How do we make...operating instructions?

Posted on January 17, 2017 by Katrin Auernhammer, Images by Robert Hack

While a coffee machine can be explained in a matter of five pages, things like cars and engines have entire manuals.
Friedrichshafen, Germany

They make some people frown, some studiously ignore them, and others study them in great depth: operating instructions. Whereas a coffee machine can be explained in a matter of five pages, things like cars and engines have entire manuals. Jürgen Bockewitz produces operating instructions for mtu engines and systems – each set as individual as the engine itself. Such a manual typically covers between 150 and 300 pages. “Operating instructions are part of the scope of supply, like the engine itself. In fact, they are prescribed by law,” explains Bockewitz.

Jürgen Bockewitz is checking the operating instructions together with Jochen Ebser. Is each process step explained correctly?

“When writing operating instructions, you have to leave your creativity at the door,” said Tomaso Magoni, Team Leader in Technical Documentation. The content is defined by the product and the target audience. This means the technical author must describe the product in such a way that the user understands it and is able to use the product as intended. Off-the-wall terminology and flowery phrasing are not called for. What is important is for the author to have a certain technical understanding: “The user must be able to read the instructions and understand how to change a filter as per the maintenance schedule, which fuels and oils can be used in the engine and, when problems arise, what things he can do himself and what things are better handled by our service technicians.” As a result, the technical author always has one eye on the user. Like Bockewitz and his colleague Jochen Ebser, all technical authors are regularly to be found in Assembly, on training courses or beside the test stands,
learning how certain procedures are performed properly.

Customers are still receiving operating instructions in hard-copy form or as CD-ROMs. Operating instruction apps will soon be available.

They then produce the instructions using a modern content management system (CMS). “The CMS allows us to create new text or graphics modules or reuse those from other engines or systems,” explained Bockewitz. The CMS also checks wording. This ensures uniformity and clarity even where several authors have been working on the same document. Deliberate use of specific wording is key to avoiding misunderstandings. In the series systems business, standard operating instructions are provided, since the scope of supply does not really change from one order to the next. In the project systems business, however, technical documentation is custom-written by the authors, e.g. for a PowerPack (a rail engine plus accessories for use in railcars). “Each order is different, and we have to take account of that,” said Bockewitz. Thanks to the modular approach taken by the CMS, operating instructions for a rail PowerPack take only around a week to produce. Instructions for a new product, where the technical author is involved right from the design stage, can last several weeks.

Bockewitz asks a plant technician to explain the various connectors on the wiring harness for the PowerPack.

Operating instructions mainly go to the customer in hard-copy form or as CD-ROMs. “We can already supply interactive HTML documentation complete with text and video animations, where the customer so requires, and soon we’ll even be able to offer customers operating instructions in the form of apps or via web portals,” said Tomaso Magoni.

Point of contact

Tomaso Magoni
Tel. +49 7541 90 2431

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