Cover story: Planet of the Apps

The number of apps available for smartphones and tablet computers begs the question; what's in it for engineers? Justin Cunningham finds out.

According to our last reader survey, about 52% of Eureka's readers have a smartphone of one sort or another. With all the benefits that they bring, one thing that does differentiate a smartphone from preceeding mobile technologies is the 'apps' that are available – purpose built bits of software that are designed to perform quite specific functions.

There is one for pretty much everything and anything. From maps to movie times, jokes to jogging, food to fundamental physics; it's all there in easy to use and understand apps. The popularity of apps has also been a catalyst for another emerging technology, tablet computers, the popularity of which has been quite unprecedented.

The two most popular platforms from which to get apps from are Apple with its App Store, and Android with the Android Market. Go to either and type in 'engineering', or 'design' or 'materials'. The result is hundreds of apps, which are often free, that can be downloaded and put to use in seconds. While much of this is often dismissed as 'gimmicky' technology that only a 'yepper' (a nerdy yuppie) can find any real use for, there are some real benefits that the engineering community can, and should, make use of.

Of course, some apps are more useful than others, and it is worth bearing in mind that the market place is pretty saturated. That means there are a lot of mediocre and pretty useless apps out there. But don't let that put you off. There are also some real gems.

There are some great apps specific for engineers in terms of calculators, reference guides, training, and even for engineering job searches. Getting out your phone and launching an app in seconds to calculate units, get a material density or calculate inertias is quick, easy and useful. EngingeersCalc on the Android and Mechanical Engineer for the iPhone are two excellent examples of useful apps to have.

But as well as the general, real design is happening on both Smartphones and Tablets. CAD giant Autodesk has, to date, launched some 23 apps on the two most popular platforms, which are aimed at both professionals and consumers. But for the design engineer apps are increasingly being used to capture data in the field, digitise 'fag packet' sketches, or simply express ideas anywhere and at any time.

The key apps from Autodesk are AutoCAD WS, Inventor Publisher Mobile, and SketchBook. AutoCAD WS is essentially a mobile version of AutoCAD; allowing engineers to access and interact with 2D drawings. Steve Bedder, manufacturing technical engineer for the UK and Ireland at Autodesk says: "Anybody that needs to interact with 2D data can access drawings directly on their mobile device and interact, redline mark-up, add or edit geometry. As soon as that is updated on a mobile device, it means the engineers back at the office who are using the desktop versions, can see those updates in almost real-time."

While AutoCAD WS covers 2D, Inventor Publisher Mobile Viewer allows 3D digital prototypes produced in Autodesk Inventor to be viewed. Although fairly limited (it only allows viewing, but not editing of a model) it shows potential for some useful applications.

"It allows you to reuse digital prototyping data so there is that link between a design that is still going on and also technical publications," says Bedder. "So if there is a change within a design it automatically updates the technical publication. That can then be accessed by people internally, or it could be your distribution network or even the consumer."

The graphics are good and, using simple pinch and pull movements on the touchscreen, it is easy to rotate, and zoom in and out of the model. By double-tapping on the screen, it allows a component to be selected to access information about its properties.

The viewer is probably most useful as an interactive maintenance manual. When 'Play' is pressed, the 3D model goes in to exploded view animation, accompanied by step-by-step text instructions that show the assembly or disassembly, along with text about whether to add grease or adhesive to bolts. All this can be, and should be, stressed by the design engineer at the frontend. And that is now directly being used to drive the maintenance of equipment and component parts through their life.

Since launching earlier this year, Autodesk WS has had over 2 million downloads and Autodesk Inventor Mobile Viewer has had over 1 million downloads. Although it is new, it is increasingly being discussed by engineers, at least around the water cooler, about possible applications for the future.

"The more people we talk to about apps, like Inventor Publisher Mobile and AutoCAD WS, the more that people are realising that actually they can do a lot more with their data than maybe they are doing at the moment," says Bedder.

However, not everyone is convinced. PTC's PLM software is largely desktop driven, and although some of its more lightweight applications such as Creo Sketch, a 2D freeform sketching tool, is being used on the iPad and iPhone, the company only makes these available through licensing.

"We haven't got an app store and that is something that is being debated," says Phillip Darlington, a senior principal applications engineer at PTC. "Whether we could do a 30-day trial that will then expire and people can see if it works for them has been mooted. But the app store route is something that is up in the air at the moment."

Like other PLM and CAD companies, PTC is not convinced that a downloadable app specific for smartphones or tablets from Apple or Android is really going to make any significant contribution when it comes to producing the actual geometry of a design.

"From a design perspective you are always going to want to have a big screen so you can see as much at one time as possible," says Darlington."To bring that down to a smartphone I don't think is realistic. "What is realistic is using them to input the data that will actually drive the design of our parametric solution. We can input parameters and relationship to drive and evolve new designs. For example, Otis elevators would send site engineers out to jobs and they would put in design parameters into a smartphone. That text file would automatically come back and drive the design, so that it would generate a unique design based upon that a company's requirement."

The use of apps within the engineering space is a useful design tool that gives portability to sketches, drawings and hand calculations. But, there is also an important business opportunity here. Shaun Skilton, product manager within the filtration division of Parker Hannifin, specialises in providing analytical counting equipment.

Its product line counts how many bits of dirt, dust, metal, and fibre may be in a hydraulic system. After that it grades them in to different sizes and then gives them an international standard that the industry recognises. But, understanding and interpreting these results so to recommend an appropriate filter for individual systems is a frequent source of confusion for both service engineers out in the field and customers.

Skilton says: "I need to get information specific to a particular requirement or situation across and understood. So I needed something that would demystify the technology and that could be easily and quickly be used in the field. So we came up with the ConOne app to give engineers the answers." At first Skilton found colleagues and peers to be sceptical of using this approach. "Now I have done it and it has got launched, the Parker people recognise it, and have said that it looks good. Some of it is a bit of fun, but some of it is real business stuff."

There are many considerations when developing an app; the fundamental one being what system to use. There are trade-offs to be made aware of. Apple uses an iOS approach which is typically bug-free, and provides a single, high level programming platform that can be used on an iPhone, iPad and iTouch. Android is a cross-functional platform that is available on a number of manufacturers' devices, and enables five levels of programming software. The very complex high level software can run complex animations, but it is only available on its newer and more powerful smartphones. The lower level Android software, although much easier to program, does not enable a lot to be run on it.

"I decided to go the Apple approach," says Skilton. "We approached a designer, told him the specification, and he came up with the Parker ConOne App. Within that there are typical communication tools like Twitter, Email, and news which allow us to get information to people at the coalface within minutes of them downloading it."

The real heart of the app consists of two utilities; the ISO Generator and the Frequency Counter. Using industry standard algorithms and a series of questions and answers, the app is able to give filter recommendations for specific hydraulic systems.

Skelton was keen to adhere to the golden rule of simplicity when it comes to apps and wanted to include as many pictures and icons as possible. This also has the added advantage of being able to be used openly across the World without language problems. "Water is not permissible in a lot of systems, so we use icons of water droplets," he says. "So we have a sliding scale with lots of droplets at one end of the scale, and only one droplet on the other. We wanted to make it easy for people to interpret rather than have to read and write multi-lingual versions. So it's very intuitive."

The other utility is a prudency check, which works in a similar fashion to calculate the regularity that checks should be carried out. "Prior to this it would have taken days, if not weeks, to train people to understand this. But now they have it in their hands when they are in the field," says Skelton.

The success of the ConOne app as a tool has been so successful that it has inspired Skelton to think about further apps. He says Parker want to continue to develop its apps and is looking to introduce a QR bar coding system to a lot of its products and literature.

The idea being that you would simply take a picture of a QR barcode and that would take you to its appropriate electronic document without the user having to know what the part or component is called.

"You just pick up the phone, it connects to the wireless internet and the latest version can be downloaded immediately," says Skelton. "You will never be with an old version of a catalogue or manual, as the moment that it is updated in our facility it will be automatically downloaded to your device. So it is another way to ensure people have got the latest information when they need it.

"It is endless what we can do with it and put in to it, and it's making things simpler. Most people have this type of device in their pocket and it is increasing. And it adds a bit of fun and end user satisfaction." ABB has also launched a free energy calculator application app for the Apple iPhone and iPad. The App allows, primarily, end-users to calculate the energy savings they can achieve by installing variable speed drives to control motors.

Although to some extent a marketing tool, it can be useful for doing quick comparisons with existing equipment. The app gives end-users the ability to make quick comparisons between motors controlled by variable speed drives and motors running direct-on-line without any speed control device. Users simply select an industry and the operating duty profile, the voltage, phase and motor power rating, running hours, and electricity cost. The app then estimates how much CO2, energy and costs can be saved by installing an ABB drive to control the application.

"Our app makes it simple for customers to calculate the potential savings they can achieve by installing variable speed drives," says Steve Ruddell, ABB's UK energy spokesperson. "The tool is free to download and makes selecting drives according to the needs of the application extremely accessible."

Once all the parameters have been applied and the savings worked out, the app displays a picture of the most suitable drive for the user's application. Simply click on the picture on the top half of the screen and a product summary will be displayed. The end-user can then place an enquiry or request more information.

Norbar Torque Tools is another notable engineering firm to see potential of using apps. It has release another app that is free for both Apple and Android. The app is largely an extension of Norbars online Torque Wrench Extension Calculator and essentially calculates what value you need to set on a torque wrench to achieve a desired level of torque when the wrench is extended. Last year, Norbar launched another free app that instantly converts a full range of SI, Metric and Imperial Units.

Philip Brodey, director of Norbar, says that providing apps relating to torque measurement and control gives engineers useful tools they can use anywhere and anytime. He says: "Flexibility of use is vital in many working environments and for projects in the field. Mobile devices have provided tremendous scope for the creation of apps to support business and industry."

While the use of apps in industry can be viewed with sceptically and seen as a slightly lightweight and limited technology in terms of actual use, times are changing. With an estimated 1,500 apps coming to market everyday, apps are the technology of the moment.

The result is tremendous opportunity; both in terms of using mobile tools to drive design and also in terms of connectivity. They also provide an opportunity for firms to have vastly better communication with all sectors and aspects of its business, which again will help drive and influence the design process.

And there is also an opportunity for connecting with customers, giving them new and exciting ways to view products in the palm of their hands. One thing is for sure, this is not the last you will read about apps.

Justin Cunningham

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