Maintenance Manuals: An Observation

By IonMars

July 1, 2014

On a long ago night before Christmas I was a novice father of a young son who I wanted to surprise with a new bicycle.  It looked like a bargain, a spiffy cross-country model at a modest price. So I laid out all the pieces on the living room floor and began to identify the parts and read the manual.  In those days manuals did not always come with a parts list.  Of course this manual did not have one so I laid out the major components on the floor along with the screws and nuts that each one required.  Three #6 nuts were missing; I couldn’t get them from the hardware store because it was closed. Becoming anxious, I readjusted my goal to assemble the bike as near to working condition as possible. I made some progress toward this goal by ignoring unintelligible directions and studying the diagram.  But when I attempted to attach the left pedal to the crank arm I couldn’t seem to get the threading started.  No matter how hard I tried to line up the parts they wouldn’t engage.  I had to stop, frustrated, and stare at it.  Finally, It occurred that to me that it could be a reverse thread.  It was and it worked. I left a working bike beside the Christmas tree, but without the mud flaps.

Product manufacturing and product manuals have come a long way since then.  I recently assembled a mass-produced set of drawers for a rental house.  When I laid out the parts I was delighted to see all the screws and small parts organized into clear plastic pockets with labels.  The step-by-step instructions were plainly written and accompanied by well-designed diagrams.  I was a happy assembler once again.

Operation Manual ReaderA Mars Pioneer will depend on many intricate devices and appurtenances to make life possible on a cold distant planet.  Among these devices will be the components of the Sabatier CH4 production machinery, methane–fueled motors, and space suits with Environmental Control and Life Support Systems (ECLSS). No doubt he/she will be a person of many talents.  Even so, all colonists will rely upon a detailed set of technical manuals for every piece of equipment and their component parts.

Engineers who develop technical systems are often required to produce a manual of operation for that equipment.  To explain the steps required to write a technical manual, one will likely comply with guidelines written by specialists of the Armed Forces.  For example, guidelines for writing tech manuals are given in the Corps of Engineers publication  “Guidance for the Preparation of Technical Manuals.” 1 This manual addresses style and content, electronic media, writing and formatting, an example manuscript, copyright releases, and problems to avoid. Most manuals will need to address these or similar subjects.

Engineers who write technical manuals frequently produce documents that are clear and intelligible only to them and to close associates. In my own experience as a Project Manager, my success was due to my writing ability (good) and not my engineering ability (not as good).

For this article I searched for an example of a well -written manual, and I found one in the “Schwin Bicycle Owner’s Manual” 2 I studied this bicycle manual and other manuals to determine what they contained that made them so effective. In the case of the Schwin manual, the first thing I noticed was that it was not written by the Schwin Company but by PacificCycle, a different organization.  For me, this observation plus my own experience allowed me to proclaim the following principle:


To produce an excellent technical manual, an

engineer who is an expert in a technical process

should hire an expert in writing technical manuals.




  1. Dept. of the Army Corps of Engineers, (1996) “Guidelines for the Preparation of Technical Manuals (TM);” Retrieved 6-23-2014 from 
  2. “Schwin Bicycle Owner’s Manual” (2011) by PacificCycle, Retrieved 6-23-2014 from