August 2015
By Alexander Hoffmann

Image: © wowomnom/istockphoto.com

Alexander Hoffmann heads the technical documentation department of Xeditor, a Web-based XML Editor for experienced technical writers. He’s also the initiator of the meetup for Technical Communication in Munich (#TC_MUC). As a software developer with a strong focus on design, he’s trying to teach people how to code and cook. 
 
ah[at]xeditor.com
www.xeditor.com


 


 

Smart factories require smart documentation

Faster product lifecycles, ever-more complex systems and a large range of product variants are providing big challenges to industrial production and technical documentation. But how does the Internet of Things change the manufacturing industry as we know it? Do smart factories even require any technical communication or will the smart product of the future simply explain itself? What will the job of technical writers look like in five years?

The age of smart everything

Thanks to the Internet, everything – from phones and fridges to factories and shopping systems – has become smart. But wait: Why is everything suddenly smart? Does that mean that the first programmable computer back in 1941 wasn’t smart? Context and communication are what set today’s products and systems apart. So why should a microwave be able to communicate?

Often, only elaborate combinations of not-so-intuitive power, wattage and time settings will achieve the best microwave results. This is basically good for technical writers because there are a lot of functions to be described. But if you connect the microwave to the Internet and to a smartphone app, all you need to do is pop your food in, scan a barcode and voilà: the perfect microwave burrito. No instructions needed. In the future, the majority of everyday physical objects will be connected to the Internet and thus be able to communicate with their environment. This takes us to the age of the Internet of Things (IoT).

Connected Things will dominate the Internet, the cities and our lives

The Internet of Things is growing exponentially: According to research firm Gartner, 26 billion Things will be connected by 2020. The number of laptops, tablets, and smartphones will only reach seven billion by 2020. In comparison: According to the United Nations, the world population is estimated to rise to eight billion by 2020.

Will technical writers be affected by the Internet of Things?

Looking at these numbers, the Internet of Things will affect every job in every industry. Just to name two undistinguished examples: In agriculture, applications such as Field Connect from John Deere provide information through sensors regarding the moisture content of the soil and thus help farmers control the targeted irrigation. The Internet of Things has also already been installed in Disney World – from reservation to check-in. So the question is not if technical writers will be affected by the Internet of Things, but when.

How will the Internet of Things change technical communication?

Every “Thing” in the Internet of Things is uniquely identifiable. And, with the knowledge of its environment, we can also identify who is using it, how the device is being used and where the user is encountering problems. This enables us to provide the user with the right information at the right moment. Technical communication in the era of the Internet of Things is not a one-way street. Since everything is connected, there are numerous ways of integrating feedback systems to help us optimize documentation and other information. Although every “Thing” on the Internet of Things is uniquely identifiable, the information for that product must be addressable too. Every product variant consists of different information modules that can be combined in many ways. To manage the incoming information overload, data must be classified and structured.

Traditional document-based writing is becoming less common and will eventually disappear altogether. It is being replaced by topic-based writing, using XML editors or other – yet unknown – technologies. Single-source publishing ensures the reusability of content – an indispensable feature for the Internet of Things.

Information is not only needed by humans, but also by machines in smart factories. This is why technical writers are turning into information managers. They must ensure that they can provide the right information at the right time for man or machine. In ever-faster maintenance cycles, a service technician will need the right information at the right time in the event of damage in order to repair the damage to the machine. Both man and machine will require modularized and structured technical documentation. In the short term this certainly isn’t an easy task, but the effort pays off in the long term. The Internet of Things therefore provides an opportunity to introduce company-wide information management. And, as the latest tekom study on content management systems reveals, 30 percent of German manufacturers want to connect their information management systems with other departments in the company.

A long road ahead

The technical documentation conference of the German Engineering Association that took place in May 2015 showed that the Internet of Things is still miles away from being implemented in small and medium-sized businesses. At the conference, one speaker asked his listeners if their companies had already started implementing smart factory solutions. The result was devastating – out of the 200 people in the audience, only one raised his hand. The speaker then asked his listeners if their companies were planning to implement smart factory solutions in the near future. Once again, the poll revealed surprisingly low results.

Another panel discussion during the tekom Spring Conference in April 2015 proved the same status quo. I had the chance to discuss technical documentation and the Internet of Things in the industry with experts from Siemens and SAP. The summary of the discussion showed that technical communication in Germany still has to solve the following three issues:

1. Unstructured information
A survey among tekom members from 2014 showed that 30 percent are still writing unstructured information. Technical documentation that is not produced in a structured manner cannot be identified uniquely and therefore cannot be used in the value-chain of the smart factory. Companies often forget their greatest treasure: product information.

2. Low self-esteem and insufficient resources
Another critical point is that often, the status of technical writers within a company is pretty low when compared to engineers from research & development or IT departments. Even worse, technical documentation is sometimes even unknown in the company. Many employees don’t even know that their company produces documentation, let alone who is writing it. So why should a CEO invest in a department where he can’t see any return on investment? The underlying attitude might be: Let’s keep information products as cheap as possible, just enough to act as insurance in case of a machine accident.

3. Wasting time with supplier documentation
One of the system manufacturers involved in the discussion said that there is still no automated solution for importing documentation of supplier products. People often scan the documents and paste them into their own documentation. Or worse, they retype the supplier documentation. Needless to say, the results are messy and error-prone.

Making documentation smart: the Cyber System Connector

The increasing complexity of machines and systems, in particular due to the increasing integration of a variety of electronic controls, are rendering technical documentation increasingly more expensive. Manufacturers are required to deliver standard-compliant documentation throughout the entire product lifecycle. Many instances require new documentation, e.g. technical implementations or upgrades, product changes, optimization measures or a production volume adjustment. However, documents are hardly ever kept up-to-date once the product has been delivered and set up for use.

The Cyber System Connector (CSC) aims to ensure current technical documentation throughout the entire product lifecycle through a virtual image of the equipment. With this image, maintenance staff can fix machines faster because they have all the information they need, leading to shorter downtime. There is less accidental misuse and higher work safety due to up-to-date warnings and safety tips. In addition, the company saves money because the spare part list is always up-to-date. The manufacturer is always aware of the status of the plant and can schedule maintenance accordingly.

How does it work?

The CSC provides an interface for each integrated system component of the machine or plant. This provides a virtual image that is always identical to the actual plant. Any change to the machine will update the virtual representation and also the technical documentation.

The virtual machine may include information such as process flowcharts, control logics, schematics, 3D models, factory and plant layout, operating instructions or risk assessments.

In addition to the legally required physical documentation, all information is provided in the form of decentralized virtual images distributed over the entire system that are combined into a common virtual image. This allows the derivation of situation- and needs-based documentation information for the user, which remains up-to-date throughout the entire product lifecycle.

Are integrated manuals the future?

The research project responds to an actual trend in the manufacturing industry. Mobile documentation – manuals on mobile devices – is not very common in this industry. Hard-copy manuals, however, often can’t be found when needed, are outdated or so dirty that they cannot be read. Desktop Help functions also have their drawbacks: All too often, they are overloaded with information costing machine operators valuable time.

Thus, there is a growing demand for digital manuals that are displayed directly on the machines and are always at hand when the machine is in use. This would allow a warning sign to flash up on the display if the machine operator enters an unsafe machine function. Or it could be combined with a mechanism that only unlocks the system once the operator has read the warning information. Other possibilities are guides that reveal the position of the part that needs to be replaced, including a step-by-step instruction for disassembly.

The company WDS Süßwarenmaschinen GmbH is currently working on a concept to integrate their manuals into their machines. As the control mechanism of the machine is already a touchscreen, the manuals could be integrated as HTML files using the same user interface as the machine control, with the potential to offer interactive content. To ensure that the right audience receives the right information, users would need to login. As a result of this project, the company identified a greater acceptance of the user manual due to its new and intuitive format. The project was presented at the tekom Spring Conference 2015 [3].

Connecting devices with the Internet makes them SMART. Right?

The possibilities of smartphones and tablets are perceived as self-evident. Thanks to social media, geo-location, and other parameters, we can precisely determine the target audience. Technical communication needs to jump on the bandwagon now. Projects like the Cyber System Connector are just the beginning. There is a lot of potential here. A case in point are GoPro cameras used by service engineers who record their work and send the video to the technical writers, who then produce the service manuals.

The next technical revolution is already lurking around the corner: What promises do the Microsoft HoloLens or the Magic Leap hold for technical writers? Let’s hope that we are truly on the way to smart documentation.

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#3 Marie-L. Flacke wrote at Sun, Aug 23 answer homepage

Interesting to read

« This would allow a warning sign to flash up on the display if the machine operator enters an unsafe machine function. Or it could be combined with a mechanism that only unlocks the system once the operator has read the warning information.”

 

More interesting is to compare the above theory with real life examples:

“We had a number of checklists to deal with and 43 ECAM messages in the first 60 seconds after the explosion and probably another ten after that. So it was nearly a two-hour process to go through those items and action each one (or not action them) depending on what the circumstances were. - See more at: www.aerosociety.com/News/Insight-Blog/1567/EXCLUSIVE-Qantas-QF32-flight-from-the-cockpit

 

So you are flying an Airbus 380 with a burning engine and full tanks. What do you think of reading 43 (warning) messages for 2 hours?

#2 B Mani Singh wrote at Tue, Aug 18 answer

Excellent article that throws light on NextGen technical documentation.

#1 Scott Abel wrote at Fri, Aug 07 answer homepage

Excellent article, Alexander. Ann Rockley, Charles Cooper, and me are currently putting the finishing touches on a book called "Intelligent Content: A Primer" (Sept 2015 XML Press) that makes the case for many of the improvements you suggest are needed to help us write for both machines and humans. Thanks for sharing your knowledge. We need forepeople to see the light and begin to make the changes needed to prepare us for the future that has already (in many places) arrived.

 

I hope to see you at tcworld this November, where I will be using the same concepts technical writers use to create structured, reusable content while I DJ the international dinner dance party. It should be fun.