Factory Information Resource Management: Industrial Strength Hypermedia?

Wills GB, Heath I, Crowder RM, Hall W.

Abstract: This paper examines some of the issues involved in developing an industrial strength hypermedia application for use across a manufacturing enterprise. In order to meet this objective, a range of topics need to be addressed, including the user interface, application authoring and portability of information, revision control, and communicating with external resources. These principles are discussed with reference to previous work at Southampton, namely the hypermedia application developed for Pirelli Cables, Aberdare.

Multimedia Research Group Technical report No M97-5

ISBN- : 085432655-3

Copyright 1997, University of Southampton. All rights reserved.


1. INTRODUCTION.

2. THE ABERDARE CASE STUDY

3. AUTHORING

  • 3.1 Automatic sectioning of a document

    3.2 Legacy documentation

    3.3 Reuse of information

    3.4 Quality control

  • 4. Delivery at the point of use

    5. CONCLUSIONS.

    References


     

    1. INTRODUCTION.

    The concept of industrial strength hypermedia was initially discussed by Malcolm [5] in her paper to Hypertext 91. Since then the increase demands of manufacturing, in areas such as globalisation, virtual enterprises, and lean manufacturing has made the introduction of this technology vital to the success of European and US against organisations based in the Pacific Rim. Irrespective of the product being manufactured, the problems facing industry world wide are largely the same, the movement of information between design, sales and production functions.

    Over many years of use, the traditionally paper based information system have been refined. In many cases an effective and easy to use document management system exists [4]. As equipment is replaced or modernised, many of the old paper base information systems are being replaced, albeit slowly, with electronic information systems. As the scale of available information increases, managing the information, so that the correct people can find the information easily, becomes a critical issue. This paper examines the scope in which hypermedia can be practically used to develop an information system for use in a factory environment. We will use the Aberdare [2,3] case study to describe practical solutions already implemented. Our current research project, Factory Information Resource Management (FIRM) is examining some of the issues involved in making the provision of information factory wide. This research builds on the open hypermedia work that has been undertaken at the University of Southampton since 1989 [1,6,7,8,9]

    2. THE ABERDARE CASE STUDY

    The main objective of the initial EPSRC funded project, was:

    To explore the potential of a model for hypermedia as an operational interface in the Advance Manufacturing Technology (AMT) environment, and develop extensions to the model [10].

    To demonstrate that the concepts of were viable, a case study was undertaken, based on, a cable packaging line at Pirelli Cables, Aberdare. The hypermedia application developed had particular emphases on maintenance and operator set-up. Maintenance is a dynamic activity that involves highly skilled personnel [2]. To reduce the cost, a change within industrial plants to multi-skilling of maintenance and operational personnel, is taking place. The application was designed to be used by the shop-floor operators and maintenance personnel.

    The interface approach used in Aberdare Case Study was to use an interface layer on top of the Microcosm system. This interface layer consisted of a three dimensional image of the production line, with a toolbar designed in consultation with he shop floor personnel. This still allowed the underlying functionality of Microcosm to be used, with varying degrees of the original Microcosm interface to be included into the final interface design. Feedback from the users showed that the use of 3D graphics where more acceptable than photographs, for use in a GUI. Hence, a similar approach will be undertaken with FIRM. An expert reviews of the application, using discount usability engineering [12] were used to evaluate the user interface. The results from these reviews were used to form the guidelines, used to design the hypermedia interface in FIRM.

    As is expected, the industrial environment brings together users of different computer skills. Therefore, the fixed page screen layout of a traditional shop-floor user interface used at Aberdare is no longer considered adequate. Hence, FIRM will allow the users to have the flexibility of control over their working environment by using a system called SHEP (Screen Handler Enabling Process) [11]. As Microcosm is an open system, this is simply a plug-in module. This solution gives the designers of hypermedia applications flexibility when creating interfaces for users of differing ability. The system can be made rigid and supportive for novice users while at the same a more flexible environment can be configured for more experienced users.

    3. AUTHORING

    The largest cost in producing a hypermedia application is the authoring. As with any project, the specification sets the scope and requirements of the application, from which the documentation required for the application are identified and collated. Once this activity is completed, the information needs to be structured to ensure that navigation is both pedagogical and easy to follow [13]. When authoring a paradox exists, the documents (or nodes) need to be as short as possible while maintaining their meaning, to aid updating and revision control. While at the same time, the documents need to be long enough so that the system is not continually accessing the storage medium. This is especially important if the storage medium is not a physical part of the delivery system.

    3.1 Automatic sectioning of a document

    The actual authoring process of an industrial hypermedia application is, to an extent, based on the existing structure developed for paper documentation. The majority of word-processing packages allow the use of macros. which have been used to automatically construct links, by making links on the headings for each section of the document. This enables a user to access any section of a document without having to go to the contents page or index. Use has also been made of modern technical drawing packages. These packages use vector line drawings and items can be drawn as blocks with attributes attached. Using these features and a read only viewer (a DXF viewer) links can be automatically made to the block names or attributes. Hence, short yet unique descriptive titles are needed. Another advantage with this method is in the updating of the drawing. The link is made on the object, using the name or attribute. When the drawing is updated, and the object moved within the drawing, the object does not need to be re-linked.

    3.2 Legacy documentation

    In many industrial applications, manuals, especially those from third parties (i.e. vendors) are still in paper format. This can lead to a very time consuming and hence costly process to convert the documents into an electronic format. The majority of time required for post processing the information. However once completed, updating the documents are relatively easy. Using an intermediary format like Rich Text Format, which most word processors can use, solves the problem of using different word processors. It is the objective of the FIRM project to define a set of standards for the authoring of documentation suitable for both paper and hypermedia applications.

    3.3 Reuse of information

    There is a large degree of information sharing within the industrial environment. For example, a particular drive unit may be used in several production line systems, or may be used several times in one system. The documentation regarding the drive unit is, however, the same irrespective of the location. This gives rise to the requirement for information reuse within the hypermedia application to reduce authoring effort where information is repeated.

    The information for a particular shared item (in our example, a drive unit) can be collected and built into an mini hypermedia application, or component, containing all the necessary documents and associated links. This component can then be included as part of a larger hypermedia application (which can then be used as a component itself). This provides a hierarchical structured authoring environment where individual information systems are built out of smaller components, along with any specific documents and links. In our example, the drive unit would be authored once as a component, and then referenced wherever information about that drive unit is required.

    Hence, the cost of subsequent authoring is reduced as these components are designed and reused. It is envisaged that in the long term these components will be supplied by vendors as ‘standard documentation’ i.e. electronic hypermedia manuals, pre-linked and ready to slot into the hypermedia application.

    3.4 Quality control

    In any industrial environment, some form of documentation control exists. Most industrial organisations will use the ISO 9000 series [14], or similar as a minimum requirement. Documentation control incorporated in to the hypermedia application is designed by not replace the companies documentation system, but working with it. However, the links themselves are sources of information as much as a line of text or an object in a drawing. Hence it is necessary for the hypermedia system, in the revision control process, to log the changes made to the links, when the documents are updated. For this reason, the author(s) of an application have to ensure that links are used to keep the hierarchical and pedagogical structure.

    4. Delivery at the point of use

    In our experience the delivery computer must be taken to the point of use, and not relegated to the supervisors office. The Aberdare case study used a pen based portable computer was used to deliver the information, with the hypermedia application held on the hard disk. The users found this easy and natural to use. To select a link the user circled the object on the screen, by tapping the screen the user is able to select a menu action. In the FIRM project, we hope to enable the maintenance personnel to use both hands to carry out a task by using a lightweight wearable computer (called the TrekkerTM [15]). This wearable computer is voice operated with flip down eyepiece to provide the user with a display, equivalent to a 14-inch monitor at approximately a meter.

    There is no need to have all the information stored on a hard disk (or other storage media) physically attached to the delivery device, as Microcosm can be used for distributed information management [16]. The resource database can be on one or a number of different servers around the factory, or in the case of third party documentation, these can be on the vendor’s World Wide Web server [17]. With the distributed network, a wireless Local Area Network (LAN) can be used to deliver the information.

    5. CONCLUSIONS.

    The widespread introduction of hypermedia into an industrial environment is to a large extent governed by its acceptance by the company’s personnel, either on the shop floor, or in the office environment. Hence the need for carefully designed of the user interface, navigational aids, the method of delivery. To author an industrial hypermedia system can be made much simpler by using the full functionality of modern application packages to automatically generate explicit links. This paper has briefly discussed the aspects of industrial strength hypermedia that are currently research at Southampton.

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