Tag Technical Publications

Tag Technical Publications

Rethinking the Relationship Between Tech Pubs and Engineering

February 9, 2017 Tags: , , , , , , ,
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NOTE: This article was originally published in the Center for Information-Development Management’s (CIDM) Best Practices newsletter in February 2017. The author is Richard Ackerman, Digabit’s Senior Director of Solutions Engineering.

Information developers in manufacturing environments have a natural desire to use engineering output to create product manuals, parts book content, and other technical support materials. The goal in reusing engineering content is to save time and effort. However, the negative impacts on user experience can lead to the opposite result for functions related to customer support, spare part sales, and service.

There are many reasons why exporting engineering content for customer-facing documentation is ineffective. Most of these reasons stem from the fact that engineers develop their content for different purposes, and with different requirements, than the technical information developers who are tasked with creating customer-support documents.

Let’s unpack and investigate a few of the reasons why information developers and engineers may be better off with an amicable break up.

Engineering’s role, in a nut shell, is to define what the final product is

Engineering output is in the form of bills of materials (BOMs), CAD models and drawings, specifications, and other data. Typically, engineers create BOMs to the extent necessary that parts can be purchased (from a third-party supplier) or built. Engineering references a purchased item by a single part number, and thus all the details for service items within the purchased component are not typically captured by engineering. Even if they are, service items do not necessarily appear in the BOM and certainly don’t appear in the CAD drawing.

Engineering departments usually follow industry standards regarding CAD models and drawings. These standards, such as ASME Y14.5, are designed specifically to achieve uniformity in drawing specifications and interpretation, and they lead to desirable outcomes throughout the manufacturing process — improved quality, reduced costs, and quicker deliveries. These standards result in familiar views of an assembly, such as top view, side view, front view, and so on. Internal details are shown by cross-sectional views.

While this information is an acceptable solution for manufacturers, customers who need to repair and maintain their machines are not necessarily versed in reading engineering diagrams. Customers are better served with a more intuitive, easier to understand visual presentation.

Engineering naming conventions and information hierarchies are not “user friendly”

A bill of material structure, or hierarchy, that is useful for engineering purposes does not necessarily reflect the way an end user would “think” of their equipment. For instance, if users need a component on a control panel, they might like to view a representation of the entire control panel so they can quickly find what they need.

Typical CAD design engineering drawing

Figure 1 – Typical CAD Output from Engineering

However, if there are various functions that each have components that live in the control panel, the engineering definition of the control panel may be split up into many different assembly BOMs. While this works fine for the manufacturing process, it certainly is not logical or efficient for an equipment owner or service technician. It is common for savvy information-development teams to rearrange a machine’s hierarchy (for example, in a parts book Table of Contents) to ease search tasks and provide a better user experience.

Engineering descriptions may not make sense to external users. Parts are commonly described with a nomenclature system similar to the following: noun, qualifier 1, qualifier 2, and so on. Additionally, engineers tend to abbreviate part descriptions so the key descriptors fit into the space-limited fields available.

Thus, you may have something like this from engineering: MTR, AC, 3PH, 5HP. This code is appropriate for internal use, but unfriendly for less technically capable end users. Sophisticated information developers take the time to translate this code into ordinary language such as, “5HP 3-PHASE AC MOTOR.” Not only is the terminology more readable, “motor” is the most likely search term entered by a customer in an electronic environment. We have another example of engineering output that detracts from a positive user interaction.

Engineering CAD drawings are not optimized for part sales or service

Figure 2 – Exploded Assembly Created from CAD Source

One of the greatest demands on information developers is the translation of engineering output into parts-book ready content. Figure 1 above shows a gearbox assembly drawing with individual parts identified by item numbers. Figure 2 is an illustration of the gearbox that has been “translated” with a graphic design application for better usability. You can see how 2D views are moved to exploded 3D. There are also item numbers added to the exploded view to show service items not captured in the engineering output. Which of these assembly illustrations is more useful to a customer or mechanic?

Can we automate publishing or modify engineering processes?

Companies have tried different approaches to solve the problems posed by using engineering output for information development. These include using various methods to automate information development, as well as trying to alter the methods by which engineering produces content. Both of these approaches can be very challenging.

Engineering resources are expensive

There are significant opportunity costs incurred when assigning engineers to create clean exploded views with service items added. Labor costs for engineers are generally higher than for publishers and illustrators, and they may not be as efficient as workers who are exclusively dedicated to information development tasks. Most manufacturers allocate engineering resources to create new equipment designs or to fix product flaws. The vast majority of manufacturers consciously decide not to use high-value engineering labor to build user-friendly content.

Automated integrations aren’t intelligent enough

Imagine that an off-the-shelf or custom-built system allowed a manufacturer to export and convert CAD data, and hypothetically build a parts book automatically. Without some intelligent (human, for instance) intervention, it’s nearly impossible to address issues related to service items, BOMs, and the other factors described above. Artificial intelligence may someday provide a better answer, but there’s a great deal of development to be done first.

Accurate parts lookup efficient maintenance

The path toward a modern solution

For the reasons provided here, it’s time to move on from the dysfunction caused by incompatible content. Engineering and information development aren’t the perfect partners that they might like to be, but there is hope! Using easily available, appropriate technology allows information developers to work alongside engineering, while avoiding the limitations and drawbacks of being tied to unaltered native content. Here are some high-level steps:

  1. Once parts-book-ready content is created, it should be tied to the engineering output via metadata or “tags.” Thus, the improved illustration is identified by the assembly number, revision, product family, status, or any other relevant information.
  2. Software should be deployed that provides optimized content to end users in a searchable online library that is built on a relational database. Then, when parts are revised, information developers can navigate to the appropriate data at the part or assembly level and make the modifications as needed ONE TIME. As a result, all documents containing that shared source information are updated simultaneously.
  3. The relational database should be able to manage alternate descriptions to accommodate internal and external users.
  4. The software should understand the hierarchy of the machine and most importantly provide a clean user interface so that an information developer can effortlessly rearrange content to better accommodate the customer.

With the right tools and methodology, information developers can provide truly useful documentation

The key is not to fight with engineering but to accept the translation process necessary to achieve superior documentation. Some manufacturers may view this as extra work; the truth is actually to the contrary. How much time and money is wasted when the wrong parts are ordered due to confusing documentation? How many customers lose confidence in the manufacturer when this unfortunate (yet common) event occurs?

Using modern practices and technology in information development can increase efficiency by 10X or more. Consequently, the initial effort to set up and implement such a solution becomes an easy investment to justify. Even the most overtaxed and resource-constrained information-development teams can deliver polished, comprehensive documentation in a world class manner.

What’s a Component Content Management System?

September 8, 2016 Tags: , , , , , , , ,
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According to Wikipedia, “A component content management system (CCMS) is a content management system that manages content at a granular level (component) rather than at the document level. Each component represents a single topic, concept or asset (for example an image, table, product description, or procedure).

“The CCMS must be able to track ‘…relationships among topics, graphics, maps, publications, and deliverables.’ More often than not, the CCMS also contains the publishing engine to create the final outputs for print, web and e-readers.”

The most significant word here is “component,” which distinguishes a CCMS from the more commonly known CMS, or content management system. The most popular CMS is the web content management platform WordPress, which is not considered a CCMS because it manages content at the post or page level.

If we substitute “part” for “topic” in the definition above, the definition of a CCMS essentially describes the functionality of Digabit’s Documoto platform. Documoto manages the information that goes into a parts catalog using parts, assemblies and pages as components that can be arranged and organized to create a highly specific document.

So, for a complex, customized machine that is completely unique, a publisher can quickly generate a parts book that is 100% accurate and identified by the serial number of that individual machine. Or a publisher could produce parts catalogs for 10 different models that share 50% of their parts, without cutting and pasting. That level of detail and accuracy is virtually impossible using traditional methods of content management and desktop publishing to author parts catalogs.

The major benefits of using a CCMS to manage parts information are:

  • Greatly reduces time and effort spent maintaining content due to data re-usability
  • Change management – revise a part or assembly once and all relevant docs are updated
  • Highly modular in nature, enabling connectivity with other data systems
  • Potential to automate data entry through integrations and bulk loading processes

When you examine the features and benefits of a CCMS, Documoto checks all the boxes. If you’re a manufacturer thinking about how to upgrade your parts information management and publishing processes, you should give Documoto a try!

Technical Publishing 101: Part Supersession & ECOs, Oh My!

June 3, 2016 Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,
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The life of a technical publisher at a manufacturing company presents some difficult challenges. Your job is to produce useful and engaging content for employees and customers. Content that puts the company’s products in the best light, and reflects the importance of customer support to your organization.

And when you finally go to print, or publish your latest project online, you feel a great sense of satisfaction…until you look at the final product and realize that, before even one user views the results of your hard work, there are numerous errors and inaccuracies hidden inside the text.

This is what happens to authors and editors of parts catalogs every single day. Illustrations that don’t match the as-built product. Machines that have a custom configuration of parts and assemblies, but are shipped with a “base model” parts manual. Part numbers constantly being updated, and so on.

Unhappy-Tech-PubCreating an accurate parts catalog for complex equipment is harder than most people realize. Image files, bills of materials, and other source documents arrive from multiple designers and engineers. Engineering change orders (ECOs) are issued during prototyping, testing and production, leading to superseded part numbers and modified descriptions. To add even more confusion, version control may not be universally consistent across departments and document management systems.

It’s up to the publishing staff to pull it all together and ship the documentation, as close to perfect as possible. But it’s never perfect under these conditions—nobody can keep up with all the changes, and desktop publishing platforms require a high level of effort to edit a single part number or illustration.

Often, no one outside the publications department seems to care about these difficulties.

But customers care. Machine operators and technicians care, desperate to fix the machines that their livelihoods depend upon. The dealers who want to prove themselves indispensable to their biggest accounts. And the owners of the machines certainly care, since they view downtime as a vampire-like monster siphoning away profits.

How do you bring order to this madness? Is the idea of a 100% accurate parts catalog a fantasy?

It’s not a fantasy, and it’s achievable with proven, widely available technology. Imagine being able to quickly import part illustrations, BOMs and other product data, right into your authoring tool. With automated linking and hot-pointing of drawings and part descriptions that save hours of formatting labor.

Happy-Tech-Pub

And, imagine not having to copy and reformat text within your desktop publishing system. Or revise the part number for a part shared between 20 models in 20 separate parts book documents. What if you could edit one text field in your authoring tool and know that you instantly corrected the documentation for hundreds of machines—and thousands of customers—all around the world?

If you could do that, people would start noticing. From the VP of customer service to the guy sitting behind the parts counter, they’re going to notice easier part sales and happier equipment owners. And you’ll deliver that brand new, insanely accurate parts catalog with a huge smile on your face.

This is the power of authoring and publishing with a relational database. It’s the future of technical publishing, and it’s here now. If you’d like to see how easy it is to start building world-class support documents with Documoto, check out our Quick Start Publishing package that offers fast, affordable implementation!

[Webinar] From Chaos to Profits: Breaking Down Silos with Documoto

August 26, 2015 Tags: , ,
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For most manufacturers of complex machinery and heavy equipment, technical publishing is still a highly disjointed, labor-intensive process. Different functional areas use different tools to create files, generating incompatible formats and static, inflexible documentation.

But it’s not just the publishing process that is inefficient. Duplication of efforts and time wasted searching for documents trickles all the way down to your service and support organization. And are they even looking at the most up-to-date documentation?

We invite you to join us on September 22, 2015, for a Webinar led by Richard Ackerman, a former engineering standards manager at Schramm, Inc. You’ll hear about real-world examples from large-scale manufacturers, and how improving the technical publishing process can lead to improvements throughout a company’s bottom line.

You’ll learn:

  • The differences between traditional technical publishing processes vs. publishing with a relational database engine, from a manufacturer’s perspective
  • How Digabit’s Documoto Authoring Suite can be used to implement change
  • What the “Bill of Information” concept is, and how it can transform manufacturing

Duration: 30 minutes
Presenter: Richard Ackerman, former standards engineer at Schramm, Inc.
Date: Tuesday, September 22, 2015
Time: 8:30am MDT (10:30am EDT)

The live event date has passed, but you can still view a recording of this webinar.

View the Recording


Recording Tribal Knowledge: Keys to Distributing Information on the Manufacturing Floor

March 19, 2015 Tags: , ,
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If you’ve been at your job for more than a few months, you’ve probably picked up some tricks of the trade. Maybe you know which buttons to hit when the copy machine goes haywire or how to make a word processing task a lot faster.

The same is true for production employees who create their own tools, troubleshooting methods, and operational procedures based on their experience. Despite having standard procedures imposed on them, operators and technicians usually develop their own way of doing things.

In many ways, tribal knowledge is great for business as it keeps things running smoothly and efficiently. But manufacturers run into trouble when trade secrets and improvements are only passed along verbally or by other informal means, leading to inconsistent performance across teams.

How can OEMs retain, share and use tribal knowledge to maintain consistency across teams, shifts and divisions?

Account for Employee Turnover

Tribal thinking becomes particularly problematic when experienced team members leave and someone new takes their place. Training new hires is a serious time commitment that can quickly lead to frustration if the previous employee’s knowledge wasn’t properly handed down through clear documentation.

As Automation World noted, when knowledge slowly fades due to retiring expertise and the lack of knowledge transfer to younger workers, manufacturers could lose the ability to innovate and drive manufacturing competitiveness forward.

There are two basic solutions to confront this problem. The first is to keep departing employees on board to directly train their replacement, which obviously increases the likelihood of knowledge transfer. The second is to encourage departing workers to record their tribal knowledge, down to the minor details and seemingly trivial tidbits. The minutiae of personal working processes may seem like common knowledge, but it can often be highly valuable, especially for new hires.

Focus On Documentation

Though it’s difficult to completely preserve tribal knowledge, proper documentation can alleviate some of the issues. Many manufacturers are turning to knowledge management systems to compile all their process and procedure documentation, training materials and safety manuals in one place.

Having a central repository of this information gives employees an easy way to access and find the best solution to their current problem. This simplifies knowledge transfer and increases opportunities for universal talent sharing across an organization. An effective centralized system aggregates tribal knowledge so that it’s no longer scattered across different manuals, printed documents and post-it notes.

We’ve noticed a lot of our customers using Documoto to distribute relevant information to workers on the manufacturing floor. Not only does the software offer simple user permissions to ensure employees have access only to those materials pertinent to their role, but it also provides a robust comments feature so operators and technicians can quickly record their knowledge and immediately share it with their coworkers.

Take A Bottom-Up Approach

In the manufacturing world, there’s a great amount of emphasis on continually boosting productivity and efficiency, especially when it comes to machines and new technology.

Usually, it’s the leaders and managers at the OEM who establish protocols, standardize procedures, and make the decision to integrate new technology on the floor. This is a classic top-down approach, which certainly has its advantages, but at the same time, it can stifle the tribe’s knowledge growth.

The people who do the hard labor on a daily basis may have worthwhile opinions on what will work and what won’t work. Since the tribe is constantly working with the same machines, procedures, and people, it easily finds useful shortcuts and efficient methods that aren’t obvious to other departments, leaders, or the outside world at large. Learning from those on the floor can help managers incorporate faster and easier processes into the standard operational guidelines.

But just because one shift, plant or division does something one way, that doesn’t mean it’s the best way. Manufacturers must evaluate the effectiveness of these different approaches to develop and standardize the best of the best practices. Analytics can certainly help with this – if you missed our post on leveraging analytics in manufacturing, you can find it here.

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 Watch the video to learn a faster way to create parts catalogs

5 Productivity Tricks to Shortcut the Parts-Publishing Process

February 20, 2015 Tags: , , , ,
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While improving productivity on the manufacturing floor is often an OEM’s primary goal, many manufacturers are bringing that same scrutiny to their “upstairs factory” according to Industry Week.

As product lead times shrink, there’s more and more pressure for tech pub departments to rapidly churn out comprehensive technical documentation that’s both accurate and up-to-date.

So how can you maximize your productivity to meet these publishing targets? We’ve compiled a list of some tricks and shortcuts to help you work more efficiently and save time creating new parts books and manuals.

1. Learn Keyboard Shortcuts

Whether you use Documoto, InDesign, Word, Publisher, or FrameMaker, chances are the program you’re using to author parts catalogs has numerous keyboard shortcuts. These can shave minutes off of routine tasks by keeping your fingers on your keyboard and away from your mouse. In fact, using keyboard shortcuts can save you 8 workdays per year, according to this infographic by American Express Open Forum, so commit them to memory now.

2. Create Templates

Earlier this month, we covered a few ways to make your parts catalogs more user friendly and mentioned the importance of consistent formatting across catalogs. Not only will this establish a recognizable brand standard, but it will also save you time. Make a template with standard header and footer conventions, fonts, colors and table styles, and then utilize this on all future publications of that type. This will give all your parts catalogs the same look and cut down on hours of formatting and design work.

3. Eliminate Manual Processes

Did you know information workers waste an average of six hours on a weekly basis formatting documents and recreating content? The logical way to gain back that chunk of time is to get rid of some manual processes in favor of a more programmatic approach. Because the creation of parts catalogs involves a series of repetitive processes and much of the content is duplicated across catalogs, automation through software like Documoto can help publishers quickly and easily reuse previously authored parts pages without additional manual effort.

4. Work in a Relational Database

Connecting parts books to the original CAD files and engineering data can help bypass intermediary steps like reformatting illustrations in Illustrator and make it easier to update tech documents for parts changes. When all the parts data is stored in a relational database like Documoto, technical writers can automatically replace all previous instances of a part with the superseded part information, which becomes a significant time saver during routine documentation updates.

5. Think About the Big Picture

The parts book you’re working on today will help your dealers find the right part quickly, repair their machines easily, and give them a better overall view of your company. It’s easy to get bogged down in the technical aspects of publishing parts books and equipment manuals, but remembering why you’re doing what you’re doing will keep you motivated. Your work plays a vital role in ensuring accurate parts orders, strengthening manufacturing-dealer relationships, and reducing equipment downtime.

 White Paper - Supercharge OEM publishing time with database approach