One of the interesting habits I’ve seen along the way through my career is the abnormal attachment some structural engineers have for MathCAD. I understand some of the reasons, it may be something learned at university and the interest kept alive. It might be that it adds value intrinsically to the experience, the engineers enjoys using it because it is supported by many examples. The MathCAD software library is loaded with engineering examples so it seems a natural extension of oneself as an engineer.
As an engineer, I have used MathCAD in pursuit of research, calculating free-convective heat transfer properties or the Boussinesq Bulb of Pressure. I must admit I would never use it to calculate the theoretical wind load to be applied to a piperack in StaadPro. If truth be told, in a profession where the only mathematical excitement may be an occasional square root; as a practicing engineer, I haven’t yet found a power use for MathCAD.
There’s two kinds of engineers, the scientist and the plumber. A scientist engineer focuses on accuracy, details, formulae and precision between reality and calculations. A plumber engineer approximates, uses experience, is practical and reasonable. When I see the calculation I want to see the numbers at play that reassures me more than seeing the formula. Seeing the numbers I can check the units, the order of magnitude, and the relevance of the parameters. That is only true if one knows how to use Excel to do just that; use the concatenate formula. A long word for something many engineers overlook but need to know in Excel!
I am the ‘plumber’ engineer. I do not need accuracy but sometimes I will revert to the scientist approach for the sticky bits, however I still prefer Excel over MathCAD any day. I can cut fourteen pages of MathCAD to one page in Excel. Checking MathCAD reports are dull and time-consuming and formulaic-driven. I see a term used in an equation and I cannot find its definition, or value, without flipping back through pages and searching……sigh….and I don’t know what the value is, is it critical I will ask? The engineer shrugs.
Using MathCAD, an engineer calculates the wind load on a beam is 0.854 kN/m and 0.923 kN/m on a column; I might just apply 1 kN/m everywhere, is that wrong? We have onerous load factors as well because we are so uncertain! I have seen engineers spend a few days developing the little routines to calculate the wind load precisely….when it can be figured in two minutes. These stories abound and always will but I believe MathCAD is a poor choice as a power tool for most plumber engineers. It is like using chainsaw to cut butter when a knife will do. In a culture that welcomes 3D and complex analyses, MathCAD can add to the pending confusion of the structural engineer’s role.
Excel is my recommendation, as a power tool for engineers. It is a pity that Microsoft did not work hard enough to make it ‘engineer’ friendly but I am working on it. With only 10 percent of Excel, it is incredible what is achievable in producing engineering standard calculations. MathCAD is highly ‘user-aware’ and that is a credit. In the drawing office though, nine times out of ten, the formula is basic A + B = C so using MathCAD like an abacus leaves me scratching my head.
The key is to understand the defaults, control the defaults, use visuals and show the numbers. If you can do that, many more engineers will be coming to your desk to ask you about your Excel experience, your spreadsheets and your opinions. Whatever side of the line you find yourself, ask yourself is this the best tool for you, the checker, the reader or the project. Look far into your future and ask yourself, does this help me? In using Excel though, there is a way to design an engineering standard spreadsheet/tool that will far exceed MathCAD, your reader’s expectations and improve the productivity on the project. Your future as an engineer is not in MathCAD, but is in accumulating your design experience, replicating it, in managing, leading and inspiring the team. Excel will give you those skill sets.
You can try a 7-days free trial ebook and learn how to apply Excel to achieve engineering standard spreadsheets. see http://www.motagg.com/ebooks
We would love to hear any questions you might have or stories you might share on the battles you’ve experienced between Excel and MathCAD before.
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To your success,
Anthony Fasano, PE, LEED AP
Engineering Management Institute
Author of Engineer Your Own Success