilities in a number of areas. I talked with the folks responsible for the product at PTC for more information.

In this post, we'll take a look at the background of the product, the capabilities it provides and my own commentary and analysis.

Background

Here's the most relevant information about the Mathcad product. For more in depth information, visit the Mathcad entry in wikipedia.

  • Mathsoft, the original developer of Mathcad, was founded by Allen Razdow in 1984.
  • PTC announced its intent to acquire Mathsoft in 2006 (press release).
  • Mathcad Prime 2.0, PTC's next generation of the Mathcad product, was released in February 2012.

Capabilities Provided

So Mathcad lets users do math, right? Well of course, but there's a lot more to it than that. The Mathcad entry for wikipedia has a very good summary of the capabilities that are provided, going into great technical detail. However, here are the critical functional areas that stand out to me.

  • Build Engineering Equations: Mathcad doesn't simply work like a piece of calculator software. You actually write sentences using math, algebraic and calculus symbols. You actually define your variables and write formulas out on a digital sheet of paper. Mathcad can handle complex mathematics. But overall, there's no programming equations in obtuse languages or inserting functions into spreadsheet cells. You just write equations in a natural fashion.
  • Graphing Results: Another important capability of Mathcad is that it plots out the results of your formulas and equations, including curve fitting functionality. But its not a static output. Its a dynamic representation of the equations that have been built. As variables and outputs of formulas change, so do the plots. 
  • Integration with CAD and CAE: Mathcad also connects to other software tools to pull in dimensions and parameters that can be used as variables for equations. These connections enable associativity as well, so as a design changes the output of a Mathcad set of equations change as well.

Commentary and Analysis

OK. So what is my take on Mathcad? Well, I have a few different opinions on it.

Spreadsheets Too Little, Mathematical Modeling Too Much

If you look at the tools that are available for engineering calculations today, excluding Mathcad, you basically have spreadsheets and mathematical modeling. Now let's be honest: spreadsheets are ubiquitous. They're absolutely everywhere. Most engineering departments run on them. However, that doesn't mean they're the right tool for the job. What's wrong with spreadsheets? Well...

  • The equation is hidden inside the cell. Without selecting a cell, you have no idea what functions are being performed. And if you need to cross-reference multiple cells, forget about it. You have to dig deep to really understand what is going on.
  • Spreadsheets don't use the symbols associated with mathematics, algebra or calculus. You get spreadsheet functions intend with input fields. It's just not intuitive for those trying to build engineering calculations.

Mathematical Modeling, on the other hand, is far too heavy handed. Now, don't get me wrong, there's tons of power in these tools. You can model and simulation practically anything you want. The problem is these things have to be programmed. Great app for scientist and researchers? Yep. Not so much for engineers.

Mathcad is a good fit in that sense in that the equations are written in a natural form, using symbols that engineers recognize. Plus its all laid out for the engineer to see in one sheet.

CAD Integration Critical to Detailed Design

Another important piece of functionality is the connection between Mathcad and CAD. Engineers need to perform calculations during detailed design to select purchased parts, to size components and more. Much of that not only depends on the design in CAD, but also how the design in CAD changes. Mathcad provides many of these integrations, and not just to Creo.

What's Not to Like?

There's a lot to like about Mathcad, however it is not entirely complete. There are a few areas, nitpicky things really, where Mathcad could be improved in my view.

  • Integration with PLM Requirements: PTC's Windchill offers some nice requirements management functionality. Ideally, there would be an integration to pull those requirements into a Mathcad file and use the quantifiable values as inputs or perhaps even variables. That's not available today.
  • The Bigger Picture of Engineering Notebooks: Mathcad is one of the closest, if not the closest tool on the market today that could fulfill the needs of engineering notebooks. However, it's not there today. The sketching of Creo Sketch could be integrated. It could be mobile. It could have cloud synching capabilities. It doesn't seem that far away. 

Takeaways 

All in all, I see Mathcad as a great fit for engineers performing calculations. The level of expertise, the use of mathematical symbols and the integration with CAD are all important in an engineer's context. Could Mathcad be enhanced to integrate more closely with PDM relationships and PLM requirements? Sure. Could it be the spiritual successor of the old school engineering notebook? Absolutely. But as it stands now, it's a very good tool for the job at hand.

Summary and Questions

Let's recap

  • Mathsoft, founded in 1984, was acquired by PTC in 2006.
  • Mathcad offers three critical capabilities important for engineers.
    • Equations are built by using mathematical symbols and variables on a digital sheet of paper.
    • Results of equations can be plotted and dynamically updated on the same sheet of digital paper.
    • It integrates with CAD and CAE software to pass dimensions and parameters back and forth.
  • Mathcad are advantageous over spreadsheets because of the more natural interface and use of mathematics. It is easier and simpler to use than mathematical modeling as well, which is a better fit for scientists and researchers.
  • The integration with CAD and CAE tools is critical to detailed design, where engineers use equations to select purchased parts and size components.
  • The areas of Mathcad that could be improved include integration with PLM requirements.
  • If integrated more directly with Creo Sketch, made to be more mobile and cloud-centric, Mathcad could fulfill almost all of the needs of engineering notebooks.
  • In my view, Mathcad is a very good fit for engineers performing calculations in design.

Alright, that's my take. What do you think? 

Take care. Talk soon. Thanks for reading.

 

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