Future proof?

Control rooms and operations centres are frequently designed with a life of 10, 15 or even 25 years. But expecting the requirements on their processing or information handling capacity to remain unchanged in that period is unrealistic. Chris Fitzsimmons explores how control rooms can match the pace of change.

When the time comes to bow the inevitable and upgrade an operations centre’s capacity, if the original specification wasn’t carefully thought through, it can cause a real headache.

Equally when scheduled or, heaven-forbid, unscheduled maintenance tasks arise these too can cause serious disruption in a poorly design control room. Fortunately the technology and design know-how exist to avoid or mitigate both of these issues.

“The pace of change in command and control installations is undoubtedly increasing. While at the same time we are entering a time of restricted budgets, which is serving to amplify the demands on designers to deliver even more for less,” remarks Alistair Duthie, manager of Mitsubishi’s UK visual information systems division.

“In the past, decisions made at the outset of a major project – such as display choice, screen size, number of inputs and so on – have had an unfortunate tendency to become increasingly restrictive straight jackets as time progresses and needs change.”

Equipment vendors have responded to the need to deal with these changing demands in a variety of ways. At the input end, they have been forced to develop matrixes and processors which are much more scalable.

Barco’s Guy Van Mijweersch notes that networking technology has helped in this regard: “IP makes I/O much more flexible and provides a clear growth path to users. Our CMS (control room manager software) combined with our SCN Transform products allows the conversion of even legacy analogue video sources to an IP format.”

Planar System’s John Dixon, video wall division product marketing manager echoes these thoughts: “Our Indisys processing solution provides flexibility in many control room applications. Its image processing architecture is modular in design where sources are captured by purpose built, rack-mounted devices based on various connectivity and formats. These modules are cascaded through “hubs” to the video wall where a part of the processing is done within the display.

“If more sources need to be added to the video wall, more modules can be added, and thanks to our IP2 processing architecture, the bandwidth load on increasing sources can be managed without being hampered by traditional ‘PC’ architecture limitations.”

NEC’s Jonathan Cooper, business manager for display solutions, adds another consideration: “In the current climate of carbon usage monitoring eco friendly displays are becoming an important element in the choice of technology. Spaces being designed need to be flexible for the operators with the capability to accommodate a growing or reducing workforce. With the new range of LED backlit displays – lighter, eco friendly and capable of new formats, this goal becomes more achievable.”

A third force for change has been advances in our understanding of the science of ergonomics. It’s now widely accepted that higher lighting levels are better for operator performance, and this is impacting in the form glare and surface reflections issues on displays.

One of the big debates that has continued to rumble on the in the video wall fraternity over the years surrounds the various pros and cons of the, now familiar rear-projection cube and a so-called straight-shot rear projection assembly. This too has a bearing on the upgradeability of an installation, as well as its maintainability as we’ll touch on shortly.

The case for cubes goes something like this, according to Max Winck from Eyevis:

“With a matrix of cubes, you definitely have a more stable video wall set up than with a custom structure using projectors and screen separately. Depending on the size of the video wall, the customised screen will be hard to handle on installation and operation, especially if it reaches the site in one piece. Projection screens are subject to changes in size when temperature and humidity change, and this is a more dramatic effect if you use large screens (and a screen used in a customised projection installation should be bigger than one in a cube, otherwise it wouldn’t make any sense at all).

“Another problem is the combination of the projectors behind the screen. The alignment of individual projectors is a delicate matter, blending zones and overlap areas have to be adjusted.”

Eyevis, and other cube vendors, also offer a clear upgrade path for their cubes. Mitsubishi, Christie Digital and Barco all offer the ability to swap out projection engines in their cubes for higher resolution lamp-lit DLP models, or for replacement LED-lit engines.

Mitsubishi’s Duthie explained the company’s approach: “Rather than forcing designers to commit to a rigid system architecture at design time, we’ve provided them with a range of interchangeable building blocks that will allow elements of the system to be upgraded as future needs dictate. Our Seventy Series cubes have user-selectable input cards that can be upgraded independently.”

Whilst Christie is a vendor of cubes, the company’s EMEA market development manager for control rooms, David Griffiths argues that bespoke, straight-shot systems do have their place, and offer several advantages over cubes:

“Such systems have the key advantage of being totally bespoke to the application. There is no limit on the screen material choices, the pixel pitch can be absolutely tailored to the application, and you can base the system on much larger individual screens – perhaps up to 100”. This means you need less projection engines, less cooling and less power.

“Using straight-shot also removes the need for a mirror making your light path perhaps 4% more efficient, that may seem small, but it all counts.”

Griffiths also argues that this system offers easier maintenance given that there is access between the screen surface and projection engine. The ability to tailor your projection engine also allows a range of lenses to be chosen from, giving the designer options on the focal length of a projector.

Maintenance is the other key issue. Whether it’s planned or un-planned work on a control room, in most situations interruption of operations is unacceptable to the user. Most unplanned maintenance can be avoid by correct planning, which is why Guy Van Mijweersch isn’t a fan of the bespoke projection systems:

“If you combine known quantities together you get a much more predictable result. If you match a projector, mirror and screen consistently then your TCO calculations are more accurate. What control room operators really want is predictability.”

This predictability can also assist in managing the inevitable degradation of projector lamps – if you know that all your engines will degrade in the same way, you can ensure colour matching continues throughout their life.

You also have to design the system with maintenance in mind. That can range from leaving space behind the wall to provide ready access, to mounting the whole thing on a mobile rail system so it can be rolled forwards. Front access cubes are sometimes thought of as offering better maintenance access, but in reality they involve maintenance staff standing in front of a display – in the way of operators! Front access’s main benefit is actually in space saving.

Additionally most vendors include monitoring systems that keep track of each projection engine’s health.

Another neat feature, which Barco claims as a first, is the ability to switch one of a pair of dual lamps in a projection engine, whilst the engine is still in use. So-called live replacement.

LED if course is the other important piece of the maintenance puzzle. Solid state lighting engines have now been on the market for two years, and bring a number of advantages over their lamp-lit cousins. In terms of maintenance the most important benefit is a massive increase in life span. David Griffiths again:

“A traditional lamp has a life of about one and half years, compared to seven for one of our LED light sources. The mean time before failure (MTBF) is also important, and massively increased for our LED modules.”

Automated colour balancing is also possible with LED engines, removing another routine maintenance task. This kind of automation relies heavily on the system software that accompanies the wall.

“Software is absolutely key,” concludes Van Mijweersch. “It allows us to monitor the state of a wall’s components, automatically switch lamps if necessary, perform colour matching on the fly and in the case of our own CMS package allows interfacing with wider building management systems.”

Mitsubishi’s Duthie agrees: “A well-designed system will monitor and compensate for changes with a high degree of intelligence and accuracy. In the Mitsubishi system for example, each cube shares its performance data with its neighbours. Collectively, the individual cubes agree on a common set of performance characteristics and adjust themselves accordingly so that the whole display stays uniform without the need for operator intervention.”

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