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Write Engineering Reports Right

Nov. 3, 2020
Follow an effective format rather than rigid corporate standards

Focus on clarity in an engineering report. While such reports fall into several types — studies (e.g., related to laboratory work or calibration, failures and inspections, or optimization), cost estimates, engineering calculations, and proposals — all benefit from a clear discussion and conclusion. Sometimes this requires flexibility to stray from a company’s set format.

All reports should begin with a statement of purpose. A simple phrase such as “determine the variation of viscosity of detergent A” may suffice for lab work while an optimization study or design report may require several paragraphs. Ideally, you should be able to read it out loud in 30 seconds. If you can’t, then you’ll need a table of contents.

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Next is the executive summary. Unless you require a table of contents, you should be able to explain your conclusions in a minute or less. Try this: list what you’d tell the reader, trim this down to no more than five things, and then read the list aloud. You want the executive summary to make sense to a non-technical person; add the numbers but remember the audience. And, importantly, don’t present multiple options. Choose one — your company hired you because you could make a decision.

Generally, don’t discuss money in the executive summary. Leave that for later in an economics section.

A background section explaining why you’ve done the study should follow the summary. Paint with broad strokes. Give the history, frame the problem, and familiarize outsiders with the equipment or facility. Site drawings, piping and instrumentation diagrams, etc., are useful. When reporting on a lab result, calibration or other specific hardware-related issues, replace the background section with one on equipment that describes its operation and limits.

An analysis section should come next. It’s the heart of the report. Here, explain the scope of the study, describe the alternative options considered and provide a solid foundation for the summary. Be sure to critique your supporting arguments; it’s better to be honest than to pretend you have all the answers.

Don’t clutter up the section by including myriad details. Refer to them but put the details in an appendix. Likewise, avoid graphic elements such as figures and tables; they can disrupt the flow of the section, making it hard to follow.

Next, if you’re evaluating a project, include a section on economics. Here, also, is where you should put the cost of repairs or technical support. This section can get quite intricate because you should explain not only the cost estimate but also the risks to completion and the accuracy of the estimate. Always define the accuracy of cost estimates! Another often forgotten topic to cover is potential economic impacts such as from project delays, construction out of season, etc.

The final section should consist of the recommendations. Think of this as an expanded version of the executive summary. However, not all recommendations make the priority list in the summary. Be sure to check the recommendations against the summary for two reasons: thought continuity and priority. You might find you’ve missed a recommendation that belongs in the summary.

Now, let’s discuss the appendix. It should include anything that supports the recommendations or contradicts them — to explain risk or error. I use a lot of photographs, both for orientation and to validate information like vessel nameplates, equipment models, etc. The appendix also serves as a space where you can expound on ideas summarized in the report. You should exclude items like equipment manuals and other standalone documents. Instead, as appropriate, excerpt sections using screen-shot software.

Finally, let’s consider how to progress: I start building the appendix first using screen shots of tables and figures generated from a spreadsheet as well as drawings, photos, etc. Always include labels on drawings and the date the photo was taken. Then, write a short executive summary; the final sections to tackle are the ones on analysis and economics.

Work back and forth between recommendations, the executive summary and the analysis to ensure you’re supporting the report conclusions and not leaving any unforgiveable gaps.

As always, writing is an iterative process. So, go back several times to check that your arguments can stand up to critics.

About the Author

Dirk Willard | Contributing Editor

DIRK WILLARD is a Chemical Processing Contributing Editor.

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