From project management to managed services, software platforms can boost efficiency

Project management platforms streamline construction-related tasks such as design, procurement, installation and billing. But as Tim Kridel found, their bottom-line benefits don’t have to end once a project is complete.

The devil is in the details. That phrase must have been coined by an integrator working on an installation with hundreds of displays, loudspeakers, switchers, cables and pieces of software. Hence the growing selection of project management platforms, which aim to streamline tasks such as design, installation, billing while also enabling managed services. Some platforms support all of those tasks, while others specialise in a select few.

Project management platforms have been around for decades, but there are a couple of reasons why they’re more appealing than ever. One is the chronic shortage of skilled employees, who can be more productive when software is handling grunt work such as tracking firmware versions. Another draw is the increasing complexity of systems, especially large-scale installations.

“I can click on a unit and get all the information about it: the manufacturer, the product name, where it's located, the IP address, the serial number, the firmware, what IP ID does it have, which drawing does it have,” says Anders Jørgensen, Stouenborg project manager and consultant [pictured right]. “I can track where things are. For instance, if someone says, ‘We're missing this extender,’ I'm able to go in and see that it's down at our workshop.”

Stouenborg’s experiences also illustrate the ROI for project management platforms.

“It takes three to four hours to prepare a huge system and then around two to three days to put in data,” Jørgensen says. “When I'm done with the project, I just say, ‘Create report,’ and I get all this information out on PDF-friendly forms. That means that I'm able to create my documentation of a project of this size — around €1.8 million — for roughly a day's work.

“That's really saving time. Before, it took around a month to prepare all the documentation.”


Big niche

Project management platforms run the gamut from software applications to cloud-based software as a service (SaaS) products provided. They’re typically provided by specialised vendors, but some integrators and consultants develop their own.

Either way, integrators and consultants typically start out using off-the-shelf billing, CAD, CRM and other software such as Excel, Salesforce and Visio before upgrading to bespoke AV solutions. For example, Solotech used Excel for quoting before implementing Jetbuilt.

“We have multiple offices across Canada, the US and the UK, but we do business across the world,” says Alexandre Pecqueux, vice president of operations for Canada, innovation and operational excellence global. “We use Jetbuilt as a quotation tool within a full suite of integrated software (CRM+ERP). Depending on the country, the Jetbuilt environment gives us access to our local price lists and labour rates, which mitigates the risk of error. Given its simple functionalities — such as copying lists of equipment, updating prices or replacing one [piece of] equipment by another — we have the flexibility to easily adjust our proposals to different markets.”

In other cases, bespoke AV platforms provide a welcome alternative to the overkill of software designed for multiple industries with vastly different requirements.

“I have experience with other CAD software like AutoCAD, Inventor or Solid Works,” says Florian Schwegler, project manager at auviso, which typically has 600 projects a year that require at least one schematic drawing and rack layout. “These are mighty and complex tools. Compared to those, Stardraw is refreshingly easy to handle. We use Inventor for 3D models, AutoCAD for blueprints and architectural drawings, and Stardraw for AV schematics and rack layouts.

“Recently we considered changing the software since building integration management (BIM) compatibility is an increasing demand. We hoped that we can have just one library for all the mentioned applications. We tried different solutions but haven’t found a supplier which covers our demand properly. Either they are good in architectural plans but not in AV schematics or the other way around. After all, changing the software would increase the workload and decrease the quality of the schematics.”


Plays well with others

Many AV product management vendors emphasise their ability to complement rather replace an integrator’s or consultant’s existing software.

“We were initially selling to 10- to 50-employee companies,” says Rob Robinson, Stardraw CEO. “Typically that kind of company would already have an accounting package and an inventory management package. Those kinds of business processes tend to be worked out, so our product has very much been solving a very specific problem, which is drawings and documentation.

“It's generating equipment lists and cable schedules [for] project installation and commissioning efforts. It's not something that people would generate purchase orders from or inventory management or invoices. There are some packages out there to do that, but that's not our interest because we feel that people already have that worked out.”

Vendors also often play up their ability to work with other AV ecosystem members, particularly equipment manufacturers and distributors. One example is using application programming interfaces (APIs) to ingest product specs and pricing so users don’t have to waste time tracking down those details on their own.

“Where the rubber really meets the road from a quoting perspective is our database of manufacturers and items,” says Matthew Mickels, Jetbuilt director of global sales. “Over 2 million items are in our database at any one time. As things get discontinued and new products roll out, we constantly have [updates] going on in the background.

“The vendors area [in the platform] is where users let us know who their manufacturers, who their distributor is, what their buying tiers are through those sources. All of that information resides inside the Jetbuilt application. Then any time that those manufacturers or those distributors update their pricing inside of Jetbuilt, you're automatically going to get a notification that pricing has changed inside of an old project.”


Build or buy?

Some integrators and consultants prefer to develop their own project management platforms. One reason is to get exactly the capabilities they want — no more, no less. For example, Stouenborg built its platform using Google’s AppSheet partly because it could be quickly modified in house — the kind of flexibility that the company didn’t believe it could get in a timely manner if it used a vendor’s product.

“I would need to go back to the manufacturer of the program and ask them to program stuff,” Jørgensen says. “It would probably take five to six months before I even saw something coming out.”

Project management platforms help integrators save money by increasing workflow efficiency, productivity and accuracy. They also can help them make money by serving as the foundation for managed services. The build-or-buy decision applies here, too, including for dealers.  

“[Some] dealers don't have the software expertise, resources or funding to go out there and build this Symphony, Fusion or XML cloud,” says Andrew Gross, Xyte vice president of sales [pictured left]. “How do they compete? How are they supposed to go out to an end user and say, ‘I can manage all your devices, your services, your warranties,’ while AVI-SPL is knocking on their door offering them the same thing but in the cloud and in a true management platform?

“We've come out with the ability to truly monitor and manage any manufacturer that is able to develop to our cloud or also via cloud APIs within the digital workplace. So any dealer is able to resell a license and sell services of that license to be able to now remote in to manage incidents and to be able to take control of gear from Crestron, BrightSign, QSC, Lightware. There is a huge list of manufacturers that are developing and are communicating to our cloud. And we're just getting started.”


New markets and insights

As the AV market evolves, so do many project management tools. One example is smart buildings, where some integrators are now providing hardware, software and services that once were the exclusive domain of HVAC contractors. So if an integrator is considering expanding into building automation and energy management — or some other market — it makes sense to ask prospective project management vendors whether their platforms can support those products, too.

“Because my first use of Stardraw was related to a large broadcast project, I had to add some vendors which are not typical for the AV market,” says Maciej Dobrski, Konsbud Audio support engineer. “The tutorials available on the website, and the fact that the application is very intuitive, allowed me to create libraries of complex, modular devices. Thus, it dispelled my biggest fears related to the change from one application to another: the transfer of libraries collected over the years.”

Some of this cross-pollination also is coming from outside AV. For example, a building automation contractor built its own software platform to link its drawings and equipment lists. Then about 3½ years ago, it stumbled across D-Tools and began using its software. That led to a collaboration between the two companies.

“By having a subject matter expert in the HVAC control space, we were able to work with them from a product perspective,” says Tim Bigoness, D-Tools CMO. “Now we are rolling out that product to the HVAC controls and building automation space.

“It was an area where we thought maybe down the road that might be something, but we had a customer that really identified the need and helped us to get there. They’re our go-to-market partner for the building automation space, where we're starting to get some really good traction.”

Project management platforms also can provide valuable insights for enterprise customers. An obvious example is alerting the AV/IT department about equipment that’s approaching end of warranty or that the manufacturer has discontinued. A less obvious example is providing room utilisation statistics to departments other than just AV/IT.

“Corporate real estate probably would like to know how many people were in that 10-person meeting room,” says Jonathan Mangnall, Utelogy EMEA managing director. “Many of the current video platforms provide people counting, and we also support many third-party IoT sensors. So by identifying that, say, 90% of the time, no more than five people turn up in the 10-person meeting room, the corporate real estate team can deduce they probably need to make smaller meeting rooms.”

This use case is another example of how project management platforms offer value beyond the initial design and installation stages.

“Even though everyone is saying the meeting rooms are full, what it actually means is they're occupied, but they're not full by a long stretch,” Mangnall says. “If you've got 90% utilisation but only 50% occupancy, you can actually double the number of rooms without taking up any more real estate. It becomes really important data to lots of different stakeholders.”

Finally, by automating a lot of tasks, project management platforms can help AV pros strike a work-life balance.

“Some of the smaller integrators, they're doing their proposals late at night after they put the kids to bed because that's the only time they have,” says D-Tools’ Bigoness. “So if we can help them get a few hours back, have dinner with their families, spend time with their kids, get their weekends back, that's a real win.”

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