Technical documentation without up-to-date product data is no good whatsoever. Incorrect technical data, dimensions, serial numbers and terminology: not only are all these confusing for the reader, they can also have legal consequences. Naturally, conscientious technical writers can be employed to keep information in ST4 constantly up to date, which may be feasible for a certain amount of data. But what else can be done with large quantities of product data that are constantly changing?
Until now, this was exactly the insurmountable workload facing Geberit – technical data for 6000 products and 16,000 items. Werner Trefzer, the person responsible for the technical documentation, product and spare parts catalogue, language service and maintenance of product and spare parts data, demonstrated at this year’s SCHEMA Conference how such a complex process can be significantly simplified.
Linking product data from a CMS
Until six years ago, Geberit found itself in a position similar to that described above: all product data was in a CMS. This meant, however, that apart from technical writers, no one was able to enter or maintain product data or even create new products. This resulted in additional work for the Technical Documentation department that was hugely time-consuming and labour-intensive.
Geberit needed to rein in the problem. The first step, taken four years ago in conjunction with all departments concerned, was to develop a new data model for product data maintenance and implement STEP, one of the leading PIM systems on the market. After implementation, the restructured product data was moved to STEP.
This move greatly assisted the product managers and technical writers, relieving them of the management task of product data maintenance. However, as SCHEMA ST4 superseded the old CMS in 2015, another connection between STEP and ST4 had to be created to enable technical data to be imported directly from STEP into ST4. Otherwise, the technical writers would have had to transfer the required information manually from STEP into technical documentation. Not only would this have been inefficient, it would also have been prone to error. As Werner Trefzer explained, entering “dead information” in ST4 had to be prevented at all costs. That would be like going back to the days before single source publishing.
As well as product data, the terminology database also had to be meaningfully linked to ST4. Before implementing ST4, Geberit was doing this using SDL Multiterm. The question now was how the data could be integrated to provide authoring assistance in ST4 with proposals that were both constantly up-to-date as well as clear and context-dependent.
Yes, because product data editing has been successfully detached from the authoring context. And no, because product data only reaches ST4 by taking an indirect route which is error-prone. And because ST4’s authoring assistance does not directly retrieve terminology from SDL MultiTerm.
Back to the direct route
The problem was that integration between the three expert systems was still lacking. Therefore, to achieve this, Geberit is now using ST4 standard interfaces.
Product data is exported from STEP via Excel spreadsheets. And after being imported into ST4, it is available there as data nodes. To give a brief idea of scale: we are talking about a volume of almost 1.5 million table cells or around 22,000 product and item nodes.
Thanks to the data nodes, technical writers can now access up-to-date product data in ST4. In fact, they do not need to “touch” the data; a reference to the data node is sufficient. If changes to data nodes arise as a result of a new STEP import, versioning means that everything is fully traceable.
The beauty of this, according to Werner Trefzer, is primarily validation and simultaneous versioning as soon as any changes are made. If necessary, the technical writers can look at what has changed, where and when, and thus trace the full editing history.
Authoring assistance always up to date
It is a similar process for terminology. This is also exported from the SDL Multiterm source system by means of a standardised exchange format (TBX) and copied into ST4 using the lexicon import.
When exporting from SDL Multiterm, the terminology runs through a data filter. This ensures that the precise TBX format reaches the ST4 interface, so that it can be imported into ST4 without any further processing. Thus, for example, it is also possible to use target group terminology for authoring assistance, as installation instructions can be addressed to both end customers and installation technicians. With ST4 authoring assistance, technical writers have direct access to this qualified and selected terminology when writing. And just as with product data, they do not have to maintain this terminology themselves.
The data storage process story at Geberit has been an interesting one thus far. To begin with, there was a single source concept with a serious disadvantage: it united everything in one system, that was, nevertheless, only really suitable for one person in the team (namely, the Technical Documentation department).
Therefore, the next step could only be a landscape of different expert systems, which provides optimum support for the respective people involved in the process in their roles as product managers or terminologists and accordingly enables role-specific workflows. This was also a logical step for Geberit to take.
However, to ensure that this differentiation did not become a disadvantage for authoring staff, as the producers of information products, the separate systems had to be integrated. And it was precisely at this point where Geberit was able to use all the strengths of ST4. Two interfaces now ensure that the technical writers is regularly supplied with up-to-date data.
This means that the product manager can now focus fully on managing their product range and terminology on the database. And in the end, i.e. by the editorial deadline, ST4 contains reliable and valid data for production.
Werner Trefzer has about 25 years of experience in military and civil aviation and about 12 years of experience as technical writer. Since 2012 he is Head Product Communications at Geberit International AG in Jona, responsible for Technical Documentation, product and spare parts catalogs, language services, as well as product data and spare parts data maintenance.