Spreadsheets hold considerable appeal among today’s engineers who use the application to perform calculations.
However, spreadsheets are not known for either reliability or auditability as a recent study by Coopers and Lybrand revealed that 90% of all spreadsheets comprising of more than 150 rows contained errors. A KPMG study also found that 91% of 22 spreadsheets taken from an industry sample contained errors.
This can be especially problematic in engineering organisations where the cost of an error can go far beyond dollars and cents.
While spreadsheets provide the results of critical engineering calculations, the methods, assumptions, values and logic behind these results remain invisible with engineers only seeing machine-readable text buried in formulas, making errors difficult to trace.
Additionally, engineering design is mostly a collaborative process between multiple users, making it crucial for spreadsheets to be tested and validated. Users may use the spreadsheet application for ‘mission-critical’ calculations and assume that the calculations are suitable for use.
Spreadsheets are not designed to handle the language of engineers. Engineers require documents that explain all one needs to know about the design process, including text, interactive mathematical calculations, graphs and actual drawings and models in a single, shareable document.
Many engineering firms such as Bechtel are using Mathcad engineering calculation software to employ standard mathematical notation and capture the assumptions, methods and critical data behind every calculation. Knowledge is captured in a shareable form and clearly documented.
According to Khaldoon Sakkal, the automation coordinator for civil, structural and architectural engineering for Bechtel’s petroleum and chemicals group, Bechtel has, since the late 1990s created engineering calculation templates using Mathcad and posted them on its Intranet for use by 70 engineers. The company stopped using spreadsheets and macros because of checking issues.
With 40 Mathcad worksheets centralised for use, engineers simply download the one they need and fill in the variables.
To truly standardise on the right tool for engineering calculations, organisations must fully examine their needs within the context of both the engineer and the engineering organisation. Mathcad moves beyond the capabilities of the spreadsheet, providing a solution that is expressly designed to better solve and document calculations.
With Mathcad, finding errors and fixing them is just a matter of going over the inputs. Sakkal explains that ‘while the technology doesn’t eliminate mistakes (an engineer can input the wrong data), mistakes won’t be in the calculation itself’.
Mathcad engineering calculation software is available from Hearne Scientific Software .