Every design engineer needs to perform calculations, and nobody wants to set up workflows that they have already spent time working through. Every vendor tells the world that they have the solutions, but few make the cut. Moreover, the costs of the tools can be vastly different. Does any tool provide what every flavor of engineer requires?
Microsoft’s Excel is a fine program, and it is quite inexpensive at less than $200, but nobody can use this for the most demanding of engineering applications. It is limited in design reusability, and the size of problems that one is able to solve is somewhat limited. The built-in functions are great for doing basic work, it is simply not designed for engineers. However, very few engineers would be happy without a license installed on their favorite workstations.
If Excel is not a serious engineering tool, what criteria make this so? Consider the following:
- Painless (Does it align itself with understandable paradigms?)
- Capability (Are built-in functions made for real engineering problems?)
- Documentation (Can the user document their work well within the work?)
- Visualization (Do the graph/plot tools provide enough power for the user to convey their work?)
- Extensible (Will the user be locked into the tool once their work is complete?)
- Price (Does the price point align itself with the capability, and is the vendor making it easy for the tool to be investigated?)
What are the options? Which vendors are serious contenders? This article considers the following:
Wolfram provides products that are both innovative and independent. Their tagline is “Computation Meets Knowledge.” This their integration of looks such as Alpha, it seems that this is as close to being true as ever. The online platform is doing something that nobody else seems to have done. Their language is powerful and highly extensible. Visualization almost takes care of itself for basic functions, and documentation happens in a simple text entry mode with markup capabilities. Furthermore, the tools to solve mathematical problems are quite easily discerned. What does the Mathematica tool not provide?
For anyone that has come from any other tool, Mathematica is to other tools as Farsi is to English. Cursors rotate to indicate different entry modes. The scope, numbering, and naming of variables seem to be different for the sake of being different. Engineering solver functions are not extensive, and it does not seem to be a focus for upcoming releases.
At less than $3,000 for a business user and $300 for a home user, the price point is not bad, and Wolfram is very encouraging to the home user. Its highly extensible nature and innovative team make the package one to watch. Keep an eye on this tool for the future or take the plunge yourself.
What engineer does not have some graph paper and an old standby calculator? None that is probably worthwhile. Mathcad scratches an itch that every engineer needs to scratch. Key bindings are very well laid out, and documentation is easier than using most word processor software. Need a plot? The software almost wants to make it work for you, but with limitations in power. This is a notebook that is readable for anyone capable of understanding the content. It is as easy as it can be.
The shortcomings are in its extensibility and overall power. Expect to be using this data elsewhere through a bit of pain. Also, nothing is easily ported to other platforms. At well under $2,000, it is an inexpensive tool for its power. This is a notebook tool that has maintained its relevance for decades now.
The product page for this tool leads one to wonder what segment is not being targeted. Matlab can crunch numbers, design filters, and push functional models to compiled code. It is extensible for using databases or interacting with other development platforms. Applications exist to develop antennas, circuits, and control systems. This article is not going to enumerate all of the engineering applications that this tool is ready to attack.
While simple applications exist, using the tool requires mastering the command line. There is no way around this, but it is easily learned. Also, the documentation is very well written. Every command comes with examples and links to related functions. Documentation is especially needed when it comes to visualization. Mathworks has a solid set of visualization functions, but wading through them can be a bit painful. If the problem is difficult or large, this tool should be evaluated, and this vendor is very eager to provide a free test drive.
The base package is currently listed at $2,150. What isn’t to love? Note that this is the base package and that only provides very basic number-crunching capability. Any of the specific functionality is built into toolboxes that can be highly granular or have prerequisite dependencies. How expensive can these be? Some of the more powerful seats used by Duotech can be well over $50,000. However, these are worth every penny when properly leveraged.
Which one should be purchased?
I switch into the first person intentionally now. On my workstation, I use all three. None provides a perfect solution, but all try. In the end, I keep using these in close proximity to a whiteboard.
Engineers, what do you prefer? Tell us about it below.