Virtually every design decision, from a simple sketch to complex system drawings, is informed by calculations. Yet, in the race to get projects completed and products and services to market, engineering and product development organizations often neglect to systematically track engineering methods and values. Calculations today are most often performed by hand, on calculators, in spreadsheets, by word-processing programs, or with mathematical software. Results are scattered on desks, personal hard drives, document management systems, and in file cabinets.

ImageWhile tools such as spreadsheets and computer programs can successfully automate calculations, the methods, assumptions, and data underlying those calculations are effectively obscured. Without the engineering information behind the answers in some readable and manageable form, how much is a company willing to risk reusing those answers in the future?

In failing to manage calculations, engineering organizations risk needless redesign and disastrous errors while squandering intellectual capital. Errors tend to persist because spreadsheets and other computer programs that contain hidden calculations are difficult to reverse-engineer. As a result, it's highly unlikely anyone will formally or informally validate those calculations.

When engineering information is poorly documented, engineers end up solving the same problems over and over again, rather than reusing established, verified calculations for a given architectural situation. As a result, schedules slip or, even worse, engineering teams cannot retrace their steps quickly. If, on the other hand, engineers capture their work as they proceed — including their methods, assumptions, and critical values — other engineers could reuse and refine it to benefit other projects.

Calculation management is the solution. Calculation management is a systematic practice that captures methods and values that represent product development and engineering designs to make them more visible, useful, and collectively manageable for the organization. The practice treats calculations as a key business asset, rather than an incidental task.

ImageEffective calculation management is a realistic goal. It is largely a matter of applying sound principles and technologies from information management and old-fashioned good housekeeping to the current calculation clutter. Although assumptions do not record themselves, it is possible to create a calculating environment — through the right technology and training — that thoroughly documents engineering methods and values for reuse, validation, refinement, reporting, and publishing. A calculation management system should include a user-friendly display, produce worksheets in multiple publishing formats, and interface neatly with related software such as computer-aided design (CAD), product data management (PDM), and product lifecycle management (PLM).

A calculation management system improves an organization's control over valuable intellectual capital and makes it easier for engineers to do their jobs by:

  • promoting reuse of critical engineering information;
  • centralizing key parameters to ensure that all calculations use the most reliable values;
  • creating libraries of in-house standards and methods; and
  • making engineering methods and values available online and accessible for the various constituents involved in engineering and product development.

It is neither particularly difficult nor expensive to begin managing calculations, which means that engineering-based enterprises have a ready-made opportunity to gain a significant return on their investment. The advent of Extensible Markup Language (XML) — a technology development that turns data on the Internet into meaningful, searchable, structured content — will only compound that ROI.

XML will help engineering organizations better search for and retrieve numbers, calculations, and results from within their organizations or partner networks. They will be able to publish their calculations more easily in a wide variety of formats with greater control over the look and feel. They will be able to track calculations across any number of projects, yet hide or lock them when necessary. They will more easily integrate calculations and results with organization-wide business processes and, through Web services, automate their interaction with upstream and downstream applications.

Today, and in the future with XML, calculation management is ultimately about enabling companies to get quality products and services out the door in less time and with less risk of error. It is a new way of doing right by the customer, while at the same time deriving competitive advantage over the competition. In the current era, where balancing quality, efficiency, and cost are key, calculation management is a necessity.

This article was written by Allen Razdow, chief technology officer at Mathsoft Engineering & Education, Cambridge, MA. For more information, contact Allen Razdow at: 617-444-8072; e-mail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. ; or visit: www.mathsoft.com .