The 'Ford Model T' of meeting rooms

Paul Milligan speaks with Bernd Schindler from consultants IB Schindler, who has created what he is calling the 'Model T’ of meeting rooms.

You may all know the famous quote (“you can have any colour as long as it’s black”) from automotive pioneer Henry Ford about the Model T car. His standout idea that actually made it the first affordable car was Ford’s efficient use of assembly line production instead of individual handcrafting. It is this method that Bernd Schindler, an AV consultant for Ingenieurbüro Schindler, has employed for German public health insurance AOK to roll out hundreds of identical AV meeting room systems over several years across Germany.

Kubus-IT is the amalgamation of the IT departments of AOK in three different German states (Bavaria, Saxony and Thuringia) who have come together. When it approached Schindler, it was off the back of some disappointing experiences with German integrators who hadn’t been able to give them what they wanted. So what exactly was that? “They wanted standardised AV technology. The whole project came out of the IT department who realised you can’t do that when you don't have a standard solution because historically, they have a branch in nearly every small town. In those three states they have more than 800 locations, which are very different kinds of locations.

Some of the bigger ones are for 800 people with 80 dedicated meeting rooms and others might be just a two people in a branch office,” says Schindler. The idea was to find one solution for everyone. “One that fits in every acoustical space, that doesn't need measurement and installation on site or is very complicated. It should be super easy to install.”

The solution fits onto one pre-produced wooden board which is CNC fabricated with all the fitting holes meticulously marked on it. The boards are mass produced and pre-programmed to the network, once fitted they are put in a flight case and shipped to the desired location, where it's installed. They can be assembled in just three minutes adds Schindler.It is then installed with the housing, only the screen is custom fitted on-site, because “It doesn't make any sense to pre-programme an 86-in display,” says Schindler. Its success is in its simplicity says Schindler, “It needs a power input and one network uplink. The end of the board mounts the two HDMI connections, the uplink to the network and the power cable for the display. It’s mounted with two or four screws, depending on the housing, and once the connections are tight, they're good to go.”

Following some initial testing and tinkering, Schindler found a solution quickly. “We ended up with a default setup consisting of a touchscreen (in sizes from 43-in to 86-in), Barco Clickshare, a built-in PC, Biamp Tesira, ceiling microphones, Aver cameras, Cue control, a network switch and some more stuff around it to make the whole thing work.” This would normally be a system that relies on custom integration, especially products like Tesira, which has to be programmed to fit the room. “We needed Tesira because we wanted Biamp’s Parlé microphones and we wanted the quality and the client wanted VoIP integration, there was no plug and play product that could do it. We wanted to be plug-and-play because there was absolutely no option for them to go into every room and do custom programming.”

The setup of the board has remained fixed over the period of the roll-out (the client is still doing one to two new meeting rooms a week three years on says Schindler), with just one variation. For very small rooms a Biamp Devio system is used instead of Tesira to reduce cost. The equipment is also updated when a newer product in the portfolio comes along, for example Tesira Forte VT4 was replaced by the Tesira X400, when it was released, the wooden board was modified so that it would fit. For the control element Schindler worked with manufacturer Cue who developed a feature at their request, so the touchpanel can pull its configuration from a centralised server.

Schindler was also able to call on the experience of the project manager from the client side Wolfgang Wagner, who was a “black belt in database systems and design,” he adds. “The whole system is based on a database where every room is entered by the time of the first customer request. If there is a new request from a branch office, the process starts by entering the room. Once you know the size of the room you will know the size of display, once you know the ceiling height you will know the microphones needed. The whole system is in the database, it then gets ordered, then the components and are entered into the database with all their serial numbers with all their invoices and contracts, where they were bought, who is responsible for the warranty. At the end when all the hardware is deployed, they hit a button and it generates scripts and files that are stored on the recording servers. At this point you only have to plug in the whole system to the network anywhere, and it starts up and it's good to go.”

This is not just a nice theory adds Schindler, it has been practically applied hundreds of times already. “They have the cables custom made to length so there’s no excess. For every hole there is a screw size written down. It’s the Model T of meeting rooms, we wanted to make it like an assembly line production.”

If something goes wrong can someone fix the problem without going to site? “If any kind of issue is reported we can manually connect to a system and go to the web interfaces of the devices. The PDU, which is manageable, also has power monitoring, so you can see if the Tesira is not online. When you switch off the outlet and switch it back on again and there's no change in power consumption you can see there’s something wrong with the power supply unit,” adds Schindler.

In an industry crying out for standardisation, this project by Schindler proves it can be done across hundreds of different sites with minimal installation time without compromising on quality.

“When people hear standardisation in our industry they think about hardware. Hardware in this case is only 10%, we had that fixed after a few weeks, 30% of the project is programming. We had to really spend time developing the database back end and configuration file parsing, a lot of work also went into creating a really good UI. After talking to some integrators and industry experts we realised that we needed someone highly capable for the job. We were recommended Florian Hardt and his company P.E.M. who specialises in such tasks and did a great job getting it done. The rest of it is just process. It’s methods and how you do it, it’s ordering sheets, it's the database back-end that that keeps track of all your sub projects and your rooms and devices. We’ve found a solution for this company which is great because it doesn't matter if it's the director's office in Munich or it's a branch office in a small town in Saxony with two people, they all have the same technology, they all have the same look and feel and they all get the same high level of service and support."

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