When Maplesoft President Jim Cooper reviewed the results of a recent survey his company conducted to find out what calculation tools engineers use, he was floored. “We found out that our biggest competition isn’t a rival software company, it’s the old classic: pencil and paper. To a great extent engineers today are doing math calculations the same way I did them 20 years ago—looking up constants in printed reference materials and doing hand calculations. We didn’t expect that,” the former aerospace engineer says.
Not only did the venerable “hand calculation” rank number one as the most frequently-used design and analysis tool, with 52% of the respondents reporting that they scribble on the back-of-an-envelope daily. But it was by far-and-away the most pervasive one. Just over one third of the respondents reported that they fire up Excel daily, while 33% use a specialized math tool like Maplesoft’s Maple 10.
Given the portability of the handheld calculator and paper-and-pencil, the ubiquity of these tools may not seem all the impressive. I for one don’t leave my desk without my HP calculator. But Cooper says that for many of the respondents of the study, paper-and-pencil is the only tool they use.
Pencil and paper reigns supreme as the most popular design and analysis tool used by engineers.
Even more disconcerting, Cooper could not find any evidence that suggested younger engineers are adopting the newer calculation tools at any greater rate than their more senior counterparts. “We’re in the 21st Century, you’d think that engineers in the first decade of their careers would be fully digital and taking advantage of the newest tools,” he says. “But that isn’t the case.”
So what’s really going on? Why aren’t more engineers embracing tools like Maple 10, a math software package that Maplesoft says allows engineers to perform calculations and capture technical knowledge more easily and in a way that they intuitively expect it to look? “Whether it’s our product or someone else’s, these tools offer substantially better ways of performing and managing calculations,” says Cooper. And he’s right. But one reason so many engineers still rely on manual methods is that whatever the software tool, there is a learning curve associated with it—and often a steep one. And unless he has a really compelling reason to do so, exactly how does a frazzled engineer make time in his busy day to learn something new? Case-in-point: An engineer friend of mine received a review copy of the newest version of one of math analysis software packages. Still in its shrink wrap, it’s been sitting on his shelf for months: “I know this would be a great piece of software to learn, but I just don’t have time,” he explained sheepishly.
Of course, one can hope that eventually all software will get easier to learn and use, but I wouldn’t hold my breath. To get more engineers using these tools, analysis and calculation software companies need to do a better job demonstrating to potential users what’s actually in it for them. The pencil doesn’t have to prove itself.
To view the full results of Maplesoft’s 2006 Engineering and Scientific Calculation Tool Survey and for more information on Maple 10, click hereKaren Auguston Field, firstname.lastname@example.org
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