Solving the burden of power plant documentation

Issue 5 and Volume 101.

Solving the burdenof power plant documentation

By Sean Sullivan, Siemens Power Corp.,Liang, H. Hsu, Siemens Corporate Research,and Tim Dawidowski, Siemens Kraftwerk Union

Changes in the regulatory environment and falling prices are forcing power generation companies and equipment suppliers to become more competitive. Recent advances in information technology offer an excellent opportunity for companies to improve their productivity. Typically, industries spend 8 to 10 percent of their revenue and up to 25 percent of their labor costs on document production and management tasks. During the last 18 months, Siemens Power Corp. (SPC) has re-examined its documentation package and the processes used to generate this package. An in-depth analysis that included interviews, observations and informal user tests, indicates that improving the structure, content, accuracy and development time of power plant documentation packages can dramatically lower documentation creation, production, revision and distribution costs while simultaneously increasing a user`s satisfaction and productivity.


Structure measures the organization of information. A well-structured manual is comprehensive, modular and allows users to quickly locate the required piece of information. Difficulties locating accurate, up-to-date and appropriate information can delay installation, commissioning, operation and outage schedules. There are three significant variables that affect the time required to locate information: the size of the documentation package, the organization of the documentation package and the user`s background.

Power plants generate enormous amounts of paperwork. For a new combined-cycle fossil-fuel project, SPC`s project documentation package includes: 50 2-inch binders of product manuals; 15 2-inch binders of installation instructions and records; 10 2-inch binders of commissioning instructions and records; two 2-inch binders of operating and maintenance instructions; and 10 2-inch binders of engineering drawings. This package does not include the field service records and correspondence files. The sheer physical size of the documentation package creates logistical difficulties, as well. Customers must maintain up to 15 copies of this documentation package for up to 30 years. Unfortunately, most customers do not have adequate storage facilities to meet this requirement. Even at SPC`s facility in Milwaukee, Wis., the Technical Publications department could not locate its rolling files in the department`s space because the floor could not support the weight.

Perhaps even more problematic is the fact that the structure of a large paper-based documentation package tends to break down over the life-cycle of a project. Pages tear out from overuse, binders rip out and volumes become scattered among different users. Users also begin to maintain personalized, heavily annotated document collections, which rapidly become more valuable than the official copies. The content and organization of the personal collections often tends to diverge from official copies, thus impeding the dissemination of accurate, useful, up-to-date information across a number of users. Additionally, maintaining and moving large amounts of personal files can become difficult for field personnel who frequently move between job sites. Human-computer interaction experts have found that even minor variations in the organization and presentation of information can significantly delay information retrieval times. Unfortunately, the organization of conventional paper-based power plant documentation packages exhibits extremely significant variations. Equipment suppliers, contractors, system integrators and site personnel organize their information differently. The lack of a single, unified structure has confused the customers. Some have even admitted they are not sure whether they have the latest copies of all the required documents.

Unfortunately, many power plant technical document developers assume that the user understands the equipment supplier`s document and part number systems and frequently reads the supplier`s manuals. These assumptions adversely affect information retrieval times and may not apply to some of the new employees and administrative personnel who maintain and use the documentation. Since many power generation companies operate units from different equipment suppliers, power generation personnel often must learn several different and complex numbering systems for each unit.

Given these conditions, it is not surprising that our studies found significant delays in information retrieval times. Frequently, new users who were not familiar with the plant layout and supplier`s documentation system could not locate specific information within the 15-minute maximum time limit. Observations of the daily working conditions indicated that several writers spent approximately 20 percent of their working week locating documents for users and answering general questions about the documentation structure. The need for a new, easier-to-use document structure quickly became apparent. This revised structure must allow users to quickly locate information in test records, drawings and technical manuals without learning complicated numbering systems.


Content measures the appropriateness of the document for its intended usage. The appropriateness of the document depends on the user`s background, the subject matter and the usage context. Typically, a document must accomplish at least one of three tasks: tell the user how to perform a certain task, direct the user to other relevant information, or record what the user did. Poorly designed documents can increase the time required to read and understand a document, increase error rates and confusion, lower retention times and customer satisfaction, and force other departments and companies to rewrite the documents. The costs associated with these consequences can be substantial. Some power generation companies have spent more than $100,000 rewriting and reformatting equipment supplier documentation. A wide variety of individuals use power plant manuals. Siemens` projected audience ranges from new users who are learning about the equipment for the first time to experienced users who have been operating and maintaining the equipment for decades. The new users read the documents intensively for a fixed length of time, while the experienced users refer to the manuals infrequently, usually to obtain a very specific, detailed piece of information.

Unfortunately, most existing paper-based power plant manuals do not adequately meet the needs of either new or experienced users. In order to minimize development and reproduction costs, most equipment suppliers provide generic instructions that can apply to multiple models. Detailed engineering drawings may accompany these descriptions. While this design lowers the information producer`s costs, it also seriously limits the usefulness of the document. The documents are too detailed and too abstract for new users but too general for experienced users.

We have found that simple page layout changes and the more a liberal use of simplified colored illustrations and pictures have dramatically improved the usability of our technical manuals and training manuals for new users. This is not surprising since it is well-known that multimedia training programs can decrease learning time between 40 and 60 percent while increasing retention rates by a similar percentage. Unfortunately, producing graphically oriented multimedia training products is still fairly labor-intensive and expensive. Commercially available tools work well for producing a limited amount of static information, but power plant training courses generally require project-specific information and can last from two to six weeks.

Experienced users have markedly different preferences in data densities, the pace of interaction, the degree of user feedback and the nature of the information sought. For example, the step-by-step, detailed procedures and numerous graphic images that assist new users may hinder more experienced personnel. Experienced users are usually more interested in obtaining project-specific values or information about abnormal operating conditions as quickly as possible.

Our study`s findings suggest that static, “generic” instructions are not appropriate for either new or experienced users. Customizing instructions so that they are appropriate for the task and the user will substantially lower document usage costs. Recent advances in database-driven publication systems and multimedia technologies offer the possibility of providing customized, project-specific instructions without substantially raising the information provider`s document development costs. However, implementing these systems is a complex, time-consuming process.

Accuracy, development time

Inaccurate, missing or out-of-date information can delay construction, commissioning and outage schedules. Since these delays create significant cost overruns, personnel must be able to immediately access up-to-date, accurate information. The rate at which information changes, the organization responsible for the change and the approval process all influence the documentation package`s accuracy and development time (active and turn-around time). Information providers must work to optimize the business processes used to create, validate and disseminate project documentation in an effort to minimize development time and maximize accuracy.

Power plant information changes at an incredible rate, particularly during installation and commissioning. Updates to a Siemens documentation package can weigh several hundred pounds. The magnitude and frequency of these updates can overwhelm the customer`s ability to maintain its documents properly. But sending out updates less frequently, while alleviating administrative overhead, can cause delays that frustrate end-users. These are just some of the reasons power plant operators and engineers have expressed a strong interest in obtaining a documentation system that can provide updates more quickly, simplify the updating process, and ensuring that the documentation package is current.

A wide range of individuals, including customers, job-site personnel, design and project engineers, and vendors, can change technical documentation. While power plant operation and monitoring systems can automatically record some of these changes, this information must be integrated and synchronized with data collected, analyzed and produced by the prime contractor`s headquarters. A simple valve replacement, for example, can affect numerous drawings, bills of material, setpoint lists, system descriptions, test records, QA records, preventive maintenance schedules, system descriptions, training materials and vendor manuals.

Since different organizations or groups are responsible for the different types of documents, updates may be released at different times. This breakdown in data synchronization across document types turns out to be one of the most significant sources of confusion and errors. When documents provide conflicting information, the user does not know which document takes precedence and when the other document will be revised.

The rate of change and the organizational complexity of documentation updates underscores the necessity of implementing a process that can quickly and efficiently update numerous types of documents and check for consistency across documents. At SPC, this requirement has contributed to a corporate-wide re-examination of our business processes. Teams are analyzing each process and determining what information is required or created at each step and who is responsible for providing that information.

Interactive multimediainformation systems

As a result of the audience analysis previously detailed, SPC, Siemens Kraftwerk Union (KWU) and Siemens Corporate Research (SCR) formed a partnership to develop a new, end-to-end publication system that would provide users with complete, accurate and up-to-date information in an easy-to-use format. This system will be available for new projects by the end of the year. Siemens is finalizing the development of a gas-turbine service system/interactive multimedia information system (GSS/IMIS) that will likely answer most of the structure, content, accuracy and development-time problems previously described. The system contains six major components: the document creation module, the conversion module, the composition module, the hyperlinker, the manual generator and the multimedia communication system.

The document creation module features a database-driven publication system. This system allows authors to produce detailed, project-specific documents without substantially increasing development costs or turn-around times. The new authoring environment also includes tools for incorporating graphics, videos and drawings into the manuals. While SPC has completely revised the structure, content and format of its paper manuals to make them easier to use, the online system will permit even greater manual customization.

Since SPC and KWU use different proprietary authoring tools, the two groups needed a mechanism that would facilitate the electronic exchange of information between various Siemens divisions and between Siemens and its customers. To meet this requirement, SCR developed a set of tools to automatically convert the various Siemens documents into platform-independent, standardized general markup language (SGML) documents. The more well-known hyper-text markup language, HTML, is a subset of SGML. We chose SGML over HTML because the SGML data type definition allowed KWU and SPC to validate documents against a standard to ensure product consistency, completeness and accuracy. Additionally, SGML`s flexibility in naming elements allowed us greater flexibility and functionality than HTML-based solutions. An SGML-to-HTML conversion routine will allow our system to run on corporate intranets and eventually on the World Wide Web.

After the conversion module transforms the documents into SGML, the composition module automatically validates the information in documents against our corporate document database. The composition module then generates project-specific manual instructions based on the current bill of material configuration for the unit.

The hyperlinker then automatically links together the thousands of photos, drawings, videos and documents in each project. This tool eliminates many of the problems associated with maintaining hyperlinks on large Web sites. After the documents have been processed and linked, the manual generator automatically reconfigures the common SGML documents into different presentation styles based on end-user specifications. These tools can automatically produce text-based product and operating manuals or graphic-based training and marketing materials from the same SGML document. Since user requirements change depending on the task and the physical location, the generator can output information to hand-held devices, laptops, workstations or presentation systems.

The multimedia communication system facilitates data collection and dissemination. By using hand-held computing devices, embedded forms, dynamic annotation and several other features, the system allows the user to add or change information quickly and easily. The figure on page 32 illustrates a proposed interface for a power plant mechanic who is familiar with the gas turbine components but is not familiar with Siemens-specific numbering systems. The mechanic can select information about a part simply by clicking on the part or by selecting the task the mechanic wants to perform. For example, to locate a burner repair procedure, the user would click on the burner and choose “Repair” from the task list.

As the figure shows, the manuals now also provide instantaneous access to supporting documentation including audio files, photos, videos and drawings. This cross-media navigation feature lowers search times and allows authors to choose the presentation method most suitable for the task and user. Since this highly graphical interface rests on top of our database, the user can also directly access a wide range of data by simply clicking on the illustration.

Our preliminary tests suggest that this interface allows mechanics to locate information much more quickly and significantly reduces learning times. Since the interface can be customized, users with different backgrounds, such as remote control station operators or administrative personnel, can access the same information through an interface more appropriate to their needs.


There are three factors that fundamentally influence the successful development of large-scale corporate multimedia projects:

1. the degree to which a company redefines the end product (power plant documentation) to meet the expectations of the customer;

2. the degree to which a company automates and improves the business processes used to create, validate and distribute the new end product; and

3. the degree to which a multimedia system is integrated into the daily activities of the end-user.

Although multimedia technology is changing at an incredible rate, the documentation requirements of power generation corporations are still fairly stable. The GSS/IMIS team members constantly evaluate new technologies to determine how much they can improve customer satisfaction and productivity. z


Sean Sullivan received his bachelor of arts degree from Harvard University, his master of arts degree from University of Wisconsin-Madison, and is completing his doctorate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison on the history of U.S. health and technology policy. He is the IMIS program manager at SPC. He is responsible for the design and implementation of the GSS/IMIS project in the United States.

Liang H. Hsu received a bachelor of science degree in computer science from University of Pittsburgh in 1982. He is a senior member of technical staff and project manager of the multimedia documentation project in SCR. He is responsible for developing the conversion, composition, hyperlinking, manual generating and browsing tools.

Tim Dawidowski received his Dipl. Ing from Technial University in Berlin. He is the GSS program manager at Siemens Kraftwerk Union. He is responsible for the design and implementation of the GSS/IMIS project in Germany.