A Complete Guide To Creating Engineering Data Sheets

Some companies don’t consider the data sheet to be marketing collateral, placing it in the remit of engineering and technical support. Other companies, particularly specialist distributors, just put their stamp on something provided by their principals. For many marketing managers, however, producing product data sheets is a major responsibility.

Yesterday I mentioned a 2014 article I’d written about data sheets, and in doing so, I went back and read the article, which – back then – led to a whole series. It occurred to me that many readers weren’t here four years ago, and the rest of us will have forgotten the series, so it might be worth revisiting, in one part this time. The information was originally compiled with the help of dozens of readers (thank you!), but if you’d like to add your own thoughts in 2018, please do so in the comments section!

A hierarchy of corporate literature

As a former engineer on the receiving end, as well as someone who’s written them in marketing, data sheets are 1-, 2- or 4-sided documents with a photo of a product, a bullet-point description of features, performance tables, dimensioned illustrations and ordering details. At some companies, it seems that the sales brochure and product data sheet are the same document. At others, the data sheet is an annotated engineering drawing. I’m going to place the data sheet as a unique item in a defined hierarchy of corporate literature, which will be as follows:

  1. Corporate capability brochure
  2. Catalogues or wider product range brochures
  3. Product group brochures
  4. Product data sheets

It’s fairly clear that there’s a divide between those companies which consider the data sheet to be aimed at end-users who’ve probably decided to buy the product already, and those companies which see the data sheet as being a key sales document. I understand the former approach, but I’ll probably go with the latter. That’s because, as one reader said, “you need to assume the data sheet might be the only piece of literature a potential buyer sees, and if it doesn’t re-iterate the USPs, you’ve missed an opportunity”. That’s doubly important in this internet age, where a Google search can easily result in a buyer finding your data sheet and completely missing out on the availability of a sales brochure.

If you have a double-sided A4 sales sheet, and a double-sided A4 data sheet, presenting them as a single 4-page document can be a neat approach. One company I know has separate printed sales documents and data sheets, but combines each set into a single PDF document for its website. That may be worth a thought.

A datasheet is there to determine product suitability and refine the selection. It should give enough details to buy the product when possible. If it meets these goals, it should have done its job.

Starting the data sheet

Assuming that anyone finding a standalone data sheet may not have seen the sales brochure, it’s worth starting with the benefits of the product, as you would with any sales document – keep the list brief, bulleted and compelling to users who might well be more experienced engineers than you. Other general items to consider at the start of the data sheet would be any features worth highlighting (probably to justify the benefit claims); basic operational information; and application examples. One reader suggested a brief ‘product definition’ on the first page, saying: “I rarely see this on most high tech datasheets, and I think it’s crucial. It orients your reader to your product and provides context for the rest of the datasheet.”

Already there might be a template taking shape, and this too can be important. Keeping data sheets extremely consistent across a product range enables readers to spot the differences between models more easily. There’s no need to slavishly make data sheets conform to a corporate template, however – it’s the content which counts. I once sat in on a discussion which tried to determine which three of a product’s five main features and benefits should go on the data sheet, because that was what the corporate template allowed for. Madness.

If a model covers a specific performance range, do not miss the opportunity to point out the other models which cover different performance ranges. Never assume that a prospect finding your data sheet for a slow model will spend the time hunting for your faster model. Finding an appropriate product from another manufacturer could be easier.

Hard engineering data

All this, and we’re only now getting on to the technical specifications themselves. Here it’s time for the hard engineering data, and proper dimensional drawings. Some data sheets make it difficult to work out even the most fundamental dimensions. If a drawing is produced in a vector graphics format, readers can zoom into a PDF version of the document. Links to online 3D models are also appreciated, but remember that readers of the paper document will have to type in the link, so just create a simple link to an index page on your site where the drawing can be selected.

Key specifications would typically include performance, perhaps with relevant graphs; mechanical specifications including colour, finish and installation; electrical specifications; and environmental specifications. This of course is the heart of the document. Don’t forget all the relevant approvals.

At this point, some prospects may decide to get in touch to work out the exact product they need; but others will want to do the work themselves, so explain the part numbering system thoroughly.

To end the data sheet, you need a comprehensive “next steps” section. The document will be viewed in isolation. Don’t make it hard for the prospect, having got them this far. A single website address for “further information” is not good enough. However much detail you’ve included, prospects will have further questions, so give them all possible ways of connecting to sympathetic engineers – don’t make it seem like the only option now is to talk to a salesman.

It’s also sensible (although obvious) to point out that the data was correct at a certain date, but that there may have been changes in the meantime. This is an opportunity to date the document and perhaps give it an issue number. There’s no need to be pompous or to resort to legal jargon though.

It might be useful to have a link to the online version of that very data sheet. Other good links to online resources might be to:

  • A video showing the product in action;
  • Frequently asked questions;
  • Full health and safety disclosures for a market;
  • Accessory lists;
  • Relevant white papers or technology background articles;
  • Industry standards mentioned in the data sheet;
  • Social media contacts.

Graphical design considerations

As for design, clarity is the order of the day – gimmicks are not. While judicious use of colour is almost mandatory in a good design, colour in the background is madness. Printing out vast areas of colour on all but the most expensive office printers is expensive and/or messy. What if the customer only has an inkjet and ends up with a crinkly piece of paper which looks embarrassing in a project folder? Or what if the customer’s printer isn’t excellent resolution, and renders thin text on a colour background almost illegible?

So a white background it is, and if you can, even avoid panels and bands of solid colour. They’re really not adding to the functionality of the document.

A4 is obviously a sensible standard for paper size, but if you’re involved in the North American market, use a design which prints out well on 8×11-inch paper (wider but shorter, so it’ll probably end up scaled down by 5%). If you need to distribute printed copies in North America, and your market sector demands it, a separate 8×11-inch print run could be an idea. Leave a wide left margin on the front page (right hand pages) and a wide right margin on the reverse (left hand pages), to allow the data sheets to be hole punched without removing a critical piece of data.

As for the typography, you may need to conform to a company standard, but if not, the only criterion should be clarity. A solid, functional typeface makes a lot of sense, especially one which is widely available. With the expansion of web fonts, you can also match printed publications to web pages now. Don’t drop down to 6pt text to squeeze everything in. If you need to expand to 2 or 4 pages, “so be it”, as one reader told me. And try to keep the text short and sharp, using bullet points and tables by default.

Use headlines and sub-headings that cover your main points; readers will scan these first. Read them on their own: do they summarise the main points of the data sheet? Also, if you’re working with search engine optimisation in mind, consider the key search terms for the product and use these if you have the opportunity.

Also, before sitting down to specify the design of the data sheet, spend an hour randomly looking at other companies’ efforts – there are millions online. Some people have done a really great job, and there’s no need to reinvent the wheel.

Would this photo help?

Images and illustrations can make or break a data sheet. A large number of readers recommend showing a professionally-taken photograph of the product actually installed and working, to give context as well as provide reassurance that it actually exists. While that’s great in theory, as another reader said: “We more often than not just receive a still from an engineer’s smartphone”, so you might need Photoshop to retrieve the situation. Sadly, the quality of modern cameras does not make up for not having any photographic skill (or proper lighting), and saving a couple of hundred pounds by not commissioning a good local photographer can be a false economy.

Prospects are human, and they will make judgements based on what they see. No gimmicks though – this is a data sheet. Just ask yourself: would this photo help somebody determine if this product was right for them?

A separate product shot can be used to illustrate key features with labels.

Line drawings should be clean and clear – keep the graphic designers away from these – and remember that the dimensions need to conform to the market. If there are downloadable CAD models or drawings, naturally it’s a good idea to link to them; as I’ve mentioned previously, a simple, understandable link to a web page listing the files available is the most flexible approach. The more links you allow out into the wild, the more you have to maintain in the future. If you do have a good 3D CAD model of the product, it might be worth investigating whether a rendered photorealistic image can be created if there’s no great photograph available.

Finally, some of the things which people miss off, or which are frequently done badly. For example, it’s important to get the fundamentals up top, and to use standard terminology. One correspondent wrote: “I’m a big fan of a ‘key details’ section being on the first page. There are a couple of specific technical criteria that almost every user of the datasheet needs; a great example is the operating voltage of an electronics chip. It’s great when that’s clearly visible at the very start, and I don’t need to go digging through tables to find Vcc (or Vdd, or Supply Voltage, or whatever they’ve chosen to call it so that I can’t CTRL+F it!)”

Other errors and omissions include:

  • Missing dimensions;
  • Missing data such as weight;
  • Generalised images (“representative of range”);
  • Poorly devised part number tables;
  • Incorrectly defined or undefined data, e.g “accuracy” used instead of “error”, and whether that’s relative to measuring range or full scale;
  • Hard to find or missing technical contact details;
  • CAD drawings used straight from the software which haven’t reduced down clearly.

Anything you’d like to add? Please use the comments section.

Discussion

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