Calculations and the Engineering Notebook

Beginning back in January, I’ve been writing a series of posts about the engineering notebook. I started off pointed out how the engineering notebook has been forgotten in the advancement of technologies in so many other areas in a post titled The Forlorn Engineering Notebook. I then touched on note taking in engineering notebooks and how some more modern technologies could fill the gap in a post titled Digital Notebooks for Engineering?And last but not least, I hit on engineering sketching in a post titled Digital Sketching and the Engineering Notebook. And while I think we’ve covered a fair number of the scenarios related to engineering notebooks, I’d be remiss if I didn’t touch on one more: calculations. That’s what we’ll cover here.

The Engineer’s Need

A major aspect of the design decisions that engineers make is based on driving a product towards a desired function. It could be related to structural characteristics, materials composition, heat management, geometry traits or one of any other myriad of other characteristics. In some cases, some geometric representation of the product is required for the calculations. For example, mechanical engineers often use free body diagrams (FBD) in statics or dynamics calculations.

Why are calculations important to engineering? It’s related to the role they are supposed to fill. One of the core concepts that separates engineers from tinkerers is the ability to predict those traits before a prototype is built and tested. Furthermore, engineers can make adjustments to drive those traits towards the goals for the product. But beyond the responsibilities of engineers, there are impacts for the organization as well. Building and testing prototypes can be costly and time-consuming. Predictive calculations contribute towards the vision of a virtual prototype where you can predict and drive characteristics towards goals in a digital medium as opposed to the physical world.

Relation to the Engineering Notebook

How exactly is all this related to the engineering notebook?

Well, traditionally, all of these calculations and related diagrams were captured in the engineering notebook. And as such, they existed in a centralized location, albeit a physical one that could get lost or destroyed. But the advantage to the engineer was that it existed at their finger tips in the context of all of their other engineering stuff that related to that product. So these calculations sat right next to their notes, their concepts and sketches, their pictures from the prototype shop or test lab. It was all in one place.

Some Modern Alternatives

What modern tools exist to help engineers perform these calculations? There’s actually a number of different types that are relevant to this topic.

To start, there are calculations software applications. These tools let users build equations and plot live results which update as the inputs or equations are modified. On one end of the spectrum, you have PTC’s MathCAD, that allows users to use more of a natural language inputs as opposed to coding the equation with abstract concepts and functions. This works well for engineers as they can afford to become dedicated experts in any one software application. On the other end of the spectrum, you have Wolfram’s Mathematica which offers incredibly deep capability in terms of the functions and integrations with other applications and systems. While such a tool offers quite a lot, it can place a high knowledge and skill overhead on the user in understanding how to use it. There are a number of similar apps available for tablet style tools.

Another kind of software application that’s relevant here is combined calculation and diagramming tools. Specifically, Autodesk’s ForceEffect app for the iPad let’s engineers use sketches, pictures and diagrams as the basis for calculations. In essence, it uses free body diagrams (FBD). While it only covers structural types of problems, it seems very accessible and easy to use.

The Downside

Now, these software applications certainly can be useful and provide value. But I see one negative with all of them: they aren’t related to a notebook type of tool. As a result, these calculations and diagrams don’t exist alongside all of the other pictures, sketches and notes that an engineer should maintain for a product development project. But in all honestly, this comes as no surprise. No existing software application really addresses the need for engineering notebooks today. Evernote may be the closest.

Summary and Questions

Alright, let’s recap.

  • Engineers need to perform calculations, sometimes based on diagrams, to predict and then drive design characteristics towards desired goals or objectives.
  • These calculations traditionally existed in engineering notebooks alongside sketches, pictures and notes.
  • Calculation software applications, such as PTC’s MathCAD and Wolfram’s Mathematica, offer capabilities engineers can use to build calculations. These tools vary in terms of ease of use.
  • Autodesk offers a Free Body Diagramming app for the iPad called ForceEffect. It’s capabilities are focused on structural statics and dynamics.
  • The downside for each of these modern tools is that they do not link or integrate with anything that could be used as a broader engineer notebook software application. But that isn’t surprising, considering there is no software tool that comes close to offering engineering notebook functionality.

OK. Ready for some questions? What do you use to perform engineering calculations? Do your organization try to manage them in some way or do they rely on personal organizational skills? I’m interested in getting your thoughts.

Take care. Talk soon. And thanks for reading.