Science: More data, less scramble: The Pentagon is waging war on paperwork, but Graham Spinardi asks: will its system take off?

To run a US Navy cruiser requires a set of technical manuals weighing 26 tons. Poor updating of the military's paper mountain is a major cause of operational 'downtime' and accounts for about half of all major accidents involving the US Air Force.

In the mid-Eighties, the US Defense Department turned to the Continuous Acquisition and Life-Cycle Support (Cals) system to help store the vast amounts of information electronically.

Converting the Pentagon's piles of documents to electronic form was seen as a way of eliminating paperwork and facilitating its updating. The system's scope was quickly expanded, however, to cover not only weapons logistics support but also design and production. Thus was born the concept of handling data in electronic form over the whole of a weapon's life. Proponents of Cals believe the system can also be applied to civil manufacturing industries.

Once technical information is in electronic form it can be rapidly communicated to other users. This will allow designers to develop a new product by pooling data electronically. So, for example, production engineers could pinpoint manufacturing problems likely to crop up with a particular design, rather than hearing about them at a post-mortem once the design has been finalised. The electronic encoding of design information could, moreover, allow collaborative projects involving designers at different sites, perhaps in different countries, to exchange data much faster than before.

Two obstacles - one technical, the other political - stand in the way. First, the matter of exchanging data is far from being as simple as it might appear. This data can range from documentation for manuals to extremely complex computer-aided design and manufacture information. So far the Cals programme has concentrated on the development and promotion of a range of 'standards' for handling and exchanging such data. However, this standardisation of data formats is only part of the challenge; harmonisation of the meaning is also necessary.

An example of this can be found in the Eurofighter project. British Aerospace and its partner companies in Germany, Italy and Spain decided to instigate electronic exchange of the aircraft 'product structure' - essentially an analysis of the components and how they fit together. To do this, they adapted a message system developed by the European aerospace organisation, Aecma. However, agreement on the order in which data would be transmitted proved only the first step in an effort to harmonise the data's meaning.

The problems stem from the replacement of manual exchange of data, where human interpretation is involved, with direct computer-to-computer exchange. Minor variations in the way that data is handled by companies would not present a problem for experienced personnel, but can cause difficulties when the information is transferred electronically. Differences in working practices and the way data is held have thus had to be reconciled by the Eurofighter partners. This has involved considerable expense and delay.

There are political problems, too. At one level, there are issues of international politics, especially as regards whether the US Cals programme will be dominant. Considerable advantage could accrue to US industry if its European counterparts have to bear greater costs to accommodate US standards. Potentially more problematic, however, are the politics of organisational relationships which Cals seeks to change. The electronic data sharing envisaged in Cals raises serious issues for proprietary knowledge, and many firms are unwilling to pool data that they consider has commercial value.

Thus, despite hyperbolic predictions, the development of Cals is patchy. Britain's Ministry of Defence is implementing an information technology strategy known as Computer Integration of Requirements, Procurement, Logistics and Support (Cirpls) that differs from Cals, despite sharing many aims.

Not surprisingly, many firms in both the civil and defence sectors are unsure how to approach Cals. For some companies, following the Cals approach may provide benefits at reasonable cost. Others, however, may find that Cals is a 'vision thing', unsuited to their needs, not yet available and expensive to implement. In many cases, firms may find that practical implementation of data exchange can be achieved using either their own locally agreed data formats or other non-Cals approaches.

Perhaps it is merely coincidence that two of the figureheads promoting Cals - James Abrahamson and Lord Chalfont, who respectively head Cals groups in the US and UK - were previously proponents of President Reagan's 'Star Wars' missile defence system. That programme ultimately suffered from disillusion and loss of credibility consequent on inflated claims which lacked any sound scientific basis. Advocates of Cals should take care to ensure that promotion of their technology is restricted to what is both possible and useful for companies in the real world, not what would be desirable in an ideal world.

Graham Spinardi works at the Research Centre for Social Sciences at the University of Edinburgh.

(Photograph omitted)

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