SAE International: A Case of Elusive Consistency


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Article ImageCompany: SAE International

SAE International (SAE) is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, global organization that serves more than 100,000 folks in the automotive, aerospace, and commercial vehicle industries. It has members in about 100 countries and, per its website, is "committed to being the ultimate knowledge source for the engineering profession." According to Becky Fadik, business unit leader at the company, its core strengths include standards development and lifelong learning.

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Business Challenge

Each year, SAE organizes about 27 international meetings, serving those three sectors related to the mobility industries, Fadik says; from those events, nearly 3,000 technical papers and journal articles are produced. "So that's really kind of where our whole scenario started," she says. "What we needed to do was to publish the documents in a consistent format. Print still is very important to our customers, so we still have to maintain that print product; so when we looked at the challenges we were facing, that led us down this path."

Vendor of Choice: Data Conversion Laboratory

Founded in 1981, Data Conversion Laboratory (DCL) offers "World-Class Data Conversion Services and Software," according to its website. It has "extensive capabilities to capture data from text from virtually any computer medium and format, as well as from paper and microfilm, and reformat it to fit a client's emergent needs." The company "specializes in highly complex projects."

"We have been around over 30 years now," explains Mark Gross, founder and CEO of DCL. "And we have been working with people making transitions as technology develops."

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The Problem In-Depth

In 2010, SAE made a significant investment in content management, including infrastructure and people. That same year, the company also introduced its first automated publishing system and "needless to say, it wasn't a disaster. But when we look back, it is somewhat embarrassing to see what we produced," explains Fadik, adding that one of the "big quality issues" SAE had was white space. Efficiency also proved to be an issue, since SAE could only batch and process one paper at a time. When it did not obtain the quality product it sought from other solutions, SAE decided to seek a new approach in 2013.

"Finally, near the end of 2013, we went out to several vendors saying we needed help and what we needed was to develop a tool that would allow us to publish much easier than what we were doing," says Fadik. She adds that SAE was running InDesign as well as Antenna House at the time. "So there were just a lot of little things that really impacted the quality."

Mandy May (SAE's supervisor of digitization, publication, and technical services, content management) observes, "Whether hard copy or digital delivery, a professionally published page is essential. Pages with various spacing elements, off-line in-line special characters, and areas of white space display a poor effort."

The Solution

"All of these issues were eliminated with the DCL-created offerings," adds May. "DCL came back to us and gave us a pretty good snapshot of what they could do for us," recalls Fadik. "So we thought, ‘Let's give them a shot.' We had worked with DCL previously during our legacy conversion project, and everything that they delivered was on time and met all of our quality specs. So we were fairly comfortable reaching out to them. And DCL was very, very responsive in trying to understand exactly what we needed."

According to Fadik, when SAE selected DCL, it did so for three specific reasons: "Their style sheet development expertise coupled with their InDesign experience and then the past experience we had had with them working on our legacy XML conversion."

May explained what a typical project looks like from beginning to end, now that SAE is using DCL. "XML is received [and] processed through our content management system," she says. "XML is then transformed, batch process is run, an InDesign file is created, minor editing performed, and a document is published. It is as simple as that." 

May states that the reduction in the number of steps from SAE's previous process can be "as many as 10." She adds, "A major benefit is that tracking of format selection (technical paper or journal article) is no longer a manual effort. The DCL-created tool reads XML and picks the appropriate format automatically. And the quality of the initial InDesign files created is outstanding!"

DCL uses an "agile development process," meaning the technology it developed can be adjusted and customized to suit each one of its clients, says Gross. "Agile as a technique works well when you don't know all the details of what might come up-which is usually the case when working with large legacy conversions," he explains. "The materials to be converted had been developed over a long time by many different parties. Standards have changed over time or might not even have existed. In such cases, the traditional approach of developing full specifications before starting is onerous. It can delay projects by many months-sometimes years-and can be expensive."

Gross says, "In projects like this, an agile methodology in which basic specifications guidelines are laid out, and the details get adjusted over time, might be best. Agile allows for a quick start and reduces costs. But it's not a free pass; it is important to engineer the projects so that proper guidelines are developed and that things are done in the right sequence."

May explains how the agile process works for SAE. "The agile development process was used each day during the development time period," she notes. "A spreadsheet hosted on Google Docs was the discussion tool for over 92 priority-rated specific issues related to the project. Examples of each of the issues were identified, and a logged discussion between SAE and DCL was tracked. As issues were resolved, items were color-coded as done. It worked perfectly."

Outcome

Since teaming up with DCL, SAE has seen dramatic results; in fact, in 4 months, DCL was successful in improving the production, efficiency, and quality of the almost 3,000 SAE technical papers and journal articles that are produced each year.

In addition, SAE saw an immediate 6% cost reduction in its content management business unit budget. That was a direct result of automation combining XML and InDesign, which was developed by DCL for SAE. "Volume increased and production time decreased," says May. "2015 will only bring even better results. All staff have increased their InDesign knowledge and will be able to handle even the most difficult layout quickly and easily."

Fadik has high praise for DCL's agile development process. "I think the agile development process that was employed by DCL was instrumental in completing this project in a very short period of time," she states. "I would recommend DCL very highly to anyone, and I think through this whole project, the combined knowledge of the team-meaning SAE and DCL-really helped us produce a high-quality, efficient tool. And I think it was truly a partnership between the two of us that allowed us to do this," Fadik adds.

Gross says he would encourage publishers to get DCL involved early in the data conversion process. "There has been a lot of advancement in the technology, and there are options and approaches that might not have been available even a short time ago," Gross states. "Very often, conversion planning is often delayed to the end by which time approaches might have been limited-and steps that might improve results and reduce costs and make a project viable-are precluded."

Moving forward, the two companies had such a positive experience that they plan on collaborating again. "We have many things in the works with DCL right now based on our second successful experience with them," says Fadik. For example, SAE is examining conversion of its collection of more than 8,300 ground vehicle, aerospace, and aerospace material specifications, which are current industry standards.