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U.K. Military Cuts Paper Trail

September 2003
By Henry S. Kenyon

Application permits users to remotely access technical data, eliminates need to transport documents.

Front line British troops soon will be able to access maintenance documentation electronically through a portal-based software system. By clicking on an icon, personnel will download data onto their laptops or handheld computers for immediate reference at flight lines or repair operations. The technology saves space in logistics chains once required for transporting paper documents and allows process or equipment changes to be noted immediately and made available across all military services.

If weapon systems form the tip of a modern armed force’s spear, logistics are the shaft that determines its strength and reach. Automated equipment tracking and record keeping systems now are beginning to streamline this once labor-intensive task. However, greater efficiencies may be achieved through Web and browser-based methods connected to a single database. 

The Defence Logistics Organisation (DLO) of the U.K. Ministry of Defence (MOD) is deploying such a system to save costs and increase the efficiency of deployed forces. Called trilogi (tri-service logistics information), it represents both a partnership between the DLO’s technical and operational services and a software product known as trilogiView.

The trilogi system was created in 2001 and originated from the need to streamline the production and delivery of technical information between the government and one of its major suppliers, BAE Systems, explains Dennis Hoyland, DLO assistant director for corporate technical services, technical documentation, Glasgow, Scotland. The system consists of a process and information chain with the trilogiView software as the means of delivery.

The program is a secure technical browser and a database. Initially it will be used to replace paper manuals for vehicle and weapon system maintenance. A user-friendly graphic interface allows easy navigation and access to support information and functions such as filters and hyperlinks. A desktop icon will permit maintenance, supply and training personnel to locate information they need quickly with a suite of back-office software.

Although its main purpose is replacing paper documentation, Hoyland notes that there always will be some need for paper. The DLO will meet these requirements either by providing users with regular paper, laminated paper or straight electronic documentation, he says.

Based on current costs, the DLO hopes to save £170 million over 10 years through trilogi. As part of this strategy, more responsibility is being placed on companies to deliver maintenance data. Hoyland explains that as a consequence, BAE will send fewer copies of maintenance documents to the government for approval. “We’re cutting a number of loops out of the process. By delivering electronically, we will save money in the front line commands because they won’t have to amend paper [maintenance] books, which costs quite a lot,” he says.

Another improvement offered by trilogi is cutting logistics and maintenance units’ paper trails. “Front line users, wherever they go, will no longer need to be followed by a truck carrying loads of paper. They will be able to be more reactive in having an electronic source for that data,” Hoyland says, adding that the electronic system will allow maintenance process changes to get to deployed troops in days rather than months.

This approach also eliminates the need for paper warnings to highlight upcoming changes, which increases safety and improves maintenance efficiency. “While cost savings are very important from a back-office point of view, from the front line commander’s point of view, it is the actual efficiency of delivering the information to them [the units] that is vitally important,” he explains.

The trilogi software package is based on Standard Generalized Markup Language (SGML) and Extensible Markup Language (XML) operating with Java plug-ins. The software exploits the availability of SGML data combined with the delivery capabilities of XML and uses a Java-base to deliver maintenance information seamlessly across a variety of computers and networks, explains Gary Nichols, BAE Systems business director for customer information services, Warton, England.

According to Christopher Wood, technology manager at BAE Systems’ customer information services division, the traditional approach for developing browser-type systems is to interweave viewing functionality with the data. However, unless all of the programs in a network comply with this overall structure, the result is many different variants of the core product, he says. To solve this problem, BAE engineers separated the data from the viewing technology. The graphic screen aspect is operated by an XML start-up language called XML framework language, which defines screen formats, while key data retrieval is carried out by Java supplemented by plug-ins when different file types are viewed.

For example, a program called ISO View designed for looking at vectorized graphics is used to support XML data. “What we’ve done here is we’ve got one core technology which we can apply to legacy data,” Wood says. The program complies with current and future information standards such as the European Aerospace Standard. 

The system works in conjunction with back-office software. For example, the BAE program used to provide spare parts and equipment to the Royal Air Force’s Nimrod patrol aircraft employs two supporting applications called Xelus and Witness. Xelus is a demand forecasting tool, and Witness is a risk and performance modeling application.

Version 3.0 of the trilogi software is scheduled for release this month. According to Hoyland, this upgrade allows it to become server-based, permitting thin-client operation on larger systems. Broader functionality across MOD networks is important because users will be able to feed back comments on manuals electronically. This customer input is vital to producing updates in maintenance documentation. But the DLO will not often interfere in this process, except to monitor comments. Manufacturers are responsible for making the necessary changes in their manuals. “It will be an eyes-on, hands-off kind of thing,” he says.

The trilogi system will support 26 BAE/MOD projects this year, including the Eurofighter, Tornado and Harrier programs; the Brimstone weapon system; and antisubmarine warfare systems for the Royal Navy. All of the services are being connected to the trilogi maintenance system, which is important because the MOD’s government-mandated goal is to create a standardized interface for all three services, Hoyland states. “They will be looking at the same types of information formatted in the same way on screen or paper. Whereas, at the moment, each of the services has its own format types,” he says.

Nichols estimates that by the end of 2005, between 50 and 75 of the firm’s integrated project teams will be using trilogi. He adds that BAE is discussing the possibility of using it in the United States with firms such as Boeing and Lockheed Martin. One area of interest is the possibility of connecting the program to Lockheed Martin’s autonomic logistics information system in Fort Worth, Texas. Because BAE is a major partner in the team producing the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) for the U.S. and British armed forces, negotiations are exploring the possibility of connecting the JSF program to trilogi.

Wood notes that some MOD software architectures cannot be replaced for many reasons. However, it is necessary to leverage trilogi’s technology capabilities to work with these existing tools. “What we’ve done is develop a very flexible application protocol interface (API) that allows third-party programs to call trilogi and not just open the application, but to work into trilogi to pull out the relevant data component that a maintainer or spares provisioner might need,” he says.

For the Nimrod program, BAE used the API to link Xelos and Witness to provide demand forecasting and spares provisioning and modeling. “Rather than reinvent a technology, what we’ve done is put an interface in place that allows the integration of those applications very closely with trilogi for the benefit of the maintainer,” he offers.

Computer-based training is another aspect of trilogi. Historically, training information has been of limited use to front line troops because it was delivered by very specialized applications—often in a classroom or through proprietary courseware if provided online, Wood says. “But all of that is very bespoke. What we’ve demonstrated in trilogi is that we can leverage the power of computer-based training content and deliver that to maintainers for use not only in the classroom, but also at the point of maintenance,” he observes.

This is beneficial for infrequently performed procedures, when it is important to provide personnel with a refresher course before any work occurs. The software delivers integrated training content—not just the maintenance procedure. Wood adds that BAE is exploring ways to include internationally recognized training content standards into trilogi to integrate instructional material better with maintenance documents.

The trilogi system also fits into an MOD-wide effort called e-Capability, which is part of a governmentwide initiative to perform most transactions electronically by 2005. The database-driven document system will use the new infrastructure created by the MOD’s Defence Infrastructure Initiative, or DII (see page 49). Because of trilogi’s role, it will plug into the DII to allow users to access technical data. Trilogi only allows users to view documents; an overarching framework is necessary to store, locate and manage the material.

Hoyland cautions that because it is designed for technical content, trilogi is not well suited for nontechnical information. “It’s got a lot of controls for safety and accessing information, which you wouldn’t necessarily want to apply just to office paperwork. For technical information, the trilogiView will become the standard for delivery,” he says.