There's an app for that

4 min read

How might the humble engineer be helped by an easy to use app? Is there any real value in it, or is it a gimmick that you can do without?

For engineers, there is a generation gap for those that want apps, and those that do not. As you’d expect the younger audience is more keen to use apps, or indeed write them, to make life easier for themselves.

An example is the engineer’s handbook. These useful and general reference books have served many an engineer over the years.

However, much of the content is now being shrunk down to app size. Handbook type apps can be continually updated with the latest information such as standards, material properties, best practice as well as the latest emerging technologies.

There are various options available, some free, some paid for. Free versions tend to have most of the information you’d expect from a handbook – though it has to be said, there are some dreadful ones on offer, so watch out.

Mechanical Engineering Toolbox & Engineering Handbook Lite

A good start, and free, is the Mechanical Engineering Toolbox available on the App Store, and the Engineering Handbook Lite available on Google Play. Both offer a splattering of the typical things you’d expect for a generalist handbook including equations, unit conversion, and material properties. However, it has to be said, neither offers the same depth as the paper handbook and lack key sections. There are better paid for versions for both with far more content, but it really depends on your needs.

Another similar app for Android users comes from Mechanical Engineering One. Again, a free app, this is more calculation based than a generalist handbook. The app has basic calculators honed for the engineer such as beam load calculators, power and torque, as well as tolerance information.

A sign of potential

Without doubt, the most impressive free app I’ve come across for the engineer is from Autodesk. It’s got multiple apps on the market – all are worth downloading for a play – but its Force Effect app offers a glimpse at the potential and usefulness of apps for engineers.

The app essentially allows users to create free body and kinematic diagrams with beams, supports, and various loads to simulate reaction forces.

It allows engineers to simulate both static structures, and also the motion of mechanisms to understand how they will perform and operate. This little app will allow you to convey a complex message, on the fly, quite easily.

This app can calculate speed, acceleration and displacement for areas of interest and shows the trajectory of the mechanism. It is easy to use, intuitive if you are familiar with free body diagrams, and easily edited.

Calculations and graphical results are immediately available on the diagram. You can also import many basic and common diagrams from the galley, as well as export a mechanism design. This is the digital equivalent of a ‘back of fag packet sketch’ but it is interactive and comes with useful report running that includes formulas for the mechanism and its components.

A really nice feature of the Force Effect is the ability to take a picture of what it is you are trying to calculate, and then lay the free body diagrams over the top. For example a bridge or bike frame.

The downside was the app was prone to crash on the iPhone 6 it was trialled on, particularly when more complex problems and calculations were required. However, a free desktop version is also available that will no doubt avoid this problem due to higher computing power.

Supplier apps

There is also a rise in apps being offered by suppliers to help specify materials and parts. These apps often ask you to enter some specific numbers and then quickly tell you what’s suitable.

By their nature, they tend to be company and product focussed, so while they might, for example, help you specify a fastener, it might also be company and product specific. If you do have a list of approved suppliers, it is worth checking if they have an app.

An example comes from Huntsman Advanced Materials, which has developed an app to help specify its Araldite Adhesives. Given the vast array of products available, each tailored for a different substrate or combination of substrate, it makes sense to make the process simpler for engineers.

The initial screen asks the user to select the substrates to be bonded and the amount of adhesive that’s needed. Let’s say in this case, we want to attach aluminium to a carbon fibre reinforced plastic (CFRP), and we want a tin of adhesive. Over 20 options appear, so the second menu asks users some more specific questions about rheology, reactivity, mechanical characteristics, temperature resistance, long term durability and impact. You don’t need to fill them all out, only the ones important to your application. This then refines the list further and gives access to data sheets.

Another app from the company highlights the process of composite manufacture, and is as much an interesting quiz as it is anything else. The idea of the app is to reduce the risk of those looking to use composites, as it allows an opportunity to explore, analyse, cost and predict outcomes before committing to a particular course of action.

Users get access to all the basics through specific examples of how a variation in process parameters might affect outcomes, for example in identifying the best resin injection temperature to minimise filling time.

CAD Viewers

Other useful apps are CAD viewers, available for most file types including dwg, step files, iges etc for both smartphones and tablets.

Most of the major CAD vendors offer some kind of free, or certainly cheap, downloadable app that will enable CAD models to be opened, edited, notes made, shared and reviewed. The usual pinch commands zoom in and out, you can highlight parts of an assembly, make cut through and do other basic operations.

Cloud-hosted collaboration and file-sharing service, GrabCAD allows engineers to manage, view, and share CAD files. The app offers access to both the GrabCAD public library of CAD models as well as private projects stored on GrabCAD Workbench. Using this app, engineers can view CAD models in full 3D, regardless of the format they were created, view and respond to comments and upload files.

Another app to view CAD models, eDrawings, uses your device’s camera. The app uses augmented reality to allow you to view the 3D models you create in 1:1 scale with the real world. It allows you to view native eDrawings files as well as native SolidWorks parts, assemblies, and drawings files. Multi-touch gestures let you pan, zoom, and rotate models easily.

Conclusion

There are so many apps available, chances are there is one out there for your use case. The best thing to do is get on the App Store or Google Play, search and download to see what is out there. As always be aware of what you are downloading and be sure to check reviews, number of downloads and that sort of thing to make sure you are getting the right thing – and it works!

Many apps promise to improve based on user input and contribution, so be sure to give feedback to let developers what you’d like, and what would be useful.