Photo by Tom Sawyer
I-Search has an unambiguous interface. If you know your engineering, it is easy to use.

Structural engineers often are asked to judge the adequacy of a beam or column under present loads or potential loads of a contemplated modification. This typically requires field measurements and a trip to the office to check references. Now, there is an Android app for making quick calls on the spot.

Kip Ping, president of Pinnacle Engineering, Cincinnati, Ohio, developed the app, which is called I-Search. It is offered by Structurx LLC, a company Ping set up to create the "useful, intuitive" structural-engineering software that he says he has developed as a hobby since the late 1980s. Previous titles were for only in-house use. This product, he says, is the "first real piece of software that's out there for people to use."

It also earned him $5,000 on Dec. 19 as the winner of the American Institute of Steel Construction's contest for the most useful mobile app for engineering.

The AISC's challenge was to create an app to improve the workflow for designers or builders of steel structures. I-Search is a free tool that lets users enter field measurements and then search all the standard, domestically produced—since the 1930s—wide-flange sections for a match. Users can adjust the tolerances of the search criteria.

Users then ask the app to analyze the listed shapes for service as either a column or a beam, with a user-specified applied load. For columns, the checks include compactness, elastic buckling stress, critical stress and nominal capacity. For beams, they include shear, moment and deflection checks. Users can design with either ASD or LRFD methodologies. Data is presented in basic text that can be copied and pasted for reports.

Ping says development took about 300 hours. Writing the code for the engineering calculations in Microsoft's .NET framework accounted for 10% to 20%, and the rest was taken up working with "someone who loves programming" to encode the software for the Android platform and get it to display and behave correctly on multiple devices. The source code is available as an open-source product to encourage further development.