As hair turns gray and brains drain...

Most American engineers are north of their 40s, and the U.S. is largely failing to replace these boomers as they retire. For better or worse, other parts of the world are picking up the slack: for example, more than 600,000 engineers graduated last year from Chinese higher education institutions vs. 70,000 in the U.


Most American engineers are north of their 40s, and the U.S. is largely failing to replace these boomers as they retire. For better or worse, other parts of the world are picking up the slack: for example, more than 600,000 engineers graduated last year from Chinese higher education institutions vs. 70,000 in the U.S. As hair turns gray and brains drain, it becomes increasingly imperative for American engineering organizations to preserve the knowledge they create.

Much as call centers carefully build expert knowledge bases of customer support problems and solutions for on-demand reuse, American engineering organizations must find effective ways to manage their engineering information so it can stand in for retired or absent engineers. To be sure, many engineering organizations have made initial investments in knowledge management. Unfortunately, tactics like archiving CAD designs barely scratch the surface. They overlook fundamental details, like the engineering calculations that underlie designs.

Using tools such as worksheets, XML-based data, and searchable calculation management repositories, organizations can preserve valuable intellectual property.

Rethinking spreadsheets

Unlike in bookkeeping, where the bottom line is what ultimately counts, the contents of engineering calculations are as critical as the results. But spreadsheets are more about crunching numbers than documenting context, so they can be risky tools for managing calculations. They don't show the methods, assumptions, values, and logic that spawned the results. Beyond that, the answers can be dead wrong. Numerous studies from the likes of Coopers & Lybrand, KPMG, NYNEX, University of Hawaii, and University of Michigan have revealed staggering error rates in spreadsheets. Hand calculations are no better, primarily because these valuable corporate assets are rarely treated as such. If they're legible, they're often scattered across desks, personal hard drives, and file cabinets.

An electronic calculation worksheet is a good solution for effectively documenting the design and engineering processes. Unlike spreadsheets, electronic calculation worksheets use real mathematical notations. They capture, in human-readable text, the assumptions, methods, and critical data behind every calculation. They may also include illustrative graphs, annotations, and sketches—all in a single, sharable document.

Compare this equation in Microsoft Excel, which is tough for most humans to read:


with this equation from an electronic worksheet, which displays math the way engineers use it every day:

Product development professionals using electronic worksheets can combine clearly presented formulas with text and interactive graphics in one live, interactive document. Engineers can fully annotate their calculations with source information and hyperlinks. Organizations can provide engineers with templates containing approved, reusable calculations by selectively freezing fields. Once engineers preserve their calculations in such a format, organizations can place them on a Web server, sharing calculations and results in an easily deployable and updatable manner.

Knowledge-management efforts also can benefit greatly by structuring worksheets and any other engineering data as XML documents so organizations can reformat, restructure, and publish their contents across systems and business units. With XML-powered engineering-knowledge management, suppliers and OEMs can deeply integrate their business processes. Suppliers can better leverage the OEM's product information to create higher-quality parts and components on shorter deadlines. OEMs, in turn, can be certain suppliers have the latest and most reliable engineering data. Authorized users can retrieve calculations at any time for reuse, validation, refinement, reporting, and publishing—all in their proper context.

Best of all, senior engineers can preserve the knowledge they create, new engineers can hit the ground running, and their companies can accomplish more work with fewer resources in the years ahead.

Author Information

Chris Randles is CEO and president of Mathsoft Engineering & Education Inc.,

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