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Product Knowledge

Peter R. Wilson
(A contribution to an Invitational NSF Workshop on Distributed Information, Computation and Process Management for Scientific and Engineering Environments, 15--16 May, 1988.)


May 1998

There are at least three major trends affecting industry, each of which has an impact on the broad area of computer science and computer applications.

Increased globalization and consolidation:

The trend towards increased globalization is forcing companies to do business with new partners and customers. On the other hand, consolidation is forcing companies to deal with the problems of trying to integrate computer applications from disparate vendors when two formerly independant businesses merge.

Employee empowerment and `do more with less':

Employee empowerment, to be successful, means moving decision making lower down the management chain, thus leading to a need to provide more information across a broader spectrum of recipients and also for the generation of information to occur lower in the organization.

Technologies like the Web and CORBA:

Technologies like the Web and CORBA open up new ways of delivering and receiving information. They provide infrastructures for exchanging information between both humans and computer applications.

Traditionally the exchange of information and knowledge in an industrial environment has been paper-based. That is not to say that computer systems and applications are not utilized but rather that the systems and applications do not talk to each other, requiring human intervention to translate between the output from one application to the input for a following application. As one example, 90% of the CPU time used by industries involved in the oil exploration field is spent on data translation and transformation activities compared with the 10% used to perform the end goal of actually analysising the data. Another example of the quantity of information required is that the weight of the paper documentation for a weapons system is often at least as much as that of the weapon itself.

In the early eighties standards started to appear to enable the representation of the geometric shape of a product in an application-neutral form. In the nineties the standard informally known as STEP (Standard for the Exchange of Product Model Data) was approved as ISO International Standard ISO 10303:1994. STEP extended prior CAD-related exchange standards to handle non-geometric aspects of products and also extended the view of the world from being limited to the design aspects of a product to a birth-to-death viewpoint. That is, STEP (which incidentally is still being extended and enhanced) is intended to provide a computer-sensible, application-neutral view of data related to a product from the time of the product's conception to the time of its disposal, where a product can be anything from a microchip to a battleship.

The STEP standards can be thought of in two parts. One, the technology, provides an object-flavored conceptual information modeling language called EXPRESS (ISO 10303-11:1994) [EXPRESSIS,EBOOK], an exchange file format for data corresponding to an EXPRESS model (ISO 10303-21:1994), and an API in various language bindings to manipulate EXPRESS data instances (ISO 10303 parts 22+). The other aspect is a set of product-related information models formally defined using EXPRESS (ISO 10303 parts 40+, 100+, 200+). STEP is principally focussed on information exchange within and between manufacturers of products.

There are other aspects of products that are of more interest to the owners and users, for example repair and maintenance manuals which are typically provided in paper form. These often contain product illustrations that conceptually can be derived from the engineering drawings used by the manufacturers.

The acceptance of the Web by industry is profoundly affecting the way in which companies want to do business. Here is a way in which information can be made readily available electronically in a pull rather than the traditional push mode. Industry is using Web technology not only to exchange information internally but also to make it available to their outside suppliers and customers. Essentially Web technology can be viewed as an infrastructure enabling easy information exchange. Technologies like CORBA provide an infrastructure for piping information between applications. The major problem is in defining the information that can be exchanged using these kinds of infrastructures so that it is consistently understandable at both ends of the pipe.

Another requirement on industrial data is that some of it, for business, safety or regulatory purposes, must be archived for long periods of time --- in some instances for decades. If archived electronically, the data must be both retrievable and understandable when retrieved, which may be long after the original application software and hardware has died and is no longer available to perform any interpretation. Thus there must be an implementation independent method of describing the meaning of data.

There are several languages related to information modeling and representation that are either standards, or are on the way to being standardized. For example, EXPRESS and KIF for information modeling, SGML and XML for representing logical views of a document, CORBA and IDL for communication between distributed data stores and applications, UML for OO applications design, and so on.

Recognizing that a language is designed for a particular purpose, it is still an industry requirement that only a limited number of languages be actually used, and perhaps more importantly, that those that are used can interoperate with each other. This is a major challenge in both the technical and human sense. Further, because of the trend towards employee empowerment, increasing numbers of non-professional computer users will find themselves having to use these languages in their daily work in order to document their information generating activities and in order to understand the information that they might receive from others. Somehow the languages must be made natural to them. There are many good theoretically based (e.g., Set theory, first order logic) languages whose underpinnings show through into the syntax and thereby are incomprehensible to the vast majority of potential end users.

There are moves afoot to couple some of the languages. As examples:

As EXPRESS has been an ISO standard for 4 years, it is undergoing a revision and extension. The extension includes facilities for the description of processes, and the result should be an integrated language for the modeling of both information and process in an implementation neutral manner.The current state of the work is available at http://www.eurpc2.demo= n.co.uk/p art11.htm.

Standardization activities do not come high on any academic priority list (neither, to be honest, on many of those who work in industry). However, I see the standards bodies as the places where the coupling of modeling languages might best be carried out. In the past, most standards activities have focussed on codifying existing practice. Increasingly I see the activities moving towards pushing the state of the art. Don't be fooled; this kind of activity is both cross-disciplinary and intellectually challenging.


ISO 10303-11:1994. Industrial automation systems and integration --- Product data representation and exchange --- Part 11: Description methods: The EXPRESS language reference manual, 1994.

Douglas A. Schenck and Peter R. Wilson. Information Modeling the EXPRESS Way. Oxford University Press (ISBN 0-19-308714-3), 1994.

Peter R. Wilson. On the Translation of KIF/Frame Ontologies to EXPRESS. NIST Report NISTIR 5957, January 1997.

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