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Networked systems will not become a mainstream business for contractors until contractors and manufacturers face their unique business issues.Over the


Jul 20, 1996 12:00 PM,
John Stiernberg

Networked systems will not become a mainstream business for contractors until contractors and manufacturers face their unique business issues.

Over the past two years, we’ve heard more and more about computer control of electronic systems, from professional audio sound reinforcement to home automation. Networked systems, inter-operability and multimedia are current industry buzzwords. Many competing control protocols are all vying to become the industry standard.

Manufacturers are proceeding with caution when it comes to developing interoperable products. System designers and specifying engineers are likewise cautious when it comes to recommending unproven technology. Although systems integrators are increasingly busy, the growth of networked systems has been slower than the industry anticipated.

Why bother with computer-controlled electronic systems? Are there tangible benefits that translate easily into the language of real customers? When will networked systems become a mainstream business for contractors? What special challenges face manufacturers and contractors?

Here are some basic assumptions relative to these topics:* Computer control, multimedia and systems integration are hot today.* Although progress has been made in the past two years relative to standardization, no single leading computer control protocol covers the whole electronic systems contracting industry.* Increasing numbers of commercial and residential specialty contractors are becoming systems integrators. They come from security, building automation and telecommunications in addition to the A-V industry.* As an industry, we believe good business is out there, but we are not sure when the mainstream market will open up. Both risks and opportunities exist.

In this article, we will present the benefits of computer-controlled systems and outline the risks and opportunities facing contractors and manufacturers. We will also list the leading protocols with cross-reference to applications and identify the top three challenges facing the electronic contracting industry relative to computer control.

The benefits of computer controlComputer control of electronic systems is a relatively new phenomenon. For example, commercial sound-reinforcement systems have been used for more than 60 years. Experimentation with computer-controlled sound-reinforcement systems developed within the past 10 years. Likewise, home automation has become an industry focus since the 1984 launch of Smart House and the CEBus initiative.

Legend has it that the motivation to climb Mount Everest was “because it’s there.” Surely the capability of low-cost microprocessors has led to some of this kind of exploration for its own sake. Today’s computer hardware and software technology have made it feasible for our industry to embrace computer control, multimedia and systems integration. We see several key trends:

* Costs are coming down and will continue to decline.* Computer power has increased. Speed and memory continue to improve while prices decrease.* Simpler and smaller is better. Tiny integrated circuits contain enough power to provide control and monitoring capability in minimal space.* Object-oriented programming makes it easier and faster to design applications.* Graphical user interfaces are standard and make computer-controlled systems easier to learn and use.

Despite feasibility of using computer control, tangible reasons — business and performance benefits — must drive the use of computer control in electronic systems contracting. Let’s use an installed sound-reinforcement system as an example. Table 1 shows seven system features and corresponding benefits made possible through the use of computer control technology.

In every opportunity is a problemAlthough the benefits of using a computer controlled system are real, they have yet to cause the new systems to achieve critical mass from a commercial standpoint. The majority of systems specified and installed today are functionally similar to those of 10 years ago. Why are we, as an industry, slow to change?

From the contractor’s standpoint, computer control is not an instant sell. Few customers ask for computer control, and facilities managers, club owners and school superintendents are unlikely to demand a networked system. But with proper education and marketing, these market segments can be sold on the benefits.

Another problem: System design and installation require a new set of technical skills. Only a few contractors have learned enough about computer networking to be able to offer advanced systems. But help is on the way: Trade associations, including CEDIA, ICIA and NSCA, offer training in systems integration, and individual manufacturers offer product training and technical support.

Once you learn how to network, you find that not all manufacturers’ products are networkable. Although a contractor might want to sell an integrated system, many components are not yet addressable, let alone interoperable. Contractors need to build in upgrade capability so non-networked systems installed today can be converted later.

Finally, learning the business of computer control is a departure from traditional business. A progressive contractor still needs to learn a new selling approach and costing model in order to make computer control a profitable venture. The good news is computer control helps level the playing field competitively and opens the door to new customers.

Manufacturers face their own business issues. For example, making electronic products networkable involves research and development, which is costly and time consuming. It is difficult to justify such costs while the market is so small and new. However, experienced design talent may be available on a contract basis. Rather than trying to reinvent the wheel, manufacturers should look for off-the-shelf networking solutions.

Another problem is the lack of a single standard protocol. It is difficult to align with any one computer platform on speculation. This is the proverbial between a rock and a hard place scenario. Manufacturers are reluctant to embrace an unproven protocol, yet the protocol cannot be proved until a majority of manufacturers adopt it. Here, manufacturers should look to adjacent industries, such as security, telecommunications and environmental control, for models. Generic networking platforms, such as Ethernet and RS-485, might provide the basis for open systems protocols.

Another drawback is that contractors have only begun to get interested in computer control. Current demand is minimal compared to long-term potential. To spark interest, manufacturers could offer training on the business as well as technical aspects of computer control, multimedia and systems integration and should join forces with other manufacturers through trade associations and events.

Finally, the talent pool is relatively small. Few people in the industry are experts on the art and science of systems integration. It will require learning new skills and then cloning people to create new business. To increase the talent pool, manufacturers should encourage existing staff to learn about computer control, multimedia and systems integration by investigating other industries and by looking to those industries when recruiting engineering and marketing people.

The top three challenges facing our industryAt this stage of industry development, contractors, systems designers and manufacturers are in it together. We all need to deal with the issues and are affected directly or indirectly. As an industry we face three top challenges.

First, we lack a single computer-control standard. The AES SC-10 committee has worked diligently for the last two years on developing a standard for computer control of pro audio systems. In parallel, ASHRAE developed the BACnet standard for building control systems and EIA sponsored the CEBus standard for residential systems. In early 1996, an industry buzz started about the IEEE 1394 standard, which allows audio, video and control information to be carried on the same network. The dialogue among these and other organizations has been minimal, yet each can ultimately become either the universal standard or a standard that is easily interoperable with other standards.

The second challenge is the difficulty we face in coordinating multiple disciplines on a systems level. Systems integration is multidisci-plinary by definition, yet the lack of a single standard combined with shifting business models creates massive logistical problems. This multidisciplinary nature is the pain and pleasure of the systems integrator. Entertainment, communications, life safety and environmental control subsystems must be unified in some way. Tradespeople must be supervised on the job site. The customer must be trained on how to use the system. All the while, computer technology is liberating us by making it possible for us to be our own desktop publisher, broadcaster, financier and telecommuter, according to the popular media.

The final challenge is the relatively unsophisticated customer base and immature market we must deal with. Market education is needed on all levels: manufacturer, consultant or specifier, sales rep, dealer or contractor, and end-user. In terms of the product life cycle for the computer control category, we are still talking primarily to technology enthusiasts and a few visionaries. Applications training and system design are still more important than market share and brand identity. The most common customer comment is still “I didn’t know I could do that!”

What’s a contractor to do?Individual contractors and manufacturers need not try to educate the whole market single-handedly. They need lots of help from trade associations and the consulting community. Here are some suggestions for S&VC readers who would like to get involved with computer control, multimedia and systems integration.

* Pay close attention to computer control trends. Read the journals, attend the seminars, and ask your colleagues for input. Start your acclimation with networking your own home or business.* Influence manufacturers to develop interoperable products. Many products in the audiovisual, security, HVAC and building automation industries (commercial and residential) are already addressable through serial ports or other circuitry. Encourage audio and video manufacturers to do likewise.* Influence trade associations to coordinate efforts, especially relative to development of standards and training programs. Many contractors attend several trade shows each year and participate in educational seminars presented by the sponsoring organization or by individual manufacturers. It would be optimal for contractors to be able to learn systems integration skills in a variety of locations and ultimately be certified by a single authority.

Your opinion countsHow long will it be before computer controlled systems are mainstream business for contractors? We would like to hear your views. If you believe computer controlled systems will be mainstream business in a year or less, circle (263) on the Rapid Facts Card bound into the back of this issue. If you believe it will take one to three years, circle (262). If you believe it will take longer than three years, circle (261). If you believe it will never happen, circle (260). If you have an opinion you would like to express in more detail, please write to us.

This is an exciting time for our industry. Don’t get lost in the shuffle, and stay tuned to S&VC as we follow this explosive topic.

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