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Professional number crunching falls short with the Formulator Series calculators

Steven Sande
01.26.10
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My name is Steve, and I'm a recovering engineer. Although I'm no longer a practicing engineer, I still hold a Professional Engineer license and I'm still interested in most things dealing with engineering. That's why I perked up when I received an email from MultiEducator, Inc., a software development firm known previously for multimedia history CDs and their Historycentral.com website.

Their new Formulator Series of specialized iPhone calculators for engineers, architects, plumbers, and construction professionals features 22 individual apps priced between US\$0.99 and US\$17.99. Since my background is in Civil Engineering, I requested a review copy of Civil Engineering Formulator [US\$4.99, iTunes Link] to get a feel for the depth and breadth of a typical Formulator Series app.

A look at the web page for Civil Engineering Formulator shows that the app began with 75 formulas in the Civil Engineering areas of beams, bridges, columns, elevators, piles, plates, roads, soil, and structural steel. Over the next few months, the app is to grow to more than 200 formulas, at which time the price will increase for new buyers. Civil Engineering Formulator also includes almost 100 conversion formulas, as well as 50 area calculations.

There are a lot of calculations in the Civil Engineering app. Like many other iPhone apps, you can call up recent calculators by tapping a Recents button, or define certain calculators as Favorites. There's even a Saved button for saving calculations that you've performed for future use.

Upon launching the Civil Engineering Formulator, a list of the major types of calculations is displayed. Tapping one of the types in the table of contents displays a set of calculations, often sub-categorized by sub-type. As an example, if I want to perform a calculation on a column, I first tap on Column, and then choose the type of calculation. In the list of column calculations, there's a sub-type of Area of Foundation, and one calculation listed beneath that for Minimum Base Size.

Each of the calculations has fields for the parameters and a field for the calculated result. One major concern I had was that while some of the parameter fields asked for a specific unit (e.g., weight in pounds or kilograms), others did not, which could produce a bad result. In Civil Engineering, a bad calculation can cause a building or bridge to collapse. I see this as a critical issue for this app and something that the developers should fix as soon as possible. In addition, some of the definitions show that the developer may not have any background in engineering at all. Incorrect terms such as "Enter the modulus elasticity of the material" are common in the app -- it's actually modulus of elasticity and moment of inertia.

There's seemingly no rhyme or reason to why the units are not defined in the calculations. There should be an overall setting that asks whether you want metric or United States customary units, and then forces the display of the required units for each field. I hate to keep hammering on this point, but it is just plain bad practice to not know what units to use. In the calculation for Friction Head Loss in a pipe, you're asked to "Enter the Pipe length." There's no label telling you to enter it in meters, feet, or inches, so you could enter anything you wanted. The volume of flow is entered in gallons a minute -- what if you want to do the calculation in liters per second? The area of the duct? They just ask for the area of the duct or pipe, once again omitting any reference to the desired units. Is the area in square feet, square inches, or square meters? Likewise, the results lack units.

In some cases, the entry keypad (which is a calculator in itself) for entering information tries to show a definition but it is truncated due to a lack of room to display it. That shows a horrible lack of planning and user interface savvy by the developers. Frankly, it looks like someone sent a copy of an engineering textbook to the lowest bidder overseas and told them to write an engineering calculator app. The user interface for the app is boring, although I have to admit that there's not a lot you could do with a set of engineering calculations.

Although there's a button for "Formula Definition," it shows minimal information for each formula. It should show the entire formula, the reference that the formula was taken from, and it would also help to see a diagram or two showing what is being calculated. When I was just a lad in engineering school, it was common for textbooks to show a small simple diagram showing how a load was distributed on a beam or if point loads were being applied, whether the ends of a beam were fixed or rotating, etc... This helped to demonstrate to the engineering student exactly what he or she was calculating. This app could definitely use this simple, yet effective visual aid.

The shortcomings are apparent throughout the Civil Engineering Formulator app. Although this is the only one of the apps that we worked with during the review, the potential buyer should be aware that similar issues could plague the other apps for the other engineering disciplines. Until these issues are addressed, I cannot recommend the Formulator apps to any engineer who values his or her career and professional license.

Some screenshots of the Civil Engineering Formulator are shown in the gallery below.

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