Sunday, September 26, 2010

Internet Research

When you need to write about vendor-supplied equipment, you may find that the source material provided by your company is outdated or incomplete.  In that case, you will need to dig further to get what you need an accurate procedure.  Twenty years ago that meant searching through microfilm, microfiche, corporate libraries, and writing to or calling manufacturers and then waiting for them to mail what you needed.

The Internet eliminates the need for most of those headaches.  Every once in awhile a situation will arise where no information is available online, usually because the company went out of business years ago, but there is almost always a way to find what you need.

The obvious place to start is the vendor's web site.  Look for a link to something like a "Literature and Document Library" or "Manuals and Drawings" (it may be under "Support" or "Downloads").  You may need to look up the specific product and look for a link on that page. 

Some companies will have an extensive amount of literature on line.  For a company that is a major supplier to an industry, or several industries, it is in their best interest to make this information readily available to their clients to cut down on requests for the manuals, brochures, data sheets, catalogs, and drawings.  John Deere, for instance, has online versions of all their manuals, including complete sets of engineering drawings.  I have occasionally found information on the manufacturer's international sites that is not available on the American site.

Other companies have a great deal of information, but you need to register on the web site to prove you are working for a client before you can get to it.  Permission will be given immediately or in a couple days, depending on the level of verification required.

If you cannot find anything on the manufacturer's site, you can search for the equipment in a using Google or another search engine.  You can sometimes find manuals, drawings, and marketing materials on distributors' sites.  Trade magazines, industry forums, and even other clients may have information on their sites.

As a last resort, if the piece of equipment is used for a very specific purpose, you can search for similar equipment by other manufacturers.  If you collect enough data on competitor's equipment you can deduce that your equipment will have common characteristics that will require the same maintenance.  Then, by examining the equipment itself and consulting subject matter experts, you can produce a procedure that can be further reviewed and verified in the field.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Creating Line Drawings

I regularly use engineering drawings in my procedures.  However, just copying them in makes for really sloppy results.  This is becuase of the background "noise" in the drawings when copied.  That is, the background is not all white.  It contains hundreds of versions of colors that are almost white.  When these are printed in black and white, you get black specks.

If it is not already electronic, I scan an engineering drawing and save it as a PDF file.  Then I adjust the PDF to the size I need.  I take a screen shot of the PDF and copy it into MS Paint (yes, the free drawing program in all Windows systems).

I outline all outline all of the drawing I need in red.  Then I erase everything that is not red.  That is not as easy as it sounds.  I save the best version I can as a BMP (bitmap) file, then open it in GIMP, a free open source graphic program.  I convert red to black and save the file.

I then open it back in Paint and change everything that is not black into red.  I save the file and open it again in GIMP.  I convert all red to white, and what I have left is a perfect black and white line drawing.

I open the drawing again in Paint and add any callouts or details needed.  Then I save the drawing as a JPG and it is ready to drop into a Word document.

This is a lot of work, but the resulting drawing can be manipulated with overlays and other effects and reused throughout the project.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Process: Writing a Mechanical Procedure

The first step is to define purpose and scope of the task.  This is often obvious.  If the task is to lubricate a pump, the purpose is to lubricate and the scope will be the points that need to be addressed (grease bearings, check oil level, add or change oil). 

If the task is more complex, say an annual inspection of a system, I will do research to define the scope.  This may involve consulting previous work orders, manufacturers' manuals, engineering drawings, and/or consulting engineers or the manufacturer's representative.

The second step is to create an outline or rough draft of the procedure to be sure all points are covered.

Then, if at all possible, I will examine and photograph the equipment.  This is done to aide in illustrating the steps and to identify any obstacles that will need to be addressed.  Recently I was writing about rebuilding a pump.  A special tool was supplied by the manufacturer to aid in removal of the impeller.  The pump was mounted too close to the suction pipe for the special tool to be used.  Providing a solution to this problem made the procedure not only more accurate, but essential to performing the task in the field.

Finally, the procedure is written in final form with steps illustrated to make sure the person performing the task has everything they need to do the job without having to take time to do research themselves.

For an example of a completed mechanical procedure go to

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Project

The project is the scope and purpose of documentation required for a product, be it software, mechanical, electrical, or any combination of the three.

A software program may require a user manual, administrator guide, help pages, training materials, marketing aides, and presentations.  A mechanical device may require an installation and operation manual, preventive and corrective maintenance procedures, training materials, an illustrated parts list, technical bulletins, and specification sheets.  Electrical documentation may include functional descriptions, hazard analysis reports, user guides, and troubleshooting instructions.

Documentation for a major project like a power plant would include software, mechanical, and electrical elements broken down into systems.  Systems may relate to types of equipment (all conveyors), areas (all equipment related to the boiler), or functions (the flue gas system).

The client will specify elements of the project and the documentation necessary.  They may have existing templates or documentation specifications, but they may ask the technical writer to provide outlines and formats.