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Is your operator’s manual still in shrink wrap?

Mike Wiles Published on 27 March 2015

Please don’t tell me your operator’s manual is only taken out to use as a temporary booster seat. With farm equipment becoming more and more computerized and high-tech, many farmers marvel at what new machines can do.

And while admiring the capabilities an engineering team may have designed into the equipment, or the high quality of the manufacturing process, there’s a group of support people who are almost never considered, their vast talents largely ignored. We’re talking about the authors of the seldom-browsed operator’s manual.

Owners manual

We entered the world of the CNH Industrial Technical Information Group to find out more about the people and the involved process that creates these epic volumes. Jill Wiggins, the group’s quality analyst, is involved in writing manuals, plus service and training materials for dealers of both Case IH and New Holland equipment.

Likely, most owners never think about the long, involved process that goes into writing those manuals. Have you ever wondered if attorneys, trying to prevent lawsuits, wrote the first third of the manual?

“We try to write something that doesn’t require a law degree to understand,” Wiggins says, chuckling at the inference. “Actually, there are a lot of people involved in the writing process. It starts early with the product engineering team, the folks who design the product.”

She admits that sometimes getting the information from the engineering and design group to a draft which the average customer can comprehend is a little like translating Chinese into English.

“You have to take raw data, drawings and parts lists and make them into sentences and images even novice operators can understand. The trick is to write something that can be interpreted by someone who has never operated a similar piece of equipment without insulting the person who has been farming a lifetime. The intent is to always err on the side of the novice operator.”

Once a new product is approved to be developed for the market, a “platform team” is named – that includes engineering, marketing, parts and technical writing – that meets regularly throughout the design of the product. Heavily involved in the process is a “risk assessment team” and a separate group of safety engineers. Those are the folks that help oversee that first third of the manual.

At the end of the development phase, the technical writing team spends time with the field test group, who is trying out the new product in actual operation as it will be used when the end customer gets it.

After a rough manual is put together, Wiggins says there are multiple people who proof it, and if it is not clearly written, then it’s back to the drawing board for a rewrite. Engineering, field test and internal technical proofreaders all read them before they go to the printer. Machines going to the export market must have operator manuals prepared in other languages, and CNH Industrial employs bilingual translators to prepare them.

As an additional step, bilingual technical proofreaders check to make sure the translation was done correctly before they’re shipped.

There can be a level of excitement and stress in the life of a technical writer when last-minute changes or updates are made to the product because the manual has to have a corresponding update.

“That’s especially hard when there are detailed pictures of the components impacted,” says Wiggins. Those situations cause last-minute pressure in the process and “we can be writing and revising up until the day the machines start rolling down the assembly line.”

Even with all the preparation, it can still be hard for owners to read about the operation of an unfamiliar piece of equipment and then successfully run it in the field. Wiggins encountered that same situation after she had read numerous manuals on the operation of self-propelled windrowers, but when actually driving one for the first time, she ended up spinning in circles, a common situation for new operators.

While the cost of printing owners’ manuals is fairly high, Wiggins doesn’t look for the major manufacturers to move away from them in favor of electronic manuals. Technology is allowing a lot of companies to offer downloadable PDF files to replace lost manuals, many available on mobile devices.

There is also a possibility of loading all of the information on a DVD, but she doesn’t see that trend developing and predicts there will always be a paper version printed and shipped with every piece of equipment. She does see more use of video recordings, both on a disc shipped with the equipment and online, not to replace but to enhance the operator and service manuals.

She says technology will soon allow viewing of 3-D models of different components, which will show assembly and disassembly in a way that an operator can view from all sides almost as if on the work bench.

Finding technical writers can be a challenge. They not only need to be content that their work won’t be widely read but also need a background in equipment service or engineering and have writing abilities. Wiggins says with a laugh, “It’s an interesting intersection of skill sets.”

Many times the department finds potential employees that have the knowledge and skills to completely tear down and reassemble machines successfully, but when asked to write about the process, the results may not be understandable.

They have had a high success rate in training mechanically minded people in writing, which she’s found much easier and effective than starting with writers and teaching them the mechanical aspects of a machine. As equipment is getting more complicated, especially with precision farming tools, it puts additional stress on the skills of the technical writing department to keep up.

Does she see aspiring writers hurt because their books are not read? “Yes, I think we do,” she said. “You’re out on a farm and you see your work still shrink-wrapped in the pouch behind the seat, and it’s a little tough on the ego.” No one is complaining, but many of the calls to dealers’ service departments or the CNH Industrial customer support line, are about issues clearly covered in the operator’s manual.

Wiggins says owners can do themselves a giant favor by devoting a little of their downtime, especially in winter, to reading and familiarizing themselves with the manual “maybe not from cover-to-cover, but the main points about maintenance and operation that apply directly to the owner.”

Or you might just take the manual out of the shrink wrap, run over it a time or two and dog-ear a few pages. Then, if the author ever visits your farm, they’ll at least think you’ve read it and feel the love.  FG

Mike Wiles is a freelance writer from Ozark, Missouri.

Photo courtesy of Mike Dixon.