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The Forlorn Engineering Notebook

I’ll never forget the first time I went to go see a real engineer work. During the summer between my sophomore and junior years in college, I worked for a technology transfer program at school. Our job was to visit various local manufacturers and assist them with their designs by applying the latest technology, which was often CAD.

On this particular day, we were greeted at the front desk. They thanked us for coming out to help and proceeded to lead us back to the engineering office. We sat down at a conference table where they started explaining their challenge. That’s when he pulled out the notebook.

It was an inch thick and filled with graph paper. It was well-worn. It was filled with notes, sketches, sticky notes, photos and everything you could imagine. This thing must have contained at least a year of this guy’s entire professional career. If he had lost it, he probably wouldn’t know what to do. I could tell because his hands held it almost reverently. I’ll never forget that day. It was my first real glimpse of what it’s like to be an engineer.

Where’s the love?

As fascinating as my little trip down memory lane might be, and I’m sure it’s not, that’s not why I’m writing about the engineering notebook today. After being around the engineering for the last 20 years, I’ve seen a lot of technology applied to product development. Some of it has been an epic failure. Some of it has been absolutely revolutionary. But looking back now, I have to admit that I honestly haven’t seen any great advancement in terms of applying technology to the engineering notebook. It’s like it somehow was forgotten along the way.

But maybe I’m thinking about this all wrong. To make sure nostalgia isn’t clouding my vision, there’s an important question to ask: is there anything about the engineering notebook that makes it worth saving? Let’s see.

In the past, engineering notebooks were composed of many things. They held notes. They listed requirements. They were used for sketching and conceptual work. They always had calculations. But they included free body diagrams as well. They also cited reference material. They have often been a mish-mash of stuff all about a particular design project. And therein lies its value. For engineers, it was the mechanism to centrally manage everything about that design project. It was all connected together there.

Summary and Questions

Here’s the short summary: engineering notebooks used to be the tool engineers used to centrally manage design projects. I see value in using a tool to centrally manage that information today, but technology really hasn’t changed it the way it has revolutionized other facets of engineering. Over time, I plan to touch on each of the categories I mentioned before and talk about how they are created and managed today. So that’s it! It’ll be a post series!

I remember all of this being in physical notebooks. But I’m rally curious about what people are using in place of that today. What are you using as an engineering notebook?

Take care. Talk soon. And thanks for reading.

Chad Jackson is an Industry Analyst at Lifecycle Insights and publisher of the engineering-matters blog. With more than 15 years of industry experience, Chad covers career, managerial and technology topics in engineering. For more details, visit his profile.

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  • Anonymous

    20 years ago, I had my pocket phone book. Today, it is Google Cloud. I believe engineers are using everything from notebooks and excels to funny TLA-software. Earlier, this week during PLM Innovation 2012 many people agreed that Excel is the most popular PLM technology in the world. 

    I predict our future working environment will look like the Internet.

    So, the same will happen to engineering notebook. 
    Just my thoughts… 

  • Mucho Detyro

    I use Curio on the Mac it’s an interesting scratch pad for collecting design inputs. I use it like a virtual ‘design wall’.

    • Chad Jackson

      Interesting. I’ve never heard of it before. I assume its more for sketching than for note taking?

      Thanks for contributing!