Since the beginning of the year, I’ve been writing a series of posts on the engineering notebook. More specifically, I’ve been writing about how a variety of technologies used outside engineering could be used to build out a solution for the engineering notebook. Here’s the posts.

In each of these posts, I found some technologies with some appealing capabilities. But there didn’t seem to be a single solution out there that really was a holistic solution. So today, I want to pull all of this disparate ideas together and wrap it up in a nice bow.

Critical Capabilities

Traditionally, engineering notebooks have served many purposes. They are the place where engineers jot down notes, sketch out ideas and concepts, perform calculations, stuff pictures and so much more. A modern engineering notebook needs to let engineers do exactly that, but in a new way that provides advantages over a physical notebook.

Here’s a short list of the critical capabilities that I think are important for such a next generation system organized by phase of development as well as a couple of examples of current technologies that offer them.

  • Notetaking: Engineers have and always will need to jot down text. It might be a reminder to themselves. It be a description of something. Regardless, there will always been a need for engineers to write out some text. There are many applications out there today that let you capture notes like Evernote and even Microsoft’s Word, although they do it in very different ways.
  • Sketching: There’s been lots of progress on this front in terms of conceptual sketching in CAD applications. However, sketches lack context when they exist outside the context of an engineering notebook. PTC’s Creo Sketch and Autodesk’s Sketchbook are apps that offer some powerful sketching capabilities. DS has even released a new product called CATIA Natural Sketch that fits here. Each, however, are don’t integrate with any kind of notebook functionality.
  • Picture-Taking: Engineers certainly use a lot of digital tools today, but ultimately they have to deal with the real world. And there’s no easier way to document something that happened in the real world than to just snap a picture. Of course, there are tons of apps and tools to take and capture pictures. However, something Evernote where the picture is stored in the context of a note is important.
  • Calculations: Engineers rely heavily on calculations to predict the performance of parts and products. Calculations also play an important role in terms of sizing components. PTC’s MathCAD and Autodesk’s ForceEffect are both intriguing tools to enable engineers to perform calculations. However, they are standalone in terms of integrating with something that looks like a notebook. There are other tools like Wolfram Mathematica and Maplesoft’s MapleSim.
  • Model Visualization: These design representations have become a huge part of today’s design cycles. As such, they need to live alongside the other representations of the design. There is now a slew of 3D visualization tools that have been integrated as part of many PLM systems, as I have described in my post titled The Long and Winding Road of 3D Visualization.
  • Bill of Materials and Reports: Another activity that happens frequently during the conceptual stage is the development of early Bill of Materials. This is important to start throwing together a list of stock components that need to be used. But just as importantly, engineers need to start tallying up product level characteristics such as costs and regulatory compliance. Arena Solutions launched a new product to build out conceptual BOMs called PartsList, although it seems to be aimed more at electrical engineers. Sustainable Minds offers regulatory compliance reporting that works against BOMs. Many PLM systems offer reporting against BOM. But in each case, these tools exist outside the context of notebooks.
  • Tasking and Requirements: Another important part of engineering notebooks is the ad-hoc listing of what needs to be done and what the product needs to be able to do. Jotting out this information eventually matures into formal tasks that need to be managed and requirements that needs to be fulfilled. Again, almost every PLM system now offers project and task management as well as requirements management. But again, they aren’t in the context of all these other things that exist in engineering notebooks.
  • Connected Information: A while ago, I wrote about the engineer’s need to access enterprise information to make design decisions. This is true in the context of the engineering notebook as well. The additional need, however, is that the information that comes from other enterprise systems into an engineer’s notebook needs to be dynamic. If it changes in the enterprise system, it needs to be updated in the engineering notebook as well. Inforbix has some of the capabilities needed here in finding information in those enterprise systems, letting users set up dashboards and then enabling that information to be dynamically updated. Siemens PLM has launched a new product called Active Work Space (AWS) that overlays enterprise information on top of a 3D model.
  • Any Device Accessibility: Another important capability comes from the reality that today’s engineers are on the go. They might be in a meeting in a conference room with a tablet. They might be in the prototype lab with their mobile phone. They might be at the desk with a laptop. All of the things described so far needs to be accessible on each of these devices. Evernote has capabilities along these lines where every device is synchronized with the cloud. Every device is up to date no matter where the change comes from.

Capabilities in Concert

While there are plenty of examples of individual products that can provide one or two of the critical capabilities I mention above, no application or system today does so in an integrated manner. In my mind, I think that may be the most critical capability of all. Each piece of information delivered by these critical capabilities are actually dependent on things that other capabilities provide. Sketches will have notes alongside them. They will only make sense if they are together. A task may sit next to a BOM with costing report information. Without both sets of information, neither make sense. Calculations may need to sit on top of an image for reference. Without both, someone else couldn’t make heads or tails of either of them.

Bi-Directional Connectedness

Furthermore, I am by no means suggesting that all of these things live only in the engineering notebook. The sketch in the engineering notebook should have a way forward to become the basis for a fully detailed 3D model. Tasks that start in the engineering notebooks should be able to become part of a fuller project plan. The BOM created in the engineering notebook should become a product structure in the PDM system. There’s no reason there can’t be some bi-directional nature to these items.

Summary and Questions

OK. Here’s the recap.

  • The modern engineering notebook needs a wide variety of capabilities including notetaking, sketching, picture-taking, calculations, model visualization, bill of materials and reporting, tasking and requirements, access to connected information and any device accessibility.
  • It’s important that these capabilities are provided in an integrated fashion. Standalone capabilities will lack context that other capabilities provide.
  • There is no reason that these capabilities can’t send this information off to other applications to become more detailed. Furthermore, there should be a bi-directional connection to that information if this happens.

Ready for the last set of questions regarding the engineering notebook? Here it goes. What other capabilities do you think are critically important for an engineering notebook? Which capabilities are critically paired with each other? Which ones would compose the minimum needed to be useful to your organization? What other existing applications or systems provide some of these capabilities? Sound off. I’m very interested to get your take.

Take care. Talk soon. And thanks for reading.