“The most important thing is to keep the most important thing the most important thing.” ― Donald P Coduto
The engineer in demand is a restless soul! When his/her career reaches full swing, it can be hard to manage the mountain of demands. The purpose of this blog is to provide a summary of tools for the engineer swamped in a sea of action items. Hopefully you’ll knock off those “to-do’s” at a more efficient pace!
If you work for an engineering firm or similar, you already have a suite of tools at your disposal. Likely, you already have most of these depending on your discipline and focus. I am a mechanical engineer, so my tools are more broad stroked, but most are applicable to other disciplines. See below for 9 tools to help boost your productivity in a Windows world:
1. OneNote by Microsoft Office
Early morning August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast of the United States which includes my hometown of Pascagoula, MS. At the time, I was working on a project where the drawings were provided and modified on vellum. So hardly any electronic copies were available before the storm and Katrina wiped the stock clean. My office was among several in a cubical jungle. Everything had drifted and settled in a pile of mud. I could find none of my belongings which included several college reference books that I used quite often.
The reason for this story is to help you understand why I tend to keep electronic copies with backups. My physical notebooks are basically scratch pads. I use them for quick notes in meetings, hashing out rough drafts, quick hand calcs, etc. However, when I want to keep pertinent information in a readily available document, I often turn to OneNote. Notes can be printed to a pdf, shared with others, linked to other notes, accessed on my mobile phone and many other features. I can search all of my notes for keywords, including text on images!
The ability to share with other colleagues is a very nice ability when a project has pertinent information needed by several team members. Common hyperlinks can also be incorporated for easy navigation within the notes or linked to files on a shared network.
OneNote content is saved in notebook files. One file per notebook can be saved and backed up anywhere. Content that you enter is automatically saved, so there is no “save” button. If you don’t want an entry anymore, just delete it. This tool helps you stay organized!
2. OneDrive by Microsoft Office
OneDrive (formerly SkyDrive) is an online cloud storage service from Microsoft and it is included in the Office 365 subscription. For me, the Microsoft Office 365 Home is sufficient for my consulting applications. If you enroll in the annual subscription, you can share your benefits with up to four people in your household. With the subscription, you get the OneNote mentioned above as well as the other basic Office Suite products such as Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Access, Outlook and Publisher.
OneDrive makes it easy to share large files with colleagues as well. You can even share folders and assign read/write privileges. The subscription includes 1 TB of storage for you and each of those who share in your household for whom you share the benefits. Files stored in OneDrive can be accessed directly from a web browser or with the Windows File Explorer. Other means of accessing your OneDrive files include apps for your Phone, Xbox or Mac.
Other subscriptions are available for varying amounts, just choose the one that suits your needs at https://products.office.com
3. Snipping Tool by Microsoft Windows
This little tool is included with Windows operating systems. I’ve used it since Windows 7. Just search for Snipping Tool in the programs and open. It is very simple to use and not congested with a gazillion functions. It simply takes a snapshot or snip of anything that you want on your display. You can then draw on the snipped picture and save it as a file or copy it to the clipboard to paste elsewhere.
In troubleshooting scenarios, this is a wonderful tool to have! You can annotate pictures or diagrams and integrate them to communicate concepts, ideas or solutions. Use it to mark up a small section of a diagram for a quick note or email response. The only thing that would make it better is to have the ability to add text easily. An alternative paid program called SnagIt is very easy to use with this feature and many more.
See example here copied from the screen Word version with markings:
4. Copy Path function in Windows 10 File Explorer
I can’t count the number of times that I needed to copy the path to a file to either share with someone on a common network, to record the location in my OneNote notes or something similar. I’ll often make the path into a hyperlink for easy access.
Previous to Windows 10 File Explorer, I would copy the path from the path bar on file explorer, then add another backslash, then copy and add the file name for this process. Windows 10 made it much easier with one button! Just highlight the file, go to the Home tab, then click the “Copy Path” button… Done! This places the file name and path into the clipboard for use elsewhere. It is a real time saver when you are organizing multiple items.
See short video demonstration below:
5. ACAD by Autodesk
This is a no-brainer for today’s engineer and designer. If you need to communicate concepts and ideas, you need a CAD program to facilitate those interactions. You need something that most folks in your industry are familiar with using and/or transferring compatible files. Engineers need to be able to draw schematics or basic concepts. They need to be able to open, view and modify more complex drawings as well. If you can draw basic shapes in ACAD, then you can draw complex systems and arrangements. My experience with any software is that when you need to learn something new and you are under the gun to learn it, you will learn it. Just make sure the final result makes sense… poke a few holes in it and see if it withstands some criticism.
I found a student version that is available here at the time of this post:
AutoDesk offers many other programs and you can explore them here at http://www.autodesk.com
6. Draftsight by SolidWorks
If you cannot afford ACAD by AutoDesk, you can start out with a free version that will open and produce dwg files. Draftsight by SolidWorks does this in a menu layout that is similar to the ACAD interface. There were a few quirks when I used it a few years back, but DraftSight mostly worked fine for basic drawings. Just remember there are usually multiple ways to accomplish a task.
You can download a free copy here at http://www.solidworks.com/sw/products/free-cad-software-downloads.htm
7. PipeFlo by Engineered Software
This is a mechanical piping specialty software. If you are more familiar with a similar software, by all means, continue using it. This happens to be the first hydraulics program introduced to me. I’ve used some alternatives, but PipeFlo always seems to be the best option. It is very easy to use and just makes sense!
I’ve made and used spreadsheets for pressure drop calculations, but many times a system gets too complex to analyze adequately in a spreadsheet. Suction pipes where multiple taps are present can be troublesome. Also, when a system is operated for the first time where balancing and other issues are experienced, PipeFlo makes it much easier to diagnose issues experienced by the operators. There are multiple features to assist you to model a system with very good accuracy. For example, you can model pressure drop across equipment that varies with flow. So as the system experiences different valve lineups, component pressure drops compensate automatically; It’s not just a static number for each piece of equipment. An existing library of pump curves are also available for download so in many instances you don’t have to enter the points for a specific pump curve. The latest version even has thermal capabilities.
I’ve contacted support several times over the years and they are very responsive and helpful. Visit their website for more information at https://eng-software.com
8. Bentley AutoPIPE or CAEPIPE
If you work with cryogenic piping or high temperatures such as exhaust pipe, you will deal with thermal movements of the pipe. These movements caused by changes in temperature will introduce pipe stresses that need consideration. Not only the proper placement of pipe supports is critical, but the type of support at each location needs special attention. Numbering each one is a good way to communicate exact type and placement to the folks who actually build and install them.
The resulting thermal growth for a straight piece of pipe with known length, material, size and thermal expansion coefficient can easily be calculated by hand. However, when several pipes are heated after they are joined together in holy matrimony and routed in hairball fashion, they work together to produce some staggering stress reactions on the routed pipe, connected structure, foundations and equipment. Calculating the combined factors by hand would be a cumbersome process. Fortunately, software is available today to assist the engineer in analyzing thermal growth while considering combined elements.
Several years ago, Algor sold software for structural and pipe FEA (Finite Element Analysis). The structural version was called FEMPRO and the pipe version was called PIPEPAK. Both were fairly useful and I used PIPEPAK for thermal expansion and contraction of piping systems. Since then, AutoDesk acquired Algor and integrated the structural portion into their suit of software. The PIPEPAK software is no longer supported to my knowlege. I understand that CAEPIPE is pretty similar and does a good job. It even comes with a free evaluation version with up to 20 nodes. However, if you are looking at cryogenic jacketed pipe, one of the best is Bentley’s AutoPIPE according to an old colleague of mine. Either route is not cheap if you have to buy, so consider the workload carefully before you commit. See below for links.
*Ask them about their quarterly subscription service, it may be a good option as well.
9. Adobe Acrobat Pro DC
Who doesn’t know what pdf files are? If you deal with any type of files on a regular basis, you’ve likely viewed and handled pdf’s at some stage. They are likely the most common form of document type for transfer and review.
Acrobat Pro DC is the latest Acrobat software at the time of this writing for pdf editing. You can get by without it, but the benefits to your time and frustration are well worth the added expense. Annual subscriptions are available to keep you up to the latest version.
With Pro DC, you can edit, annotate, print other docs to pdf, request electronic signatures, manipulate pages, make forms and many other options. There are other software options available to get some of these functions, but the ability to do them without swapping programs and multiple other manipulations will free you from many headaches and your schedule will thank you!
If you want to outright buy it with no subscription, click below:
Visit their website for more information at https://www.adobe.com
In summary, some of the tools above have mechanical parlance, but others are common across the engineering spectrum. In the world of software, there are usually many ways to do the same task with similar results (I was going to say there are many ways to “skin a cat”, but I’m not sure how well that will translate outside of my redneck heritage <grin>). The intention here is to offer some tools that I use to help boost productivity.
I hope to see some comments from the other disciplines that highlight other specialty software. Any of you “sparkies”, “naval artichokes” or others want to chime in… What tools do you use?
Let me know what you think. I would love some feedback.