The 11 most important tips for digital documentation of machinery and equipment

Many manufacturers of industrial machines and systems still deliver operating instructions on external media such as CDs and USB sticks, often even in paper form – of course in part also due to the respective legal requirements. So simply doing away with the good old paper-based operating manual is not usually possible without further ado. However, it is time for manufacturers to offer their customers and service partners, as well as their field service staff, intuitive digital documentation as an additional alternative. On average, about 10-15% of all inquiries that the office staff in service or in the help desk at the manufacturer has to deal with on a daily basis are due to missing, undiscoverable or poorly accessible documentation. In this blog post, we explain what digital documentation for machines and systems is all about, why it is so important, especially in mechanical engineering, and what tips you should keep in mind when introducing digital documentation. 

What exactly is digital documentation for machines and equipment?

In the industrial context, digital documentation includes any documentation or information about equipment or machinery that is available digitally in the form of records or files. This includes digital operating instructions as PDF or drawings, manuals, datasheets, certificates, and much more. When implementing digital documentation, manufacturers should be able to manage their entire installed base centrally in one place and thus be able to assign documents quickly and easily to the corresponding machines, for example in the case of modifications, announcements or discontinuations. 

Why is digital documentation so relevant?

On average, employees in companies spend almost 20% of their time searching for information, which is often hidden in the depths of unclear file structures or documents with different systems.

Therefore, the ability to precisely search for individual documents or even particular content about a specific machine via the serial number of a machine and the related digital asset lifecycle yields an enormous potential to save time and thus an increase in productivity. Like this, improvements of between 30-35% can be realized, according to McKinsey.

Furthermore, the manufacturers are able to introduce their customers to the concept of “help for self-help” step by step through the central provision of digital documentation. The customer finds it much easier and more convenient to access the operating manual digitally with full-text search and a table of contents in just a few seconds, steps or clicks, rather than having to inspect the whole manual in an often time-consuming search. If customers are enabled to resolve recurring service issues themselves by simply accessing particular knowledge via the central digital documentation, manufacturers have more time for the more important service issues.

The 11 most important tips for digital documentation of industrial machinery and equipment

1. Move your machine documentation to the cloud securely

The cloud describes one of the most important technological changes of the last few years. It enables central management of documents in one, digital place. In this way, various authorized parties, including manufacturers, operators and service partners, can access relevant information about the machine at any time and from anywhere, and make changes or additions if necessary. Thanks to the cloud-based solution, the other parties have immediate access to the updates and can also be notified of them. (accordingly tip 11) 

Nevertheless, it is essential to stay on track with data security. Make sure that the digital documentation is protected by security mechanisms such as two-factor authentication or password change cycles and that your hosting provider relies on the most important security standards or certifications (e.g. C5, ISO 27001, TISAX etc.).

2. Structure your documentation distinctly with reference to the assigned machine as a digital life cycle file

There are many document management systems on the market. In the industrial context, however, machine and equipment manufacturers need to focus their documentation management on the core of their daily business: the machine or equipment. Digital documentation should make it possible, for example through a reference to the serial, device or inventory number, to uniquely retrieve the documentation for each asset. This results in a 360-degree view of the entire installed base, where no information is lost thanks to central storage.

3. Be aware of identical machine types, series and recurring documents

It is an enormous challenge for both manufacturers and operators to keep all documentation on the installed base and their machinery up to date. When structuring your digital documentation, we recommend that you bear in mind that you can manage identical series or machine types in one central location. The advantage of structuring the documentation via asset types is that future changes to the documentation, that affect a whole series of identical machines, only need to be made at a single central location and are then automatically transferred to all machines of this series.

4. Make sure that your digital documentation is available “Mobile First”

Even in traditional industries as the mechanical engineering, everyone has a smartphone nowadays. Hence most of the service technicians or operators carry a device in their pocket when they get assigned to a machine for a service case. You should thus make sure that your digital documentation solution suits mobile devices. The approach “Mobile First” prioritizes the implementation on mobile devices such as smartphones or tablets when developing a software solution.

5. Use QR-Codes to get quick access to your machines and equipment

Digital documentation is all about saving time and increasing efficiency for everyone involved. The latter can be carried to a new level via a QR-Code on the machines. By scanning the QR-Code attached to your machine or equipment, you obtain the entire history and the attached documentation. With one click on his mobile device, the service technician could hence exactly see which service reports have already been filled out for the particular machine in the past, without having to search for the respective documentation in the first place.

6. Ensure full-text searchability of your documents with OCR

To exploit the full potential of digital documentation, you should make sure that for example your PDF files are searchable. To achieve this, the documents must be available as full-text PDFs. If you have many scanned documents, we recommend that you purchase a scanner with Optical Character Recognition (OCR). It allows you to filter out specific terms from hundreds of pages within a few seconds and then work efficiently with the results.

7. Use references in the tables of contents of your digital documents

Tables of contents provide an overview of the document, are intended to structure it and facilitate the targeted search for specific content. In the case of paper-based operating manuals, however, the user must first filter what he is looking for from the long directory and then turn to the relevant page. The digital form offers an efficient “shortcut” here: by clicking on the corresponding entry in the digital table of contents, the user can directly – without annoying scrolling – go to the place in the document he is looking for.

8. Split your documentation into individual “filet slices”

Especially in the machine manufacturing industry, operating manuals are often several hundred pages long. Most of the time however, in a concrete case, often only a few pages or a very specific drawing are required. For digital documentation, it is therefore advisable to “fillet” operating or user manuals, i.e. to divide them into individual documents and then provide the most important “fillet pieces” individually. For example, the operator who has a specific maintenance task to perform can open the “Maintenance Instructions” document without having to search through the entire operating manual for this part, which saves time and energy. 

9. Consider underlying rights and role structures for clear access to your digital documentation

If several parties have access to your digital documentation, as for example your field service workers on the one hand, and your customers, service partners, dealers or representatives, on the other hand, you should make sure that you are in control of who can view, edit or upload asset-related documents.

10. Request information about the provision of documents from your IT or DMS provider

In many cases, at least parts of the information and documents are already available in digital form, e.g. in a file structure, in a DMS, PLM or PDM system. In this case, the implementation of digital documentation should ensure that existing documents and files can be easily, quickly and securely transferred to your cloud system with the help of e.g. a data extraction or standardized interfaces. Our recommendation would be for you to ask your IT manager or your respective DMS provider about the form in which data extraction or a connection via a web interface (e.g. REST-API) is possible.

11. Notify individual parties when archiving, versioning or making documents available

Another clear advantage of documentation in digital form are the automated notification functions. For example, you should make sure that the users of your digital documentation are notified via the channel of their preference (e.g. e-mail, SMS, notification) as soon as, for example, a new document is available or something has changed within the existing documents. This enables manufacturers to keep their customers and service partners up to date with the latest documentation, which benefits all parties.

In summary, the importance of digital documentation for industrial machinery and equipment is often underestimated. Nevertheless, we are seeing many manufacturers and operators becoming aware of the need for central, digital documentation right now. To avoid the most common obstacles, we assembled what we believe to be the most important tips you should take into consideration during the implementation process.

If you would now like to get started with digital documentation for your machines and systems, we would be happy to show you how we are already helping other companies in the mechanical engineering sector. Please do not hesitate to contact us.

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