Manufacturing

Tech Trends: Do the Math

1 Oct, 2004 By: Arnie Williams Cadalyst

Mathsoft finds niche automating and capturing engineering calculations


Since the advent of the PC a little more than two decades ago, engineers have taken giant leaps forward in almost all of their design tasks. Freed from the slow and error-prone reliance on pencil and drafting table, mechanical engineers have harnessed amazing computing power with their office computers and even with portable laptops and notebooks.



Thanks to Mathsoft (www.mathsoft.com), engineers since 1984 have also had a veritable equivalent of the slide rule as part of their computing arsenal. The company's flagship product Mathcad has helped more than 1.5 million engineers in more than 50 countries automate mathematical notation and calculations. With headquarters in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and offices in the UK, Germany, Japan, and the Netherlands, Mathsoft has distinguished itself as one of the few companies focused on this vital area of engineering design.

Even so, as many as 40% of engineers continue to enter their engineering calculations in spreadsheet programs, according to research conducted at Mathsoft. These relatively inexpensive programs do a good job of listing calculation results, but a poor job of formula and knowledge capture, notes Allen Radzow, CTO of Mathsoft. "Spreadsheets are effective and powerful and have features that help engineers," he says. "But they are often not good for engineering departments as a whole. They can be inefficient; the formulas in them can be difficult to read to the point of no longer being recognizable. Numbers get pre-multiplied or calculated before ending up in a cell in a spreadsheet. And knowledge is always obfuscated in a spreadsheet."

Figure 1. Mathsoft Designates repository lets you manage, organize, and tie Mathcad content into your business processes.
Figure 1. Mathsoft Designates repository lets you manage, organize, and tie Mathcad content into your business processes.

A LAG IN PROGRESS

A co-founder of Mathsoft and its CTO, Radzow has seen the industry go through important changes in all areas of design, but has observed a lag in progress with respect to the level of attention paid to calculation processes. "Engineering companies today are thinking more about product-development processes and technology to support those processes," he says. "CAD has moved beyond geometry with more attention paid to assemblies, bills of materials, and other areas related to product and lifecycle management. But engineering calculations continue to be a neglected area."

Razdow cites as an example the critical design of an aircraft's landing gear. A structural engineer might have written calculations derived from a textbook in a notebook. Strength parameters may have been drawn from a spec sheet and punched into a calculator. The results of all this might find their way into a CAD drawing. But how the calculations were done and the knowledge of the engineer doing them isn't typically captured.

Fortunately, engineers are smart people. A critical product such as aircraft landing gear gets tested and re-tested and that's why planes keep flying, notes Razdow. But if quality control uncovers a problem with a landing gear after 1,000 landings, correcting the problem can be extremely expensive. And what if the engineer behind the landing gear design isn't with the company any longer and can't help re-create the calculation trail?

SHIFT TO CALCULATION MANAGEMENT

At Mathsoft, the product development team still worries about some of the same product-development problems it has tackled since the beginning of the company—areas such as how to speed up calculations in general and how to flag wrong entries. But there's also a shift of focus at the company toward how to accurately and comprehensively document calculations, put them in a central repository, and bring more precision to their management (figure 1).

Razdow applauds the industry's focus on product lifecycle management today. Capturing all of the data behind product design and managing that data makes good sense, he says, emphasizing that data capture and data management must necessarily extend to engineering calculations.

Figure 2. Because of its native XML format, Mathcad worksheets can be accessed via any Internet browser using the Mathsoft Designate product. XML also lets you parse Mathcad worksheets for search and retrieval at any future time.
Figure 2. Because of its native XML format, Mathcad worksheets can be accessed via any Internet browser using the Mathsoft Designate product. XML also lets you parse Mathcad worksheets for search and retrieval at any future time.

In the past couple of years, Mathsoft has developed a full library of courses designed to teach more effective use of Mathcad in best practices applications. Its interfaces with Microsoft Word, worksheets, and PDF files have all been improved. The company now has a server product so that numbers can be changed and recalculated from a browser without a plug-in. More work is being done on enterprise-deployment, Microsoft .NET strategies, and XML (figure 2).

This new emphasis on management strongly showcases the product development direction at Mathsoft. In the future, notes Razdow, look for XML to figure prominently in Mathsoft's calculation management strategy (figure 3). "Once we start representing calculations inside of calculations in XML," he says, "the opportunity then exists to have that information become more readily manageable."

Razdow would like to see this level of calculation management exist outside calculating tools in CAD drawings, for example, or Word files, or even in a PDF document. To achieve this kind of goal, the industry will need better standards for XML representation, better data models, and better overall calculation knowledge capture.

Figure 3. In the future, through widespread use and adoption of XML, enterprises will more easily manage engineering calculations such as those captured with Mathcad.
Figure 3. In the future, through widespread use and adoption of XML, enterprises will more easily manage engineering calculations such as those captured with Mathcad.

"Every dimension in a CAD drawing, any number in a design should have a robustness," says Razdow. "Financial institutions have carefully managed numbers that are traced and tracked. We should bring this same approach to bear in engineering calculations."


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