I’ve flown across the oceans hundreds of times, but anyone who has done it even once has experienced the beautiful view of a dawn or a sunset.  That is, if you weren’t asleep.

I’ve had the good fortune to witness other dawns and sunsets – the dawn of new technologies, and the sunset of others.  I’m old enough to remember the dawn of ATMs, fax machines, the internet, wireless technology, transistors, personal computers and several other things that are basic to our lives today.  I actually contributed in a small way to at least two of those “dawns”.

The truth is that most technology dawns are more obvious in the “afternoon” – a few years after the dawn.  When it’s happening, it often seems like a complicated and possibly interesting thing, but the full potential impact isn’t always clear (at least to me).

I’m quite sure that I’m witnessing another new dawn today.  It’s the dawn of symbolic computing technology revolutionizing the world of engineering.

Symbolic computing has been around for a long time, by technology standards – approximately 25 years.  For most of that time it was a tool for two communities:  Teachers of calculus and physics, and researchers of all kinds who needed access to the most sophisticated mathematical tools.

Engineers, however, relied on numerical calculations, which are basically clever approximations of the exact symbolic solution.


Probably because symbolic tools were relatively slow, and because numerical solutions were good enough for their needs.

Neither of those things is true today.  Symbolic tools such as Maple and MapleSim offer as good or better performance as their numerical counterparts, in large measure because of their ability to simplify large sets of equations.  And as engineers face more and more complex challenges they are finding that their tried and true numeric tools are no longer adequate.

Even control systems engineers – once the exclusive domain of numerical tools – are today looking to symbolic tools for their more challenging projects.

Attend a meeting of the Society of Instrument and Control Engineers’ working group on symbolic approaches to control systems and you too will be a witness to the dawn.

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