Blueprint for success

As systems themselves become more intelligent and more complicated so does the design paperwork. Steve Montgomery looks at some of the tools available to system integrators to help them generate, manage and control their technical drawings.

As most system integrators will tell you, the bane of their life is generally the amount of paperwork that they have to plough through in the course of every design job. In any project this starts well before contracts are signed to beyond customer sign off and completion. Seth Rubenstein of D-Tools, “A system integrator attending a client meeting, whether it is before contracts are awarded or after needs to have with them a roll of plans and specifications, not just to look professional, but to demonstrate their planning and design concepts.” And as their competitors become more and more efficient and professional in their customer interactions they too must become so.

However, rather than being an unnecessary overhead, many integrators are embracing the need for detailed and comprehensive documentation and system design procedures and turning it into a full process that covers all stages of specification, quotation, design, project management, costing, reporting and billing. Using it as a way of becoming more effective in their operations, reducing the risk of errors and mistakes and taking their product to market faster.

It is possible to operate the full process using a set of unconnected packages that are already familiar to us all: Word, Excel, AutoCad, Visio, Project and QuickBooks go some way to achieving this. However as with all disparate requirements, specialist suppliers come up with integrated packages that fulfil basic needs and go some way beyond to offer features and facilities that provide far more benefit than the sum of the parts. Jack Gershfield, President of Altinex:” We developed AV Snap as a complete design environment after failing to find a suitable alternative to support our dealers, designers and installers in the industry. There are many stages to a successful integration project, often with many people involved in liaison with each other and with the client, and many of the processes are iterative; designs are presented, changed, approved, changed again and so on. It is crucial to ensure that every one has the latest and most accurate information and the best way to ensure this is to provide an integrated tool that reflects changes in one area right across the project.”

A prime example of this is where a sales application engineer produces a ‘quick sketch’ of the proposed system for a customer, which is then turned into a full layout drawing, wiring diagram, parts list, purchase order tool and project plan by the design engineer. At all stages various software elements are produced and passed around, so a client can be provided with a version controlled drawing which they can view and mark up for return and amendment at the design office. Changes immediately affect all other aspects of the project, so the immediate implications on cost and timescales can be determined.

A key aspect of these types of design tools is the ability to access and include information from other sources and to output to other systems. AV Snap can import drawing designs from Autocad and export to Powerpoint, so whilst these are not essential to the operation of the tool, they provide flexible and familiar source and presentation options. D-Tools is a database application that draws upon several levels of information including component diagrams, specifications and pricing to produce layered details: graphical diagrams, floor plans, system flow diagrams, wiring and installation details and other plans. Seth Rubenstein, D-Tools marketing Manager: “We make a small charge to manufacturers to include their specifications and product information, although this is really just to cover our data entry and library maintenance costs and is less than a small magazine advert would cost. Currently we have tens of thousands of items from around 150 suppliers. The benefit to the manufacturer lies in the way that it is much easier for dealers and installers to include their products in the overall specification and to use them in building up subassemblies; a projector, bracket, screen package for example that is specified over and over again. The cost to the end user of the product, whether it is through single or licensed purchase or a maintained lease is low enough for it to be cost effective. The benefit in the way that the dealer can attend to every small detail is significant benefit yielding far greater control pf installations and their overall business operations.”

One of the major benefits of these packages is that it allows integrators to build complex systems with multiple technologies with ease, so a whole house installation can be completed quickly, easily and accurately, including AV, security, lighting, HVAC and communications in an integrated environment, rather than as piecemeal, unconnected elements. What really sets them apart though, are additional features, such as test mode on AV Snap. This allows the installer to access a user’s system remotely, to carry out remote diagnostics of installed equipment through their own PC in order to test and check its operation. Jack Gershfield: “Using the test mode allows an installer complete access to an operational system by tunnelling through the controlling computer. Of course there is security to prevent the contents of the computer being made visible to the installer and a large warning message appears on screen to advise the client it is happening. It provides a way of remote diagnostics so that installers can quickly and easily repair faults and provide system upgrades remotely having full knowledge of the system architecture through the original installation.”

AV snap is a free product, supported by Altinex and used partly as a sales and market research tool. Jack Gershfield: “There is a small amount of subtle promotional and sales detail, but the main aim is to deliver support to dealers and sales teams. We develop good customer contact and dealer support with 80 to 100 drawings received every week and it is now being used for applications outside technical and AV installations such as furniture design and rack enclosures.”

Another manufacturer that has released system design tools that are becoming very popular is Stardraw. Rob, Robinson, Marketing Manager explains the popularity: “The Stardraw Control 2007 product family offers a new approach to control of integrated systems that contain diverse products. The multi-award-winning application is designed to control any remotely-controllable product from any manufacturer using any protocol over any communications infrastructure. Stardraw also develops custom software solutions for hardware and service providers. These web-enabled applications have proved to be the most cost-effective way for corporate customers to offer flexible, reliable and professional software.” Their approach is to develop a system architecture that utilises off the shelf hardware to control any type of system, so a desktop PC, laptop, tablet PC or Ultra Mobile PC (UMPC) can be used. Communication to the target device is through a standard gateway; Ethernet, IR, RS232, DMX or other in a client/software configuration with bi-directional capability. Like D-Tools, templates are available for inclusion of thousands of devices from hundreds of different manufacturers. A three-stage process of topology, forms and control program generation allows users to select devices and layout a system schematic, add a customised user interface and then generate the application code for final use.

The large system control providers also have products in the design tool sector. AMX offers VisualArchitect, a design tool for ‘single master’ jobs. “VisualArchitect is the culmination of all of the standards-based software, hardware and solutions AMX has delivered to the marketplace over the past several years, which have all increased customer revenue streams, reduced integration time and made it easier to do business with AMX,” said Rashid Skaf, President and CEO, AMX. “VisualArchitect will have a huge impact on the custom installation business because dealers will be able to sell their services into broader markets with greater margin, which benefits the entire value chain. This platform will literally change the way many dealers approach their businesses because their technology experts will now be able to design a single master system in minutes, enabling their sales and marketing teams to sell more jobs with a wider variety of equipment options." The system designer simply begins by dragging and dropping icons of the manufacturers’ products being used into a work area, followed by a few additional menu-driven steps that generate all of the files for the system – including third-party device modules, IR code, system macros and touch panel interface designs. Making it quicker and easier to complete smaller scale jobs and to ensure that they fully meet customer requirements, complete with full documentation and reports.

Crestron’s System Builder is described as powerful and easy-to-use programming platform that offers a host of tools, templates, wizards and automated operations for creating complete control system projects. SystemBuilder provides an intuitive drag-and-drop interface and automatic programming for a variety of AV presentation and conferencing applications. Supporting all Crestron control systems and MediaManager components, SystemBuilder takes the programmer through a series of simple but powerful programming screens that allow for the selection of the control system, user interfaces, third-party AV equipment and system functions. It automatically generates, compiles, and uploads the system, including VisionTools Pro-e touchpanel projects and control system logic. SystemBuilder also generates system documentation and keypad engraving data.

As the market develops we expect to see more and more sophisticated tools and technology that further integrate and support the system integration market, allowing the designer’s job to be made simpler and allowing them to provide more effective and efficient solutions to customers.

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