Chris Randles

Subscribe to Chris Randles: eMailAlertsEmail Alerts
Get Chris Randles: homepageHomepage mobileMobile rssRSS facebookFacebook twitterTwitter linkedinLinkedIn


Article

Managing Engineering Information

Extend the productivity of the enterprise

It's virtually axiomatic: technology innovations first boost personal productivity then group productivity. The PC, for example, first helped individuals automate writing, accounting and personal organization functions, then spawned group productivity through networks, the Internet and e-commerce. Today's goal is to harness other personal productivity gains that technology has delivered and transfer them to entire organizations.

We in the design engineering industry are no exception. We are particularly intent on stretching personal productivity to the workgroup and the enterprise. This is especially valuable as engineering organizations decentralize product development and manufacturing, often offshore, in search of lower costs and around-the-clock productivity. To support this decentralized collaboration, information must flow easily, coherently and instantly among different kinds of systems.

This is why XML is a powerful force promoting robust information exchange. We see XML making an especially dramatic impact on productivity and collaboration in the area of innovation, specifically in its ability to enhance the management of engineering information.

XML's premise is that every piece of information, even the most granular piece of data, can for the first time include metadata that explains its purpose and significance. As a result, virtually any data item can be captured, managed, and leveraged. Web pages - essentially vehicles for representing real data - are giving way to documents that contain and reveal and transmit meaningful, structured content.

XML's simple text-based approach, combined with the power of specialized schemas eliciting meaning from otherwise unstructured data, is enabling engineers, R&D teams, and entire product development groups to exchange information more quickly. As a result, they can participate more deeply in one another's business processes and automate these processes without overhauling applications to accept every partner's unique data format. Fueling this evolution is the arrival of new XML vocabularies. The design engineering market - a market driven in part by mathematical calculations - is again no exception to this trend.

The Lifeblood of Product Development: Engineering Methods and Values
Calculations and their results, the lifeblood of engineering organizations, are to an engineer as words are to an author, paintings to a museum, or money to a banker. Calculations power innovation, whether a civil engineer at Bechtel is assessing the structural integrity of a bridge, a mechanical engineer at Motorola is developing a durable mobile phone, or a chemical engineer at Procter & Gamble is determining the effect of a new detergent on cloth.

Too often organizations find a way to preserve the result of a critical calculation but lose track of the assumptions and data that contributed to it. And sometimes, they even fail to preserve the result. XML promises to help capture this elusive information and provide what could be the biggest step forward to date in engineering collaboration. It will give every product design - and every engineering method and value underlying it - meaning and traceability, enabling on-time product development, product quality, regulatory compliance, and auditability. This is calculation management.

Redefining Knowledge Management in the Engineering Enterprise
Engineering enterprises have traditionally lacked powerful tools, XML-based or otherwise, to manage the methods and values underlying their designs. Calculations in the engineering-based enterprise are frequently performed in spreadsheets, or using programming languages. In most organizations, this work is scattered across desks, personal hard drives, document management systems, and file cabinets. Although these methods and data are valuable corporate assets, they are rarely treated as such. The focus is often on the result of a calculation and not the method of reaching it. The harm in failing to properly manage calculations is needless redesign, sometimes disastrous errors, and always lost productivity and lost revenue. For that reason, organizations are waking up to the need to more strongly manage this aspect of the product development process.

Unfortunately, when equations are represented most accessibly in printed materials and handwritten notes, they are static pictures lacking meaning in the electronic world. In spreadsheets, formulas are invisible (i.e., embedded in the cells), as are functions coded in a programming language. The beauty of XML is that it can make calculations usable and visible without embracing a proprietary file format. All the elements of a calculation are tagged in one language, XML, and ready for other applications to consume or publish directly into any selected document format. You are embracing a method for encapsulating meaning in a way that can be interchanged with any individual, group or machine.

XML Vocabularies Describe Calculations
Recognizing XML's potential for calculation management, the engineering industry is developing several schemas to capture engineering information for better product development. UnitsML, for example, is a standard describing units of length, area, volume, mass, and other measures that my company is developing in cooperation with the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). No longer is a number in an electronic document at best a known quantity of mysterious unknown units? Seven what? Meters? Liters? Rads? Mph? Units can now be specified in XML and searched, indexed and retrieved across the Internet as such.

My company has developed and published the first comprehensive XML-based schema for engineering, the Mathcad XML Information Architecture (XML-IA). Although XML schemes for math already exist, this for the first time accounts for the peculiarities of applied math and engineering information, including parameters, units, and results. It is an open, nonproprietary data model that incorporates UnitsML and is readable by human engineers and their software, whether it's Mathcad calculation software or any other vendor's design, document management, database, or product lifecycle management (PLM) application. This is not just for my company's software; it's for the benefit of product development wherever it takes place, across multiple companies and systems, whichever they choose to use.

Mathcad XML will further support calculation management by making engineering information traceable through the enterprise via a central XML repository. XSL Transformations (XSLT) will translate documents for databases, publication-quality reports, code developers, and search engines. Companies can easily repurpose this engineering information for calculation dependency analyses and design-change appraisals.

These and other XML-related developments 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 critical values 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.

Specific Scenarios
With XML, engineers will be able to integrate calculations into automated business processes across teams and among discipline "silos." An engineer, for instance, could import procurement data into a Mathcad worksheet and let calculation results produce SmartSketch CAD drawings, Excel spreadsheets for financial analysis, and Adobe PDF documents (or any text-based format because XML is highly flexible and structured) for reporting, all with the push of a button.

Engineers will be able to identify at a glance the origin of a particular value or calculation regardless of how many times it is cut and pasted to other documents. A design engineer, for example, could publish a worksheet of constants to be used as baseline data for all projects involving a particular vendor, creating an auditable trail of numbers throughout the project.

Organizations will be able to get concrete answers to commonly asked questions like:

  • Did we use the current requirement for cargo weight or the old requirement in this analysis?
  • Can we give our vendors access to that calculation?
  • Does the delivered document match the analysis that was actually performed?
  • Which design points depend on the yield strength of ASTM316l steel, and where did we get that number?
  • I'm sure someone must have done this calculation before.
  • I hope we got the units right!
The ability to answer questions like these separates great engineering organizations from average ones and makes the difference between efficient product development and failing to cultivate the potential market for your products. Engineering organizations that harness the full power of XML for calculation management can nail these questions every time and enjoy on-time product development, higher product quality, painless regulatory compliance and easy integration with enterprise applications.

The personal productivity that computing delivered in the last decade will be extended to the enterprise, and results will be impressive.

More Stories By Chris Randles

Chris Randles is chairman, president and CEO of Mathsoft, whose software is now used by 90%t of Fortune 1000 companies, more than 500 government agencies, more than 2,000 colleges and universities, and 1.5 million engineers in more than 50 countries. Prior to joining Mathsoft, Randles was vice president of marketing at Software Publishing Corp., where he was in charge of strategy, marketing and promotion for Software Publishing's products worldwide. Earlier, he served as director of marketing ? and a founder manager ? of the company's international division.

Comments (1) View Comments

Share your thoughts on this story.

Add your comment
You must be signed in to add a comment. Sign-in | Register

In accordance with our Comment Policy, we encourage comments that are on topic, relevant and to-the-point. We will remove comments that include profanity, personal attacks, racial slurs, threats of violence, or other inappropriate material that violates our Terms and Conditions, and will block users who make repeated violations. We ask all readers to expect diversity of opinion and to treat one another with dignity and respect.


Most Recent Comments
Thomas Schaefer 04/12/05 08:01:37 AM EDT

I have yet to find published documentation of the mentioned XML-IA. Units conversion is essential to mediating web services across applications, but it seems more reasonable as a server-based service rather that a component of every client or peer.

-Tom