Smart Devices for Smart Design, Part II: The Smartest Smart Devices for Engineers in the Field

Andy BrownBy Andrew Brown

If you are a carpenter, would you use a screwdriver to hammer in a nail? Probably not (though as a non-carpenter, I’ve done it). If you are an archeologist, are you going to take a flamethrower to the dig-site to unearth some super old dinosaur bones? No (but I’d like to see it). Say you are Star Command’s top Space Ranger, would you show up to defeat Evil Emperor Zurg with a super soaker? No. Unless it turns out that intergalactic space aliens are allergic to water, which today’s science can neither confirm nor deny… so maybe. The basic principal here is, “use the right tool for the job.”

And such is also true for an engineer utilizing smart devices in the field.

So, you might be saying to yourself, “Hey Andy – I do all kinds of different things; how can I find the best device or devices for me?” I’m glad you asked, hypothetical multi-tasker. The answer here has many factors, including, but not limited to:

  • What specifically are you trying to accomplish?
  • Where are you trying to accomplish it?
  • Do you have an operating system bias?
  • What functions best with your office’s infrastructure?
  • What level of portability fits your needs?

Smart Devices an Intrepid Engineer Might Use

Let’s start with the old stalwart:

The Laptop

Sure, there are many types of laptops, with different operating systems, and an infinite amount of applications which can be installed. But it may be too much for the intended purpose. If you are doing very heavy drafting, BIM modeling, or utilizing robust engineering design tools out in the field, then it may be worth having a laptop. I can count on one hand how many times I have been in a situation like that, and I am holding up zero fingers. Have you encountered situations like this? Let us know in the comments below.


Image from

On the positive side, relaying site information back to your company’s internal network from the laptop is a breeze once it’s actually been input, because you are most likely working with the same applications on the same operating system. Given that, could there be a beneficial application for this tool as a field device? Sure. Is this going to be your go-to tool out on the job site as an engineer? No chance. It’s bulky, difficult to operate while standing (without something to set it on), and chances are, completely unnecessary.

Jumping directly from our most burdensome device to our least, let’s get portable!


Just about everyone has one, most people have an opinion on them, but based on their proliferation, I’d hazard to say those opinions are mostly positive. The rise in smartphone adoption over the last 5 years has led to an increase in development of quality engineering applications for all the major mobile operating systems; from the NEC handbook to full on vendor catalogs, you can find almost anything your little heart desires in app format. The true beauty of the smartphone is that you can perform almost any function that you can on a laptop, short of the heavy drafting/modeling/design mentioned earlier. You have email readily available, a quality camera, the ability to view PDFs, CAD drawing files (in a lot of cases), and sometimes even BIM models.

The portability of the smartphone is off the charts (but really, who is making these charts that things are constantly off of? They need to make bigger charts), but sadly what makes it great is also its greatest downfall. The screen size on all of these devices is just a bit small to be documenting measurements, doing minor manipulation of CAD drawings, reading cut sheets, or properly using spreadsheet applications to capture info. And BIM models? A fully intelligent, graphically intense, 3D building model on a screen the size of your passport? Thanks, but no thanks. That being said, because you already have it and it fits in your pocket, the smartphone becomes the ideal companion for the star of our show…

The Tablet!

Dearest Tablet,

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways…..

All the convenience of the smartphone and most (if not all) of the functionality of a laptop, without the attached keyboard that makes it cumbersome to hold and operate at the same time. The screen size sets it apart from the phone and the portability, plus the camera, makes it a much stronger field device than the laptop. With so many mobile apps available as well as full-on computer operating system applications (the variety of which we will be discussing in Part 3 of this series), the tablet can and will quickly become the best friend of any engineer in the field.

I leave you with this: by taking any of these three devices into the field and effectively utilizing them, you are instantly making yourself a more efficient field investigator and on-site engineer. Each one of these gives you capability vastly beyond a pen and paper and a backpack full of books and drawings. The advancement of technology has been pursued under the guise of making life easier for the user. So become a user, an adopter, or, dare we say, even a geek – otherwise, you are the only thing holding you back from what you are truly capable of in the engineering field. With the correct technology as your ally, you have the capability to go, as a great Space Ranger once said, “to infinity and beyond!”

Follow Andy on Twitter @ABrown_WH

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One Comment

  1. Paul
    Posted June 4, 2014 at 10:02 am | Permalink

    Andy, I spend a good amount of time in the field between design and commissioning, but there are a few clients (namely the US Navy) that restrict the devices that we carry with us in the field due to the classified nature of the areas we are visiting. With the advancement of technology, devices become increasingly powerful and thus write themselves out of the eligibility for note-taking, field update/reference, and quick calculations. Any suggestions?

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