For tech orders, DOD gives paper the boot

For tech orders, DOD gives paper the boot


With little fanfare, the Defense Department is converting millions of pages of text, graphics and tables into electronic documents'keeping with a mandate that by 2003 all technical orders and training manuals be handled electronically.

It's a dramatic shift from the reluctance that followed an announcement in 1993 by former Defense secretary Les Aspin that DOD would conduct a comprehensive review of its procedures. Back then, Defense officials were concerned about the move because it meant drastically changing the way the department did business.

Joseph Gutierrez, above and bottom right, of the 12th Maintenance Squadron at Randolph Air Force Base, Texas, reviews a digital version of an aircraft's technical orders on his Itronix XC6250 Pro notebook, while Master Sgt. Rich Stephens reviews the bulky paper version of the same set of aircraft technical orders.
But DOD brass reinforced the plan in July 1997, when then-deputy secretary of Defense John White approved a policy requiring the military to shift to a digital environment for all acquisition management and lifecycle support information.

'There were some hurdles to get over at first,' DOD spokesman Glenn Flood recalled. 'There was an attitude change, a culture change. People were used to having a hard copy.'

In the Air Force, technical drawings for the C-5, the service's largest cargo plane, seemed to be piled 'a mile high,' Flood said.

Weighing electronic conversions

In fact, Data Conversion Laboratory, a Fresh Meadows, N.Y., company specializing in electronic conversions, has estimated that converting all the manuals for one aircraft carrier alone to CD-ROM would lighten the ship so much it would sit 3 inches higher in the water.

But the importance of document conversion goes beyond saving paper, according to David Skurnik, director of sales and marketing at DCL, the company chosen as prime contractor on many of the conversions. Several other contractors, including the military's own technical officers, also are converting manuals.

Skurnik said DCL is repurposing the data into Standard Generalized Markup Language or Extensible Markup Language, which will increase readiness while saving the military money on upgrades.

The conversion will cost between $5 and $10 per page, depending on volume and whether the source material is in electronic textual format or exists only on paper, Skurnik said.

Repurposing the data will make it accessible in multiple devices, from handheld gadgets to goggles for 'the guy hanging upside down in an aircraft,' Skurnik said. After the conversion, Defense agencies will place the data into content management systems or interactive electronic technical manuals, which will let users track information and make changes without having to create new manuals, Skurnik said.

'This will get them on a format that is Web-enabled,' he said. 'We would tag the document, and then the tag would be converted into this new format.'

Changes in style

Using its own software, DCL is developing a process where the data is keyed into templates and styles, then the computer changes the style and tags it, Skurnik said.

That will vastly improve the day-to-day operations of the Air Force, said Donald Brooks, chief of technical order management and policy at the Air Force's Installations and Logistics Division.

'We expect to see improvements in configuration control, lower maintenance reworks and reduced maintenance time resulting in an increased weapon system mission-capable rate,' Brooks said.

That was the thinking last September when workers at the Army's Communications-Electronics Command, based in Fort Monmouth, N.J., decided to convert 10,000 pages of text from Microsoft Word and other formats to XML.

'The basic thing is to manage information in a neutral format ' in a format that is not dependent on software or a particular piece of hardware,' said Michael Dundas, project leader for the technical publication group at CECOM.

The Army is testing the approach and plans to convert more of its technical manuals later, Dundas said.

Defense is responsible for monitoring the progress of the conversions, Flood said. The deputy undersecretary of Defense for logistics, a position that has remained empty since President Bush was inaugurated, will ask the service branches to provide updates, Flood said.

DOD is not the only federal agency in the process of converting data to SGML and XML. Last year, the National Library of Medicine, which is part of the National Institutes of Health, hired DCL to scan and capture original text by optical character recognition and to code the electronic text for browser access [GCN, Sept.4, 2000, Page 33].

The highly technical books available through the Health Services and Technology Assessment Text project run under Solaris 2.6 on a Sun Microsystems Ultra 450 workstation with four 300-MHz UltraSparc-II processors, said Maureen Prettyman, a computer specialist at the library.


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