What if there were a way to incorporate accountability directly into the same work that produces the actual design?
As indispensable as computers are in electronics analysis, they generally have failed to meet their potential in supporting long-term business objectives. To date, there has been little effort to comprehensively capture and reuse the content of engineering calculations, whether data, formulas, or variables, in reporting, regulatory compliance, or project management.
Too often, organizations lose track of engineering assumptions and the data that contributed to them. Traceability and accountability have largely been left in the hands of paper systems or within tracking software that has little or nothing to do with the engineering process.
But if the numbers used to create the final result of an engineering calculation are self-verifying, then accountability and design could become one in the same process. By doing the design or analysis work, the engineer would be making the work recordable, traceable, manageable, and reliable.
Combining accountability and design into the same process not only increases the productivity of the individual engineer, but also improves the reliability of reporting and the efficiency of the overall organization. This approach enables the decentralization of product development and manufacturing, faster time to market, more effective reuse of ideas and policies, and better implementation of standards.
To support this decentralized collaboration, information must flow easily, coherently, and instantly among different kinds of systems. eXtensible Markup Language (XML) makes this possible. The key is harnessing this technology.
The Basics of XML
XML should sound familiar by now. Although many understand the broad concepts of XMLï¿½enabling diverse platforms to interoperate and software to be portableï¿½itï¿½s important to know exactly how to apply it in engineering solutions.
XML is a flexible system for storing and verifying information and promoting robust information exchange. The potential impact of XML on business productivity promises to be as strong as the effect of the relational database management system (RDBMS) was on the business world more than 20 years ago. Just as the RDBMS created new business opportunities by improving the way different types of data were viewed, managed, and ultimately used, XML increases efficiency in engineering collaboration by sharing information more effectively.
XML is a meta-language, a language for describing other languages. It allows organizations to create their own custom descriptions for exchanging information in their domain while at the same time transforming raw information into meaningful, structured content that is easily exchanged with others in the same field, regardless of the computing environment.
XML will give every product design and every engineering method and value underlying it meaning and traceability, enabling on-time product development, product quality, regulatory compliance, and auditability. This practice of capturing methods and values to make the decisions and assumptions of product development and engineering design more visible and collectively manageable is known as calculation management.
A Deeper Look Into XML
XMLï¿½s premise is that every piece of information, even the most granular such as a number, can include meta-data that explains its purpose and significance as well as other identifiers that allow it to be tracked and vetted. As a result, virtually any data item can be captured, managed, and leveraged.
XML makes it possible to provide contextual information in a manner similar to a database along with the traditional content found in most electronic documents. The additional information can control any type of property, including display, functionality, or fields for use in other specialized applications. For example, there can be fields for project name, originator, reference source, keywords, units, and values.
XML makes engineering calculations usable and visible without embracing a proprietary file format. Momentum behind XML has grown at a startling rate since the development of the specification began in September 1996. The engineering community is only now starting to realize its potential benefits.
Like many text-based markup languages, XML uses tags to surround content in a way that allows the author of the XML, typically a computer application, to include meta-data. For example, some markup text that represents regions containing either text or math might look like Figure 1.
The tags are surrounded by angle brackets such as and can contain attributes such as the ID number, position, and state that pertain to the content contained within the tag. Then there is the content itself, which also is contained within tags, some with cryptic names like , short for Math Language in this example.
If you know how information is marked up, then you can tell a great many things about the contentï¿½its value, formatting, identifying numbers, or other informationï¿½without having available the original application that created it. And you can represent that same content in other ways by massaging the pieces, selecting just those that are relevant to the new application, or bringing to the surface attributes that were hidden before.
Because XML format documents are text-based, they are very portable and can be read by a great many systems from the simple search tools available on the average Windows desktop to sophisticated document repository databases. Getting the information into a portable form is the first benefit of XML.
What Is a Schema?
An XML document is not a stand-alone entity, nor is there only one flavor of XML. XML represents a method of tagging information, but any given XML-based file is only truly powerful in conjunction with its specified schema. A schema is a rule set that specifies every type of information that can be represented in a particular kind of XML file. Any file in XML format will use the rules specified in its schema to represent a particular type of information.
The engineering industry recognizes XMLï¿½s potential for calculation management in capturing the information surrounding engineering calculations on top of the results themselves. As a result, several schemas are being developed to support this information capture for better product development.
UnitsML, for example, is an emerging standard describing unit of length, area, volume, mass, and other measures. No longer is a number in an electronic document a known quantity of mysterious unknown units. Seven what? Meters? Liters? Rads? Mph? Units now can be specified in XML and searched, indexed, and retrieved on a desktop on an intranet and across the Internet as units.
An XML-based schema for engineering is the Mathcad XML Information Architecture (XML-IA). Although XML schemas for math already exist, this new schema accounts for the peculiarities of applied math and engineering information including parameters, units, results, and annotations.
The new architecture has the facility to store an audit trail that remembers provenanceï¿½where numbers are copied and pasted from as well as any annotations entered when an equation is created. This information is carried along with calculations as they are copied and reworked from worksheet to worksheet and can be inspected either inside or outside the originating system.
XML-IA is an open, nonproprietary data model. It incorporates UnitsML and is readable by engineers and their software, whether it is Mathsoftï¿½s calculation software or any other vendorï¿½s design, document management, database, or product lifecycle management (PLM) application.
The schema benefits engineering product development wherever it takes place, even across multiple companies and systems, and can be used with any software. It is flexible to accommodate the many types of information that engineers and their management might wish to know about the designs.
What Is a Transform?
Armed with the schema, you then can transform an associated XML file into any other type of XML file. A transform or eXtensible Stylesheet Language Transform (XSLT) will provide yet another set of rules for massaging the information represented by a schema into a set of tags for a different type of schema. For example, many types of XML documents are transformed into HTML so that the resulting transformed information can be viewed with a Web browser.
Other common transforms are aimed at formatting technologies, such as PDF, database, or word-processing technologies. If you know the schema that describes the originating document and the schema of the document type you would like to create, then XSLT is designed to let you rearrange the content and tags from the first format into the second.
Content stored in an XML format can be transformed into numerous applications. Using XSLT, it is possible to translate documents for databases, publication-quality reports, code generation, and search engines.
Companies can easily reorganize this engineering information for calculation dependency analyses and design-change appraisals. Engineers and their managers can retrieve just the pieces of information that are relevant to a design review or the whole original document.
These XML technology developments will help engineering organizations improve the search and retrieval of numbers, calculations, and results from within the organizations or partner networks by:
ï¿½ Publishing critical values or methods in a wide variety of formats with greater control over the look and feel.
ï¿½ Tracking calculations across any number of projects and hiding or locking them when necessary.
ï¿½ More easily integrating calculations and results with organization-wide business processes.
ï¿½ Through Web services, automating the interaction with upstream and downstream applications.
XMLï¿½s simple text-based approach, combined with the power of schemas eliciting meaning from otherwise unstructured data, enables engineers, R&D teams, and entire product development groups to exchange information more quickly. As a result, they can participate more deeply in one anotherï¿½s business processes and automate these processes without overhauling applications to accept every partnerï¿½s unique data format.
For example, engineers can identify the origin of a particular value or calculation as well as those cases in which a value was cut and pasted into other documents. They can see the impact of an engineering change across their entire product line, search for information in the content or the meta-data, preview worksheets, or prepare final reports. Ultimately, engineers are able to integrate individual calculations into automated business processes across teams and discipline silos.
Redefining Knowledge Management
How the meta-information and the content contained in an XML file are used depends on the system reading the XML. For example, when an XML file is viewed in proprietary calculation software, formulas appear in the proper position and typeface and may represent live calculating mathematics. Inside a Web browser, the file might appear as snapshots of the equations. In a document repository, the same file could appear as a list of references from which the equations were drawn or as a client list showing which work was done for which project.
Engineering enterprises traditionally have lacked capabilities like these to manage the methods and values underlying their calculations. In most organizations, this work is scattered across desks, personal hard drives, document management systems, and file cabinets.
Although these methods and data are valuable corporate assets, they rarely are treated as such. The focus often is on the result of a calculation and not the method of reaching it.
The Real-World Benefits of XML
The harm in failing to properly manage calculations is needless redesign, sometimes disastrous errors, and always lost productivity and revenue. For these reasons, organizations are waking up to the need for stronger management of this aspect of the product development process.
Unfortunately, when equations are represented most accessibly in printed materials and handwritten notes, they are static pictures lacking meaning in the electronic world. In spreadsheets, formulas are embedded in the cells as are functions coded in a programming language.
XML can make calculations usable and visible without embracing a proprietary file format. All the elements of a calculation are tagged in one language, XML, and ready for other applications to consume or publish directly into any selected document format.
Engineering organizations that harness the full power of XML for calculation management can enjoy on-time product development, higher product quality, painless regulatory compliance, and easy integration with enterprise applications. As more engineering and IT organizations realize the vast potential of XML, it will yield greater opportunities for efficiency and new business and become an increasingly pervasive information exchange format used in a wider variety of applications. Through the power of XML, the personal productivity that computing delivered to individual engineers in the last two decades will be extended to the enterprise, and the results will be impressive.
About the Author
Allen Razdow is chief technology officer, founder of MathSoft, and the inventor of Mathcadï¿½s patented technology. He also manages the solutions services group that provides technical support, training, and consulting services. Previously, Mr. Razdow was the co-founder, chairman, and CTO of Acallto and CEO at Torrent. He holds a bachelorï¿½s degree in plasma physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Mathsoft Engineering & Education, 101 Main St., Cambridge, MA 02142, 617-444-8000, e-mail: [email protected]
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