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By Howard Mason, Chair, ISO TC184/SC4, Industrial data Co-Chair, OASIS Product Life Cycle Support (PLCS) Technical Committee
Large and complex products such as aircraft, vehicles, ships and buildings depend on accurate information for their successful operation and maintenance through a lifecycle often measured in decades. Configuration, documentation, maintenance requirements and records all need to be maintained in line with the product.
Suppliers are also facing a new business environment as the end users of such products move to shift responsibility for through-life support and maintenance to the original manufacturer. The business model is expanding beyond the traditional delivery of products and components for maintenance, to a range of levels of service up to contracting for a capability, with the supplier assuming full responsibility for ensuring that the product is available for use, and only being paid if the availability targets are met.
This new environment opens up fresh opportunities to reduce the through-life costs for operating a product and to drive up quality, by eliminating - or at least redefining - some of the traditional information flows across the customer and supply network. For example, if the supplier is undertaking all the maintenance tasks, the need to develop comprehensive information for the maintenance of a product by the end user is removed. A bigger challenge arises where the tasks are shared, and successful operation is dependent on the quality of the information exchanged between the end user and the supply network. If both a customer and a supplier have the ability to change components on an aircraft, for example in daily service or during hangar maintenance, then it is critical that both customer and supplier know what the other has done, with information flowing freely in a timely manner.
In practice, digital information exchanges are used to increase speed and accuracy, reduce costs and improve quality by eliminating manual paper-based transcription. However, there are a number of practical difficulties which need to be addressed:
Individual enterprises use different software tools to undertake their work, with the data held in different forms, leading to potential barriers in communication.
The life cycle of a product is often measured in decades, far longer than the software tools, operating systems and equipment used to create the information in the first place. This means that, unlike electronic transactions, product information must be maintained in a usable form over an extended period. Different business functions often require diverse aspects of the product information to be extracted from a comprehensive model.
Product data standards offer the key to addressing these challenges and enabling industry and its customers to take full advantage of the new business models. A wide range of specifications have been created over the years to address particular parts of the problem, but these represent a fragmented approach to the whole problem.
A common data backbone
ISO 10303 - usually known as STEP, the STandard for the Exchange of Product model data - provides a common data backbone for linking systems that create or use product information. The standard defines an integrated information model that supports multiple views of product data for different applications - such as mechanical design, wiring harnesses, pipework and printed circuit assemblies. For each application area covered by the standard, a standardized application protocol (AP) describes the scope of the information requirement in terms that are familiar to domain experts. The AP then links the users' view of the information to the integrated STEP information model. The resulting standardized definition of information can be used to develop and validate translation software to allow free and open exchange and sharing of digital information between different computer systems.
STEP has been in use for over a decade to provide open communication in the engineering industry. The aerospace industry makes extensive use of the standard for exchanging design and configuration information on projects such as the Eurofighter Typhoon, Boeing C-17 and civil programmes and the Airbus family of commercial airliners. Automotive and shipbuilding activities are growing in many countries.
These mature applications have tended to focus on the exchange of information for the design and manufacture of products across the supply network, and the management of design changes through life. It was, however, recognised that the core information model could be extended to cover the configuration of each individual product through life and all the associated information required to maintain the product in working order through life.
Applying STEP through the lifecycle
The Product Life Cycle Support (PLCS) part of STEP (ISO 10303-239) has been developed to expressly address the various through-life information requirements of complex products in an integrated manner. Building on STEP and a range of legacy specifications, this International Standard provides the capability to support all the information required to design maintenance solutions for a product through life, to track planned and unplanned maintenance based on the actual state of the product, and the changing configuration of the product as components are replaced and repaired. PLCS can also be used to associate technical documentation and training materials to various valid product configurations.
PLCS is now in production use in Norway, Sweden, the UK and the USA, with many other pilot and production applications under way. The standard is being used by OASIS (Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards) consortium to develop a range of consistent data exchange specifications (DEX) to support different business processes across the life cycle. The first two of these DEX, covering Aviation Maintenance and Task Descriptions, are currently out for public review prior to adoption as OASIS standards, and many more DEXes are under development based on the PLCS information model.
Howard Mason is responsible for information standards and engineering business solutions in the Corporate IT Office of BAE Systems, including corporate implementations of the STEP standard for projects and links to customers.
He leads the ISO activities on industrial data as Chairman of ISO TC184/SC4, which received the prestigious 2007 ISO Lawrence D. Eicher Leadership award for excellence in standardisation. He is a Board member of the PDES, Inc consortium for accelerating the industrial implementation of STEP, and Co-chair of the OASIS PLCS Technical Committee, which is exploiting extensions to STEP to cover the complete product lifecycle.
He chairs the Management Group for the MoU between ISO, IEC, ITU and UN/CEFACT with responsibility for coordination of Electronic Business standards worldwide, and is a member of the corresponding UK organisation.
He is a member of the leadership team of the US aerospace industry Electronic Enterprise Integration Committee, which recommends eBusiness standards for industry adoption.
Other standards activities include the chairmanship of the European CEN Technical Committee TC310 on Advanced Manufacturing Technologies, and membership of the BSI ICT Coordination Strategy Committee, which is responsible for all information and communications technology standardisation in the UK.
BAE Systems is a global company engaged in the development, delivery and support of advanced defence and aerospace systems in the air, on land and at sea.
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