Documentation spec makes DOD inroads

Will S1000D be the future of tech manuals?

A specification for creating technical documentation is quietly making inroads in the military and could emerge as a standard across the Defense Department.

The specification, known as S1000D, originated in Europe in the 1980s. Organizations such as the United Kingdom Ministry of Defense have adopted it as a standard. U.S. interest has increased in recent years as the specification evolved to reflect military requirements.

S1000D advocates said wide acceptance of the specification would provide a level of interoperability unavailable today. A single standard, they argued, would make delivering technical data easier and less expensive. The ability to reuse data ranks as another plus for S1000D.

The specification promotes a modular approach: A text or graphic component created for one project can be redeployed elsewhere.

The potential for cost savings has grabbed the Pentagon's attention. A draft memo from the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics seeks to make S1000D the standard for documentation associated with new weapon systems, industry sources said. A Pentagon spokeswoman said DOD doesn't comment on draft memos.

But even without a directive from on high, the services have begun to deploy S1000D. Examples include the Air Force's Global Hawk unmanned aerial vehicle and the F-117A. The Navy also has S1000D efforts under way.

A major obstacle to adopting S1000D is money. Some executives say converting documentation to a new specification could prove expensive. Funding also is needed to craft S1000D implementation guidelines and support the preliminary analysis projects that would pave the way for the specification.

"The big problem is getting resources assigned to actually do the analysis," said Steven Holloway, the Air Force's program support lead for technical manual specifications and standards in the Operations Support Systems Wing.

S1000D 101

S1000D may have originally taken root in Europe, but today Americans and Europeans collaborate on the specification. Government and industry representatives from the United States and eight European countries participate in the Technical Publications Specification Maintenance Group, which shepherds the specification. The group operates under the auspices of the U.S. Aerospace Industries Association and the Aerospace and Defense Industries Association of Europe.

The current version of the specification, released in 2004, can be used to produce technical manuals in paper or electronic forms. The latter are typified by interactive electronic technical manuals. Modularity differentiates S1000D from conventional document creation and management approaches.

Electronic documents tend to mimic their paper counterparts as linear entities with chapters. But S1000D aims to change that. Documents are divided into what the specification describes as data modules. Those modules, which can house text or graphics, are designed for reuse. A module can be created once and redeployed in a range of publications, thus speeding document creation.

"Data modules are the core of the specification," said Ian Proudfoot, technical director at Inmedius.

"One of the challenges in creating [interactive electronic manuals] and product support information understanding the granularity at which the information should be created and managed," said Bob Heilman, president of technical support specialist O'Neil & Associates. "S1000D provides a structure by which one can identify that granularity: the data module structure."

Another major component of S1000D is the Common Source Database. The database controls the data modules, which can number in the thousands for a given publishing project.

The database provides "a level of scalability that is not really achievable through traditional means," Proudfoot said. Typically, electronic manuals involve the management of huge Standard Generalized Markup Language (SGML) or Extensible Markup Language (XML) files. They are usually managed through a dedicated SGML/XML-aware content management system, he said.

"Any good CMS will help the author find the relevant part quickly," Proudfoot said. "However, there is often a performance reduction as the size of the source file increases." In contrast, the indexing of smaller files in a Common Source Database eases the search process.

To get technical documentation in users' hands, a list of data modules is culled from the database and published as a paper document or an electronic manual. Data modules may be published in output formats such as SGML and XML.

Who's using it?

Among the S1000D-related projects under way in the Air Force, Global Hawk has been using the specification for the past two and a half years, Holloway said. And the F-117A aircraft program has been using it for at least four years, he added.

The Naval Air Systems Command, meanwhile, has been using the specification with the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) program, said Robert Sharrer, a technical data liaison at Navair.

Leaders of several other Navair programs are looking at the specification for possible use as production deployments. "In addition, we are using the spec to pilot a conversion effort involving some F-18 engine data," he said. At this point, Navair hasn't issued a mandate for programs to use or convert to S1000D, he said.

The Army may also tap S1000D. A spokeswoman for the Army Aviation and Missile Command said the specification has potential but added that some analysis is needed.

Industry executives view new programs such as JSF as a logical path for S1000D, because adoption won't involve converting existing documentation.

But Holloway said programs in transition also are candidates for S1000D. "Weapon systems doing major [modifications] probably should look at this as a possible change point," he said.

With that in mind, Holloway's office is working with other Air Force elements to establish guidelines to help organizations determine whether it makes sense to consider S1000D.

The case for S1000D

One factor driving interest in S1000D is its potential to unify what has been a hodge-podge of documentation approaches and delivery mechanisms.

P.G. Bartlett, vice president of product marketing at Arbortext, said previous attempts to establish a standard proved unsuccessful, as attempts to advance one military specification or another resulted in fragmentation.

"You ended up with information consumers who have to deal with different types of [interactive electronic manuals] for different types of weapon systems," he said. Arbortext provides enterprise publishing software and has been cultivating alliances with S1000D specialists.

"The ability for the different services to use a single standard has been a goal for a long, long time," Holloway said.

Bruce Brooke, systems and products business area manager at Northrop Grumman Space Technology's Oklahoma City Avionics Engineering Center, said the earlier use of S1000D in Europe will ease adoption in the United States. He cited the availability of S1000D tools that support authoring, publishing, viewing and distributing manuals.

International support also means that the care and feeding of S1000D is distributed. Because S1000D is an industry specification, "Navair and DOD aren't responsible for the maintenance and update of the spec," Sharrer said.

The U.S. military participates in the S1000D partnership of industry and allied nations.

Over time, worldwide use of S1000D would provide cost-saving interoperability, proponents say. A manufacturer that writes technical documentation to a single standard saves organizations from having to rewrite the documentation to suit local requirements, Proudfoot said. "This will reduce ongoing support costs," he said.

In addition, the use of the same standard would eliminate the need for proprietary viewing systems. Users "could all be accommodated in the same browsing or viewing system," Proudfoot said. "That is a massive advantage."

The downside

When it comes to S1000D's challenges, the task of converting existing documentation is often cited. Stephanie Partlow, director of business development and senior markup analyst at TruLogic, said conversion costs wouldn't be enormous on a per-page basis, but added that documentation efforts for an engine program — much less an entire aircraft — may involve 15,000 pages. TruLogic develops interactive electronic technical manuals.

Partlow also said that S1000D has been mostly used to create paper documentation in Europe and wondered how the approach will fare in an electronic environment.

"It's going to be a slow uptake," Bartlett said, adding that no fully automated way to convert documentation to S1000D exists. "It will require a lot of manual effort," he said.

Building a business case for conversion is an expense in itself. Holloway said DOD funding for the military services' analysis efforts would be ideal. Centralized funding has yet to be approved because S1000D must compete with other priorities.

"But we're not going to give up," Holloway said.

Moore is a freelance writer based in Syracuse, N.Y.

S1000D FAQ

What is it?

S1000D is a specification for the technical documentation associated with civil or military vehicles and equipment. It supports Standard Generalized Markup Language, Extensible Markup Language and Computer Graphics Metafile. The current version is 2.1.

Who maintains it?

The Technical Publications Specification Maintenance Group is responsible for developing and maintaining the standard.

What is its current status?

Widely used in Europe, S1000D has surfaced in a handful of U.S. military projects. Examples include Global Hawk and the F-117A aircraft.

What are the specification's major benefits?

S1000D reduces support costs, facilitates modularity and reuse, and allows users to view electronic documentation via a common Web browser or text viewer.

What are its major challenges?

Officials need to improve the specification's ability to convert existing documentation. They also need to obtain funding to conduct business case analyses.

What's next?

Version 2.2 of the specification is scheduled to debut in May. Notable additions include interactive capabilities intended to facilitate the development of electronic technical manuals.

— John Moore


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