A little more than a month ago, I published a post titled The Forlorn Engineering Notebook. My point in it was that while certain activities in engineering like the creation of drawings and automation of processes had seen dramatic changes in enabling technology, the engineering notebook had been pretty much ignored and forgotten. There are some technologies, however, that do seen to offer some hope. When it comes to taking notes in a digital form, there are a number of solutions that exist. One of the most popular ones is called Evernote. In the rest of this post, I’ll be pointing out some functionality that applies to engineering. I’ll be talking about Evernote but these capabilities are relatively generic for many note taking types of applications.

It’s Not Just about Text…

Well, let’s get the obvious out of the way. With Evernote and other note taking applications, you can capture text. But you can do that with in a document too, right? Why use a note taking application? Well, there are three kinds of capabilities that are relevant here.

  1. To start, these applications offer synchronization. Evernote, for example, offers desktop apps for the Mac and PCs but also for smart phones. Whenever you make any kind of change on one device, it gets synched into the cloud and then synched to all of your other devices. A change anywhere appears everywhere (hmmm… that sounds familiar).
  2. Another characteristic of this type of application is that it is unstructured. There’s no predefined structure in terms of the notes in the notebook. There’s no predefined structure within the notes themselves.
  3. Lastly, these applications can act as an aggregate point. They can take practically any kind of attachment. Could be a document, spreadsheet or presentation. Could be a picture you take with your smart phone. And because of the synchronization everywhere capability, once you attach it on one device, it shows up on all your other devices.

OK. So how does this apply to engineering? Well, there’s a few advantages of such an application for engineers specifically.

The old school notebook was where engineers dumped everything related to a specific project. The ability to attach just about anything to one of these notes mirrors that mode of thinking. Need to look at the spec for that part? Bring it up from the note. What about the reminder you wrote yourself in that project status meeting? Bring up that note. It provides the engineer a central location to go find what’s relevant to a specific project.

Another point is this type of tool supports mobility. Engineers range from the conference room, the shop floor, the supplier’s office and everywhere else. With this sort of technology, that information follows you regardless of which device you are using. But it’s not just about that. You also get to leverage the capabilities of whichever device you’re currently using. A prototyping failed in the test lab? Take a picture of it with your smart phone and drop it into the note. It then shows up on your tablet and your desktop without any effort.

Actively Connected for Engineering…

Now, is this application perfect for engineering? Nope. There’s certainly some deficiencies.

The biggest issue, as I see it, is that this sort of application isn’t part of the product record. An engineer, for example, might want to include some 3D representation of the design. And actually that’s not terribly hard. Realistically though, the engineer might want to include the value of some measurement as a number in his note. Could be the distance between two axes that they then use in some calculation. Obviously something like that might change as the design is modified. So you’d need some type of linked connection from inside the CAD model driven into the note. Not easy to do. And this same sort of idea applies to calculation software or simulation software. That sort of thing should be connected and drive changes from the original models into such a note.

Furthermore, engineers use all sorts of enterprise information to make design decisions. It could be looking at inventory in ERP. Could be a preferred supplier in a procurement system. It could be regulatory compliance information. But they often need to draw information relevant to their project together on their own. Back at the start of 2011, I wrote a post titled What’s the Killer App for the Modern Engineer? where I described how a mashup could be a good fit for them. Putting that sort of capability into a note context makes a ton of sense as well.

Last but not least, the same concept goes for engineering references. And the same is true of free body diagrams (FBD), sketches, requirements and much more.

Conclusions and Questions

Alright, here comes the recap.

  • Note taking applications, such as Evernote, provide a capability to synch across devices, aggregate information by allowing a wide variety of attachments and allow users to define notebook and note structures.
  • The aggregation capability mirrors the old school use of an engineering notebook, where they accumulated everything important about their project. Engineers are on the go today, so synching across any device enables an access anywhere approach.
  • These types of applications aren’t perfect however. These notes aren’t connected to the product record in any way. Engineers might need to include some 3D representation of the design, link off the CAD file in PDM or use an actively updated measurement within the CAD model for calculations within a note. Furthermore, they also need an actively updated view of information that might exist in other enterprise systems like PLM, ERP, procurement systems and more. Lastly, there’s no special support for things like FBDs, sketches, requirements and more.

So what’s the point here? There’s some benefit in a generic solution like note taking applications. I believe it’s certainly an improvement over electronic documents, physical notebooks or anything else I’ve seen. But it still feels… inadequate. But what do you expect? It’s not made for engineering.

Alright, my head’s empty. What do you think? Anyone using Evernote for engineering? Anyone using other note taking applications for engineering? Is mobility really important here? Is synching important? Sound off. Let us know what you think.

Take care. Talk soon. Thanks for reading.