English-Metric units in documentation?

Subject: English-Metric units in documentation?
From: Geoff Hart <ghart -at- videotron -dot- ca>
To: TECHWR-L <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com>, tech -dot- writer1 -at- verizon -dot- net
Date: Thu, 08 Jun 2006 09:48:54 -0400

Anonymous wondered: <<We (a US-based company) have some equipment to be sold to customers in North America, Europe and Asia.>>

A preliminary note for context: each jurisdiction's society of professional engineers will be able to provide clear, expert guidance on the regulations and standards that constrain what you can and should do. You'll get some good general advice from techwr-l (including, I hope, my own advice), but that advice ***must be*** subjected to the reality check provided by those regulations. For example, I suspect, but cannot confirm from personal experience, that the CE guidelines require metric, and they probably also provide good guidance on engineering tolerances.

<<The equipment requires installation instructions providing clearances, fixing dimensions and other measurements. In some cases +/- tolerances are specified. I'm leaning toward providing both units of measurements in the text and graphics, while doing my best to keep them clear and uncluttered.>>

I've done this for years in my own field of forestry, and have felt comfortable doing so for one reason: the inevitable rounding errors fall well within the limits of the precision required by the users. In that case, simple conversions to one decimal place using standard conversion factors are often sufficient and justifiable. If the tolerances for your products are similarly loose, this may be an acceptable solution for you too.

But for many engineering specs, tolerances are not optional or loose: violate them and serious problems can result. Your product developers are the ones who can define the actual tolerances that are required in any system of units. Provided they're fluent in using each set of units, the best solution may not be to blindly convert the measurements between systems using an arbitrarily precise conversion factor, but rather to redefine the tolerances from scratch in each system of units. Then you can use the conversion factors as a reality check to ensure that nobody screwed up the math.

If you do go with a simple approach based on blind application of a conversion factor, carefully define the necessary degree of precision, and work to that level. The necessary level is one at which rounding errors won't lead to problems.

<I am wondering if there is any standard practice for this, whereby the producer supplies the information in its home unit of measurement, with the burden on the customer to convert.>>

It's rarely a good idea to place the burden on the customer. Customers are not inherently more stupid than product developers, but they're far less likely to apply the same degree of rigor that you'll apply when doing conversions; among other things, their main task is using the product, and that will attract most of their attention. The resulting lack of rigor will greatly increase the likelihood of error. Quite apart from the legal implications of such errors, the ethical considerations alone suggest that you shouldn't place such a burden on the customers. If they screw up, weasel words may prevent you from being held legally responsible, but you're still ethically responsible.

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Geoff Hart ghart -at- videotron -dot- ca
(try geoffhart -at- mac -dot- com if you don't get a reply)
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English-Metric units in documentation: From: tech.writer1

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