Excel has been great for engineering calculations, but it’s time for something better

For years, mechanical, civil, and chemical engineers have depended on Excel for their calculations.

Excel has often done remarkable things, but there are known and widely discussed problems with using it for engineering — problems that aren’t going away.

It’s time engineers have a tool that brings all the benefits of spreadsheets, but none of the baggage.

Where Excel goes wrong for engineers

You’re probably all too familiar with Excel’s problems in engineering, but let’s go over the biggest offenders.

Hidden, confusing equations

Excel hides the math where you can’t see it, and we all know it’s a problem. When you can’t see the equations, it’s harder to follow what’s happening in the calculations.

Even when you take the effort to read the formula, it’s a jumbled mess of letters and numbers compacted together.

Hidden, hard-to-read equations slow you down and make mistakes all too easy.

No dimensional unit control

In Excel, you’re required to keep track of units, doing all the conversions, cancellations, and multiplications yourself manually.

We’ve had the technology for units intelligence since Mathcad came out (at least), so why isn’t it available in other tools like spreadsheets?

Poor naming tools

Named variables are important for understanding your calculations and following along.

Although Excel does give you the power to name cells and regions, the workflow for naming cells is divorced from the calculations the names go with.

In practice, this means few people take advantage of named values, so few people experience the benefits.

What Excel does right

Even with all these problems, there’s a reason so many engineers prefer Excel over other programs, and it’s not just because it’s cheap.

Low learning curve

Engineers shouldn’t have to spend their time figuring out complicated software or programming languages. Excel is quick and easy to pick up, especially for simpler equations.

Powerful extensibility

With Excel, it’s easy to learn the basics, but it doesn’t feel like you’re ever done learning! When you come across a technical road block, you can almost always make Excel work, with a little googling.

View numbers in a table

Spreadsheets make tabular data feel so natural that people forget that’s what spreadsheets are for.

When you can explore numbers in a table without any fluff, you can analyze results and work with information much more naturally.

So how do we build something better?

Engineers need something better than Excel, but what does that look like? A handful of programs exist, like Mathcad or EES, but those don’t seem to get to the heart of it.

No compromises

The answer — build software that fixes the engineering-related problems, brings in familiar tools, and doesn’t give anything up.

That’s what we’re doing at Blockpad.

Make it spreadsheet-like and familiar

Make the tool feel like using a spreadsheet; this is the most important thing. Make it easy to learn and easy to use.

With Blockpad, you work in what feels like a word processor, but when you press equals, a spreadsheet-style formula opens — functions and all.

Viewable equations in math notation

It’s important to see your work, so when an equation is entered in Blockpad, the formula appears in math notation. You get the convenience of spreadsheet formulas, but you can read along with the math.

No more hidden calcs or digging through cells.

Name values as part of the workflow

In Excel, named cells are problematic because naming a value is separated from creating the value.

In Blockpad, you  name values directly in the formula, when you’re writing the equation. This matches how engineers actually do equations, and it feels natural.

Units intelligence — let the computer do that

Instead of painstakingly tracking and converting units manually,  Blockpad makes units easy.

It’s straightforward to assign units to a number, and once you do, the equations convert, cancel, and multiply units as needed (or give you a warning if you can’t do something, like 1 foot + 1 pound).

With units intelligence, you can work faster, and more importantly, mistakes are caught sooner or prevented.

Tables and actual spreadsheets for tabular data

Working with tables of numbers is important for engineering. Spreadsheets are great for this, so it makes sense to include spreadsheets in any calculation tool for engineers.

Tables  in Blockpad work like mini-spreadsheets, where you can store data or perform equations. There are also full-blown spreadsheets, which you can have as a separate “sheets” in a file, alongside your document.

This isn’t some confusing Excel integration either, the spreadsheets are native to Blockpad. You can connect your equations and tables naturally, and use Blockpad features like units intelligence.

More power accessible to you

In many ways, Excel makes it’s more powerful features more complicated than they need to be. Blockpad aims to bring all the power of Excel, but make it easier.

For example, to make a custom function in Excel, you need to write macros, using a totally different toolset. In Blockpad, you can make custom functions  directly in the document, and it isn’t that different from writing a normal equation.

And if you need more power, Blockpad has scripts and advanced functions for that.

Finally, bring more tools for engineering calculation

Blockpad has a ton of engineering-friendly features:  point-snap drawings, an intuitive solver,  matrix math, and more. It also features personal and public libraries, where you can save calculation tools and use those tools in your documents.

You can create custom functions or calculation modules (blocks) and save them to your library. Then use them across your files or share them with colleagues, instead of re-creating them every time you need them.

This kind of engineering functionality can transform how you do calculations for the better.

Engineers deserve better calculation tools

Excel has dominated engineering calculations for too long, and putting up with its flaws has come with too many headaches over the years.

It’s time we use a calculation tool built for engineers, with all of the benefits of conventional spreadsheets and more.