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Designing With Best Value

Electrical design software needs to support a contracting business by saving time and aiding productivity. Philip Grace, Senior Technical Support Engineer of AMTECH Power Software explains what to look for.

While there are certain fundamental requirements that should be expected of any electrical design software, most will also offer various 'add on' features that have the potential to add value to the design process. Some of these features may be little more than gimmicks while others will make a real difference to the return on investment, so knowing what to look out for helps to sort the wheat from the chaff.

An obvious way to illustrate this is to look at the various stages of the design process, to identify where the software can play a valuable role.

The obvious place to start is the drawing up of the schematic, which can be time-consuming and tedious. Significant time-savings can be achieved through features such as the ability to quickly sketch out circuits, or 'drag and drop' items from a symbols library onto the schematic. Of course, it will also help if the software incorporates all of the symbols you are likely to need - be they generic or from specific manufacturers.

If you're designing a number of similar circuits you can also save time by creating a template from the first one and then modifying subsequent drawings, rather than starting from scratch each time. As each schematic builds it's useful to quickly double check details, perhaps by 'hovering' the mouse over each item to get an instant display of key information such as correction factors, voltage drops (for both total and individual circuits) and earth fault loop impedances.

The software should also check that the correct cable sizes and installation methods have been selected, in line with BS7671. If the software displays installation methods graphically for each cable and installation type, these should be similar to the familiar diagrams in the Wiring Regulations. It's also useful if the software has features to allow you to quickly assess the impact of different design ideas on the overall scheme.

Most of us are used to sharing information between different office software packages, such as word processing and spreadsheets, so it's reasonable to expect the same functionality from design software. Sharing design information with a co-ordination package, for instance, provides a quick check of overload discrimination and device settings - without the need for specialist co-ordination skills. Any problems that are highlighted can then be quickly rectified in the design before checking again through the co-ordination program. Here, it makes sense to use data relating to specific manufacturer's products, as opposed to generic products, as all of the relevant information is instantly available.

Similarly, following the design and installation, there will be a need to produce the appropriate test and inspection documentation. On a large project without integrated software this can entail several days of entering information but this time input can be drastically reduced if the different programs are able to share information easily. You can also reduce costs by using test and inspection software that prints certificates on plain paper, rather than needing to buy pre-printed certificates.

These are just some examples that create the difference between software that is merely fit for purpose and software that will actually support your design activities. Certainly, the more advanced products may cost a little more than the 'cheap and cheerful' packages, but the significantly better return on investment means they will cost less in the long run.

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