Why Engineers Need to Master Excel

What separates a skilled woodworker from anyone else who has ever picked up a saw?

The answer is pretty obvious: He is excellent with his tools. He can take a common tool and produce uncommon results.

The same is true for engineers. Skilled engineers take common tools and produce exceptional results.

The Tools of an Engineer

For woodworkers, the common tools are saws, tape measures, squares, drills, etc.

For engineers, THE most common engineering tool is Microsoft Excel.

There, I said it.

Now, I’m NOT saying that Excel is the RIGHT tool for every engineering task.

Need to do finite element analysis? You’ll probably want ANSYS, Abaqus, Nastran or any of the competitors in this realm.

Want to do computational fluid dynamics? Fluent, Star-CCM+, CFX, or OpenFOAM will have you covered.

Rigid Body Dynamics? Acoustics? Vibrations? Software? Statistical analysis? Each of these specialized fields has at least one go-to code that their industry looks to as the gold standard.

However, do you know what almost all of these pieces of software have in common?

Microsoft Excel Integration.

Each of these software companies recognize the pervasiveness of Excel and know that in order to compete in the marketplace they have to play nice with the world’s most popular engineering tool.

So why IS Excel the most popular engineering tool in the world? I can think of three reasons, but there are probably more. My three are: Flexibility, Prevalence, and Integration.

The Flexibility of Excel

As I said above, Excel is clearly not specialized engineering software. However, it is a jack-of-all-trades, and in this case that is a good thing.

We can use it to perform calculations with any set of equations we desire. Excel is not locked into a particular type of engineering. Your knowledge of the subject matter is probably the biggest thing that limits Excel’s capabilities.

VBA, or Visual Basic for Applications, opens up more possibilities. With it, Excel can even perform complex differential equations, numerical integration and more (even simple finite element analysis and computational fluid dynamics).

Many people even use Excel to create project schedules or Gantt charts, process experimental data, and maintain small databases.

The Prevalence of Excel

I realize that I’m bordering on circular logic by saying that Excel is popular because of its prevalence.

But the fact that everyone’s business computer (OK, almost everyone’s – I’m looking at you, Linux guys) has Excel installed makes it a trustworthy way to transfer information.

I know that if I do some work in Excel I can share the spreadsheet with my boss, a colleague across the globe, a supplier, a customer, and even my mom.

Because I can easily share an Excel spreadsheet with others I am more likely to use it as a tool to generate information.

The Integration of Excel

In addition to Excel’s integration with the specialized software mentioned above, it also integrates nicely with so many other common files and pieces of software.

You can link spreadsheet data to a chart in Powerpoint or Word to make updating presentations and reports easy.

Excel can import data from text files on a server or even import from web pages.


A skilled woodworker is respected because he is excellent with his tools. He takes a common tool and creates uncommon results.

Want to be a respected engineer? Learn to use the tools you have to make something exceptional.

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By Charlie Young, P.E.

Take your engineering to the next level with advanced Excel skills.