By Mark Gross, President, Data Conversion Laboratory, appearing in Manufacturing Business Technology
The simplest way to explain data and content conversion is that you take an unstructured format like paper and transform it into a structured (or digital) format, like XML for instance. Sounds simple, but it is true. That said, the objective of converting content is anything but simplistic or trivial. Converting content to a digital form can have a very real effect on your business. Even more than activating your content to be more accessible to both internal and external users, data conversion can improve your business’ operations with better productivity.
Franz Kafka once said, “Productivity is being able to do things that you were never able to do before.” Well said and that is actually a nice summary of a project we were a part of for the U.S. Air Force, one that improved their internal processes with speed and accuracy. Following are project details — what the Air Force needed and what we provided. What we outline here can apply in some form or another to any large or small organization’s business operations. The end-goal for all businesses is increased productivity and performance.
Documentation on the Fly
One of the larger craft used by the Air Force relies on aerospace technology systems to keep it aloft and out of harm’s way. Those systems require extensive daily maintenance — 20 hours for each hour of flight — with each step documented in a granular fashion. A job like this requires 140,000 pages of documents. Think of it as a large catalog of technical manuals continually updated as maintenance processes get refined and improved.
For this project, the manufacturer working with the Air Force was using a portable document format (PDF), published from XML’s predecessor, Standard Generalized Markup Language (SGML). This sufficed for a time, but ultimately was not efficient for updating documents quickly on a large scale. For instance, staff members were manually updating content in multiple documents, which unsurprisingly was time-consuming, impractical and not scalable — and not timely.
S1000D Increases Productivity With Flexibility
A manufacturer doing large-scale work for such an important client cannot afford systems or processes that slow momentum. It should be noted that similar work, but on a smaller scale, should not be hampered by a manual process either. To fix the problem, this manufacturer enlisted my company, Data Conversion Laboratory (DCL) for the Quality Assurance (QA) part of the project.
I think we can all agree that converting aircraft manuals is work that requires accuracy. S1000D is a conceptual departure from linear information, in which data is converted into a data module (DM) collection. Once in this format, the content can be reassembled in multiple ways, repurposed for multiple outputs, and reused across multiple products. In a word: flexible.
Trust but Verify
This was the largest conversion to S1000D XML that the Air Force had ever attempted. The sheer scope and importance of the work meant that the automation and speed had to go hand in hand with quality and accuracy. Working with the manufacturer, DCL developed customized quality assurance (QA) software to verify the accuracy of this very complex conversion process. The software was subject to rigorous testing and refining, requiring regular meetings with the manufacturer and the Air Force to update progress and discuss tweaks to maximize its efficacy.
Part of the quality control effort involved identifying redundant content, typos in data, missed or incorrectly tagged cross references — all things that are very difficult to identify without precise automation. This process also provided visibility into element mapping, checking tagging structure completeness and content tagging validity (proper alert tagging, placement).
A Faster, More Accurate Conversion Process
The importance of QA for a project like this could not be overstated. Our rigorous and time-tested QA process and software helped this manufacturer convert aircraft manuals for the Air Force with a high level of trust and accuracy. That is what the Air Force needed. The whole project is a prime example of the complexity and value of transforming your content from an unstructured format to a structured one. Paper or PDF to XML, or in this case S1000D. The benefits are numerous. Here are a few:
- Faster and more accurate operations and sustainment
- Save time, money and resources.
- Data can be more searchable and usable
- Ability to release change-only packages, instead of entire publications
- Ability to incorporate interactive capabilities
- Ability to use content to populate an interactive electronic technical manual (IETM), software that allows users to navigate through multiple manuals efficiently and access part numbers, related procedures, and preliminary requirements quickly
Improving internal processes and operations mitigates waste — wasted time, money and resources. There are many places to look when trying to zero in on inefficiencies. If the format of your content isn’t the first place you will look, it should be, or at least it should be among the top issues considered. If you have content that is integral to your business then converting it to a more flexible format coupled with an expert QA process is the right way to go. Like the aircrafts in this article, moving forward is best. Start planning your data conversion now, and be much better prepared for the future.
About the Author
Mark Gross, president of Data Conversion Laboratory (DCL), is an authority on XML implementation and document conversion. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 800.321.2816.