I never pay attention to instruction manuals and it drives my wife nuts. Using a manual to dope out how to install a dishwasher or set up a DVD player just feels like cheating to me. (I’m also not good at asking directions when lost. It’s probably a guy thing.)

This may be OK for household appliances but not for packaging machinery. Unfortunately, too many equipment manufacturers build great machines and then fail to provide equally great operating, maintenance and set-up manuals.

There are several reasons for this:

• Many packaging machines are customized for each application. Sometimes this means modification of a standard machine. Other times it means a customized machine from the ground up. Customized machines require customized manuals which are time consuming to write.

• Some machine builders use engineers to write the manual. Engineers are great at many things; technical writing is not always one of them. Other builders will use in-house or outside technical writers who may not completely understand the machine.

• It’s hard to write a manual before a machine is completed and tested. Once it is completed and tested, the customer usually wants it shipped immediately.

• Then there’s money. Customers often buy machines on the basis of initial price rather than overall cost. When they don’t, builders think they do. Good manuals cost and builders are reluctant to charge for them.

Bad manuals cost even more. These costs accrue over the life of the machine in poor set-ups, improper operation and inadequate maintenance. Unfortunately, the machine cost is visible, the lifetime costs are hidden.

All of these problems are compounded in imported machinery by translations.

It’s easy, but wrong, to blame machine builders for these problems. Customers share a lot of the blame by not insisting on good manuals (and being willing to pay for them!). Builders must also do their part by showing the customer the value of a good manual.

A thought on graphics: Machine manuals need to be profusely illustrated with pictures, diagrams, drawings and charts. One picture is worth a thousand words.

Accessibility is key

A good manual, by itself, is not enough. People need to use it. So make machinery manuals easily accessible.

Electronic manuals are one solution. Most machine builders will provide these on new machines. Older manuals can be scanned and saved as PDFs or JPEGS. If on a central server, electronic manuals can be accessed from any computer. Some newer machines allow the manuals to be displayed right on the machine.

Electronic manuals must be protected from uncontrolled editing but the key word is uncontrolled. At some point in their lives, most machines will be modified. Manuals, whether paper or electronic, must be updated to reflect these modifications. Updating controls should include passwords, as well as audit trails of who made the modifications and why.

Finally, there needs to be a mindset of “use the book.” The more we know, the more we recognize what we still don’t know, so training will help some. It is mostly just a question of instilling the right attitude.

There really is a right way to do things. Manuals need to capture this and make sure the knowledge is shared. F&BP