Do engineers use Excel? Yes! Engineers process a lot of data and use many equations. And Excel is the best tool to manage and crunch numbers.
Frankly, I find Excel to be better than many paid software tools. To see why, we’ll go over 5 reasons why engineers love Excel.
#1 Familiarity with Excel’s user interface and commands
Microsoft released Excel back in 1985, and by now, everyone is familiar with the tool. I remember in the 90s as a kid, I’d endlessly play around with Excel. I’d create tables and graphs, and do all types of gnarly calculations. I found Excel to be a great outlet to learn and tinker with computers.
It also did help how Excel was on almost every computer I came across. Then later in high school, math and science teachers encouraged the use of Excel. I always took it a step further too, by automating drawn out calculations. Like a cheat code, Excel made my school work effortless.
To top it off, Excel hasn’t changed much over the years. The base functionality and user interface from day 1 is still there.
#2 Excel is intuitive and easy to use
The interface is super simple and intuitive. Especially, if you grew up using the program. And this is important, because it’s one less thing to worry about as a busy engineer.
Also, it’s a cinch to learn new functions. In a weekend alone, you can learn any of the following Excel features:
- Advanced charts
- Finding data from lookup tables, by using such functions as VLOOKUP
- Creating user-defined functions
- Summarizing, sorting, and reorganizing data by using pivot tables
- Filtering and sorting data
In short, Excel is simple to use, but can be as complex as you want it to be.
#3 Excel gives you great flexibility to do what you like
You can do so much with Excel. It’s why many SaaS software companies are just a glorified Excel spreadsheet. You’re simply combining and processing a series of interdependent equations.
Also, it’s why all types of engineers love Excel. It crosses over to every imaginable line of work. The following is how I use Excel as an engineer:
For a lot of basic engineering calculations, I piece together equations in spreadsheets. The user interface doesn’t look pretty, but it gets the job done.
For example, I’ve created spreadsheets for electric load calculations. Also, for auto sizing breakers and wire sizes for low voltage panels. For more complex calculations though, I use purchased software.
Important Note: never blindly rely on your Excel calculations, or any software.
I always do a reality check over my outputs. I ask myself if my outputted figures make sense or not. I’ll even crank out hand calculations on random outputs. This way, I can catch errors. Maybe, I accidentally changed a backend Excel equation in my spreadsheet.
Excel uses a basic database, which works great from my experience. The key is though, to use small datasets. Once your workbook gets too large, Excel starts to work slow. Also, the documenting process suffers.
So, if you have a large dataset, use more robust software.
Going back to Excel, I organize the following types of data in Excel:
- Equipment ratings
- Personal notes on equipment
- Aggregated equipment performance data
Then often, I receive Excel datasets from vendors and customers. I organize the data to my liking, to parse out important information. This is very typical, especially if you work in traditional engineering fields.
Visual Basic for Applications (VBA) editor
If you’re willing to learn VBA, you can become a wizard in Excel. VBA is a simple programming language of Excel, which works great in engineering. All without compromising on visual presentation, which I know is huge to some people.
For example, I’ve written code to check high voltage equipment test data. My program analyzed thousands of lines of data, quickly spotting various issues. My program was a game changer, and drastically simplified my work.
This is why I wholeheartedly believe colleges should teach Excel and VBA instead of MATLAB. Or at the very least, teach both together. Excel grants greater real world utility versus MATLAB. And this highlights how engineering education needs reform.
Excel allows you to create amazing simulations in spreadsheets.
A great example is circuit design. Using a list of formulas, you can calculate the following device ratings:
- Power ratings
You can adjust variables as well, to see how your device ratings change. Or even, add new design parameters and customize your outputs to your heart’s desire. This is another reason why, I find Excel works better than most paid software tools.
#4 Excel’s free large online community
Excel has probably one of the largest software online communities. You can find just about everything you want to learn about Excel online. And if one solution is confusing, there are ten other people with solutions a click away. This level of support is priceless.
I’ve never come across an Excel problem, which wasn’t endlessly answered online. Even more, people freely share their highly customized Excel spreadsheets online. So the online community does all the heavy lifting for you!
Now, I do understand the limitations of Excel. I’ve even heard the whispers of you’re not a great engineer if you use Excel for complex problems solving.
But also, every advanced software you buy isn’t created equal. I use a lot of advanced expensive software myself, and none of them are perfect. In fact, I’ve found egregious blunders in the calculations of some. Even more, many have parameter limitations.
To make matters worse, a lot of advanced software lack online forums. Also, the software developers aren’t any help. Not surprisingly, this creates a recipe for headbanging frustrations.
At the end of the day, engineering software is a string of equations and algorithms. So, why not recreate what you exactly want, when existing programs don’t cut it?
By creating customized Excel spreadsheets, you can do the following:
- Extend the scope of a calculation
- Add more variables to a calculation
- More deeply investigate calculated values, as you have access to the code
#5 Everyone uses Excel
I don’t know anyone who doesn’t use Excel. Not one person.
Every small and large engineering organization I’ve worked with, uses Excel extensively. Plus, all non-engineers use Excel as well. In the same vein, everyone’s familiarity with Excel eliminates learning curves. You don’t need to explain to recipients of your files, on how to use Excel.
This all is a huge benefit when sharing Excel files. It creates a seamless and simple collaboration environment for teamwork.
“Do Engineers Use Excel?” wrap up
Most engineers love Excel, and more so, if they know how to manipulate it. And yes, Excel has limitations. It’s not the end all be all tool.
But, Excel was never meant to be able to do everything at a high level, despite doing so much already. Frankly, what program can?
So far though, I’ve been able to squeeze every last bit of juice from Excel. It’s a downright awesome tool!
What’s your experience with Excel? How often do you use Excel?
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Koosha started Engineer Calcs in 2020 to help people better understand the engineering and construction industry, and to discuss various science and engineering-related topics to make people think. He has been working in the engineering and tech industry in California for over 15 years now and is a licensed professional electrical engineer, and also has various entrepreneurial pursuits.
Koosha has an extensive background in the design and specification of electrical systems with areas of expertise including power generation, transmission, distribution, instrumentation and controls, and water distribution and pumping as well as alternative energy (wind, solar, geothermal, and storage).
Koosha is most interested in engineering innovations, the cosmos, our history and future, sports, and fitness.