Extend Engineering Information

As indispensable as computers are in engineering, they often fail to fully support longer-term business objectives. To date, little effort has been made to electronically capture and reuse engineering calculations' content—data, formulas, or variables—for reporting, regulatory compliance, and effective supplier/OEM interaction.

By Allen Razdow February 1, 2006
  • XML describes other languages

  • Calculations are assets

  • Engineering design

  • Traceability, accountability

  • Avoidance of errors and cost disasters

As indispensable as computers are in engineering, they often fail to fully support longer-term business objectives. To date, little effort has been made to electronically capture and reuse engineering calculations’ content—data, formulas, or variables—for reporting, regulatory compliance, and effective supplier/OEM interaction.

Traceability and accountability of engineering information have largely been left to paper systems, or within tracking software, operating separately from the engineering process. Engineering organizations need a way to incorporate traceability and accountability into fundamental design work.

Doing so would make work traceable, manageable, reusable, reliable, and reportable, increasing productivity of the engineer, supplier, and OEM. It would decentralize product development and manufacturing; promote faster time to market; enhance reuse of ideas and policies; improve standards implementation; and make compliance more effective.

Use of XML (eXtensible markup language) has grown dramatically since its conception in 1996. The engineering community, however, is only starting to realize its benefits.

Basics of XML

While many understand the broad concepts of XML—enabling diverse platforms to interoperate and software to be portable—it’s important to know how to apply it to engineering-related applications.

XML is a flexible system for storing and verifying information, and it promotes robust information exchange within and across company boundaries. Potential XML impact on business productivity will rival that of the relational-database management system (RDBMS) on the business world over 20 years ago.

Because XML is a meta-language, an idiom for describing other languages, it allows an organization to create custom descriptions for exchanging information in its domain. Simultaneously, it allows organizations to transform raw information into meaningful, structured content that is easily exchanged with others in the same field, regardless of computing environment.

With these capabilities, XML will provide what could be the biggest step forward to date in engineering collaboration. It will give traceability to product designs (and related engineering methods and values), enabling integration of design and accountability—the basis of a new best practice known as calculation management.

With XML-powered calculation management, suppliers and OEMs can deeply integrate business processes, enabling suppliers to better leverage the OEM’s product information to create better parts and components on shorter deadlines. OEMs can be certain suppliers have the latest and most reliable engineering data.

What’s inside

XML assumes all information can include meta-data, explaining its purpose, significance, and other identifiers and allowing it to be tracked and vetted. A numeral on a Web page, for example, is no longer just pixels to the computer displaying it; it’s a piece of data that can be captured, processed, managed, and leveraged. XML makes it possible to provide contextual information in a manner similar to a database, along with traditional content found in most electronic documents. Additional information can control any type of property, including display, functionality, or fields for use in other specialized applications. Having XML fields for project name, originator, reference source, keywords, units, values, and such, make engineering calculations useful and visible without requiring a proprietary file format.

Because XML documents are text-based, they are portable, and can be read by many systems, from simple search tools on a Microsoft Windows desktop to sophisticated document repository databases.


An XML-based file is most powerful in conjunction with its specified “schema,” a set of rules specifying the information that can be represented in a particular kind of XML file. Recognizing XML’s potential for calculation management, the engineering industry is developing several schemas that support information capture for better product development among partner companies.

UnitsML, for example, is an emerging standard describing units of length, area, volume, mass, and other measures. This provides a units-based context for numbers in an electronic document. Among other schemas is Mathcad XML Information Architecture (XML-IA), a non-proprietary, open data model that accounts for peculiarities of applied math and engineering information, including parameters, units, results, and annotations. In addition, the schema can store an audit trail that recalls provenance (where numbers are copied and pasted from) and any annotations entered when an equation is created. Information is carried with calculations as they are copied and reworked—from engineering worksheet to worksheet—and can be inspected inside or outside the originating system.

XML-IA is readable by human engineers and their software (Mathsoft’s calculation software or other vendor’s design, document management, database, or product lifecycle management software). The schema benefits engineering product development, even across multiple companies and systems, and can be used with any software. It was designed to accommodate the many types of information that engineers and their management might wish to know about engineering designs.

Transform (XSLT)

Armed with its schema, an XML file may be changed into any other type of XML file using a transform or eXtensible stylesheet language transform (XSLT). For example, XML documents are commonly transformed into HTML for viewing with a Web browser. Other common transforms are aimed at formatting technologies, such as PDF, databases, or word processing software.

Using XSLT, documents can be translated for databases, publication-quality reports, code generation, and search engines. Companies can easily repurpose engineering information for calculation dependency analyses and design-change appraisals. OEMs and their suppliers can retrieve just the pieces of information relevant to a design review, or the original document containing them.

XML enables engineers, R&D, and product development groups to interact more effectively—across teams, silos, and organizations—and automate processes without overhauling applications to accept every partner’s unique data format. This ability has tremendous implications for part- and component-suppliers. XML can facilitate design sharing, updating, reuse, and verification. Suppliers can have improved access to OEM content that explains how devices work and why they have particular technical requirements.

XML can make suppliers full participants in virtual product development teams, sharing knowledge, processes, methods, values, calculations, and results to move better products more quickly to market. It enables suppliers and OEMs to better tailor processes to one another’s technical constraints and capabilities.

Find such information as…

Using XML, organizations can get concrete answers to commonly asked questions and concerns such as:

  • Why must we allocate 19.2 Mbps per channel?

  • How does temperature affect battery life?

  • Did we use the current requirement for chip performance specification in this analysis?

  • Can we give our vendors access to that calculation?

  • Does the delivered document match the analysis that was performed?

  • I’m sure someone must have done this calculation before; and

  • I hope we got the units right!

Without XML, these questions can be difficult to answer. Information gets lost. Calculations in the engineering-based enterprise often are performed in spreadsheets or managed by custom programs. Work is spread across desks, personal hard drives, document management systems, and file cabinets. Although calculations are valuable corporate assets, they are rarely treated as such, since the focus often is on the calculation result and not the method of reaching it.

Failing to properly manage calculations causes:

  • Needless re-design;

  • Sometimes disastrous errors, and

  • Lost productivity and revenue. For these reasons, organizations and their important partners are realizing the need for stronger calculation management, and XML is a central component of the solution.

Author Information
Allen Razdow, chief technology officer, Mathsoft Engineering & Education Inc.,