Aviation firm earns wings with new text search

While working on a contract to convert old airplane manuals into modern electronic documents for a client, Spar Aerospace Ltd. had to let its imagination fly with text-search technology.

The Canadian component manufacturer and maintenance provider for the aviation industry had been at this undertaking for a couple of years, making manuals into new digital documents for the client, so the client’s technicians could access the manuals on their desktop and laptop computers. Spar requested that we keep the name of its customer secret.

Spar chose dtSearch Corp.’s text-search product, dtSearch Web, to serve the information up in an easily indexed manner online, so the client’s end users could find the data they sought.

But Spar needed a way to get the indexed docs to technicians who didn’t have Internet connections — a way for the client’s workers to access data in the same searchable manner they got online, without the link. It was part of the deal with Spar’s customer.

“There’s a requirement that we have to run this thing on stand-alone PCs, in case [the client’s] network goes down,” said Dave Burkhart, the Edmonton-based information delivery systems developer in Spar’s technical publications department. “Our customer has some critical locations where the data must be available at all times.”

Clearly, dtSearch Web wouldn’t cut it. It works online, and the client’s technicians wouldn’t necessarily have Web connectivity. So Spar signed on for dtSearch Publish and amended this program to suit the customer’s needs.

According to Elizabeth Thede, dtSearch’s vice-president of sales, Publish is supposed to let companies put indexed and searchable info onto CDs. The product puts not only data onto the disk, but also a miniature Web browser that relies on the same technology that’s behind dtSearch Web, so the CDs present a user experience similar to that of the Web edition.

With help from IT advisory firm RCC Consulting in Rockford, Ont., Spar changed Publish’s mandate a bit so it doesn’t run on disks, but right on users’ computer hard drives instead. “I suggested they look at the dtSearch Publish product, and generate one index on a single server, then distribute it to the other five servers, and download the data and the index to [users’] laptops,” said Ron Crawford, RCC’s president.

Burkhart said Spar’s contract with this client is wrapping up, and the Publish product is playing an integral role. “We’re using it to distribute beta versions to the customer for review.”

Facing the data gale

So far, one of the highest hurdles Spar has faced with this project is marrying old data with new protocols. It wasn’t always easy to convert the ancient airplane information in the manuals into files that mark-up languages would understand.

“One of the big challenges was converting to SGML to start with, but then in the scripting, bringing it out to HTML and XML for final delivery,” Burkhart said, adding that the manuals are as many as 40 years old, and some pages are stored in outmoded digital formats.

Spar had to mould the data conversion process somewhat to drag those pages into a more modern mode. “We tweak the conversion scripts to deal with it wherever possible,” Burkhart said. “We’re trying to avoid going back to re-author the data, because that’s so time-consuming.”

Spar hasn’t achieved the ideal architecture for the customer’s data distribution system yet. For the moment, the client’s technicians will access the manuals through a central server, Burkhart said, noting that the customer has locations across the country. “Ultimately, we want to put it on servers at each location, fed from a central server. Because it is an awful pile of data, I think it would use less bandwidth. It should be faster. And there’s redundancy built in. If one server goes down, you always have the other ones available.”

Burkhart said Spar might consider the dtSearch products for itself. “I can see us putting it into our intranet.”

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