One of my responsibilities as a materials engineer is to shepherd research and development samples from the initial creation through all their required processing, testing and analysis. This can get complicated pretty quickly because for a given batch of samples there are multiple ways of making a sample (casting, forging, welding, additive, etc.), multiple post-process conditions to assess, and a variety of testing and analysis. Associated with each step will be the process or test parameters, vendor certifications, analyses, notes, e-mails and pictures. Associated with the overall campaign/batch will be notes and files on the objective and context.

There are lots of more samples in a batch, each sample has lots of process steps and tests and I might be working with 10 batches at once, all at different stages of completion.

Guess how I currently keep all this data organized. Yes folks, PowerPoint, Excel and Outlook, plus an elaborate folder structure in My Documents that no one understands but me (see The Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E Frankweiler). And if you put this question on Family Feud, you would find that almost every engineer working with physical stuff in a lab does the exact same thing. Sure, some are more organized than others and can pull up a relevant file in 30 seconds. Most will scratch their heads for awhile trying to remember where they filed that PowerPoint or e-mail from 4 years ago.

Here are the two times I need this data:

  1. When the samples are in progress I need to know where they are currently, when they will be done and what the next step is. If we miss a step or mess up a step the samples will be lost, and we likely won't be able to replace them because the time required is measured in months.
  2. When everything is done, there is often an immediate report-out to management with the high-level results, but I need to save all the details and history. Eventually someone is going to ask for the data. It may be months, it may be years (14 years is my record!), but I will need it someday.

Why PowerPoint, Excel, and Outlook are not enough

These 3 products have plenty of advantages, and using them is the path of least resistance. First, everyone has these programs on their desktop and knows how to use them, so you can share your files with anyone and they will be able to at least open them.

Powerpoint is the default historical archive tool in Corporate America and it is easy to see why. A lot of info has to go in PowerPoint anyway so it can be presented at team meetings and reviews. A lot of time goes into making these slides already and we try to include answers to anticipated questions. During the meeting, notes are often taken right on the slide so everyone can see them in real time. Why move them once they are there? Just e-mail the slide deck out to all the attendees afterwards.

Excel is great at storing and analyzing raw data, although even with the best intentions it can be hard to capture the context of the data. Usually the Excel chart goes in PowerPoint and if you need the full details you go to the Excel file.

I have never found anyone who thinks using your Outlook Inbox as your to-do list or historical archive is a good idea, and yet almost everyone does it anyway, including me. Almost all data comes and goes through e-mail somehow, even if it is just a hyperlink to a file on a network drive. It's great until you need to find all the e-mails associated with a particular sample from 3 years ago. Has anyone ever searched for a particular e-mail for a half hour or more? Forgotten who would have sent that file to you? And if it is hard for you to keep track of your own e-mail, no one else will have a chance once you leave. Anything that was just in e-mail is going into a black hole on a corporate server somewhere.

I use these 3 programs every day and will use them for the foreseeable future, but they don't do a great job of helping me do these two important things:

  1. Keep track of the status of samples through a workflow
  2. Find historical data and all associated documentation files quickly and in context

I am designing software to make these 2 things really easy. Check out the Project page to learn more.