By Corinna Petry, Modern Metals
The electronic age comes to quality manuals, safety guides, machinery specs and parts catalogs
It happens all the time. A fantastically automated metal processing line is doing its thing, stamping pristine parts, but the machine operator cannot find the piece of quality protocol or standards specification he needs without rifling through a file cabinet in some office or a rack filled with numerous bulky, 250-page manuals.
A New York state company has carved out a niche in our data-driven world, converting all that paper to digitized information that can be accessed in any electronic format using a desktop, laptop, tablet or smartphone.
“We have been around since 1981, when IBM started moving from mainframe computers to PCs and users needed a way to migrate their information to smaller computers,” recalls Data Conversion Laboratory President CEO Mark Gross. “Obviously, with the ongoing changes in computer technology, we reinvented ourselves several times.”
By the early 1990s, a lot of the Fresh Meadows, New York company’s work was in transferring documents to SGML, a digital language that preceded today’s XML. “One of our first projects was converting standards documents for General Motors Co. There were over 6,000 standards for basic processes and materials. That was probably the first large-scale conversion. GM was able to take all the converted material into one format, distribute it easily, be able to edit it and make it available online.”
Ten years later, XML allowed anyone to standardize printed text and convert it to popular digital programs—Word, Excel, etc.—and take it anywhere. DCL completed large-scale projects like converting whole libraries of standards publications for the Society of Automotive Engineers and ASTM International.
“Our customers have racks and racks of notebooks and instruction manuals. Once that is electronic, they can publish and distribute more widely and the information becomes reformattable to screen size,” Gross says. “Everybody has phones, tablets and iPads. Even small companies have Wi-Fi,” so the information is immediately accessible anywhere it’s needed.
Often, any documents clients own for internal use is proprietary. “All of the material can be protected. It can be encrypted, or even if it’s not encrypted, those getting through the firewall are using passwords. So the information is secure.”
DCL’s work is scalable, says Gross, citing the maintenance manuals that go with a Boeing 747 aircraft. “The documentation is more than the 747 could lift,” he surmises. “[There are] over 1 million documents.”
That’s not all. Operations manuals often have to be translated. “For a lot of manufacturers, operations stretch across a lot of countries and all the information has to be localized. If you export to Europe, you have to translate into 23 languages. Some customers go to 100 countries so translation becomes expensive.”
Converting with XML allows companies to compartmentalize all the various bits of information so when they translate it, they can keep track of what’s been translated. This means that if any “one section, sentence or paragraph is changed, they can isolate that and it’s a huge savings rather than translating an entire document,” Gross says. By using DCL, customers “don’t spend a lot of time doing things that aren’t necessary.”
Another application is parts catalogs. “We just worked with a major manufacturer of heavy equipment whose catalog information was spread across 100 different documents: Tires here, cogs here, engines here. Dealers were complaining,” says Gross.
“We took all the catalogs and made a single electronic database and indexed it in many different ways, so now, if you have a bolt, thickness, material, etc., you can extract all that metadata. The client can distribute this to dealers in 100 countries and the information will always be current.”
With such a resource, an equipment dealer can adjust pricing whenever they deem fit, a maintenance manager can follow the correct procedures for degreasing machinery and reassemble to the correct tolerances, and a plant safety manager can even develop training presentations out of the manuals converted to electronic format.
“We had one client realize that it had hundreds of class videos, sitting there underused. So they had us go back and build them into course packs. Instructors are able to go update material, add questions and answers, even develop the material into a certification program,” says Gross.
Digital conversion allows clients to “actualize assets” and even monetize them. Welding students will pay for accredited certification courses, for example.
DCL is flexible on how it charges for its services, Gross says. “It depends on the customer and what kind of work it is. We usually have to perform upfront engineering work to determine an approach. We estimate that engineering fee in advance. Once the plan is laid out, we can assess a cost per page. We will help clients develop a budget. My mantra is ‘no surprises,’” Gross says.
To keep project costs down and the process standardized, DCL automates a lot of the conversion steps. “Clients might start out with 5,000 to 10,000 pages—a couple of racks of documents.” That kind of work takes three to five weeks to engineer and explain what is needed and then process a few thousand pages a week. “A project like what we did with ASTM was equal to tens of thousands of pages. That project took about a year because they didn’t want to rush it,” he notes.
Even the proofreading is automated by software that compares the original paper document to the finished digital version
How fast an average client sees a return on this investment “depends on how quickly employees adapt to change,” says Gross. “Is there a champion of the process to push them? What’s important is that top management is into it, sees where it’s going, believes in it and takes people along.”
In that environment, a client can see payback in under a year. “If management is not behind it, it will take longer. But once adopted, they cannot imagine how they lived without it.
“It’s not just a return realized due to productivity savings, but increased revenue flow. A centralized catalog, for example, helps dealers sell more and control revenues and costs better.
Training certification materials can become a profit center, says Gross, “and it did for at least one of our clients.”
Digital conversion also reduces a company’s exposure to risk with safety, product rejections and operating procedures. “The ability to reduce rejections is a huge advantage,” he says. “It can be the whole profit margin on a job.”