Talking One Language

PROJECT X has wended its way from sales through engineering and is finally in the hands of the installers. They arrive at the job site to discover that
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Talking One Language

Apr 1, 2002 12:00 PM, By Matt Rubenstein

PROJECT X has wended its way from sales through engineering and is finally in the hands of the installers. They arrive at the job site to discover that the wrong switcher was ordered and that the unit on hand has too few inputs; work grinds to a halt.

A little digging indicates that the project was originally specified with the smaller switcher, but subsequent changes dictated the need for a higher capacity model. The salesperson has a revised proposal that shows the change and explains that the change had been e-mailed to the purchasing department. The purchasing department's response is simple:“E-mail? What e-mail?” Does this scenario sound familiar?

It's a universal problem for residential and commercial system integrators. Where the error was made, at what stage it was discovered and the final cost of the problem will all vary, but the costs quickly mount. In previously mentioned example, the costs of the red-label freight and revisiting the job site come right off the bottom line. What's more, the client relationship suffers.

On the surface it seems like a simple case of miscommunication, a problem that can be solved with a more disciplined, carefully managed communications flow. But in fact, the issue goes much deeper. A regimented communications flow might cut down on errors, but the process now consumes more time.

One company that strives to solve this problem is Concord, California-based D-Tools, Inc. D-Tools offers a suite of system design software tailored specifically for systems integrators (starting at $1000). Rather than address any single aspect of system design, D-Tools offers software that tackles the entire process — design, engineering, documentation, estimating, management, installation and sales.

ONE FILE. ONE TRUTH.

“i once owned a home theater installation business and had ongoing misunderstandings among everybody involved,” said Adam Stone, D-Tools president and founder. “With so much information coming from so many sources, the only way to efficiently manage it all was through a shared electronic file. That's why I developed D-Tools.”

The single, unified file concept is at the heart of the D-Tools software, or as Stone likes to call it, a “shared data language.” For many installers, a proposal is prepared in a word-processing application, a product list is created using a spreadsheet application and drawings are done in a drawing application. That's a problem because a change anywhere in a proposal affects other aspects of the proposal, but with different software handling different phases of the job, a change made on any one document has to be manually updated on the others or the discrepancy sits like a ticking time bomb. The unknown isn't whether it will explode, it's a question of when and how much damage will be done.

With D-Tools System Integrator (Si) software, all project participants work from the same electronic project file. A change on the equipment list or on any drawing page is automatically reflected throughout the entire file. There's no need to manually re-enter data and no worries about multiple versions of the same document. When an engineer revises the specs to include a larger capacity switcher, for example, that change is automatically made everywhere else in the file (on drawings, materials list, reports) so that's what the purchasing department will order.

“The person in purchasing doesn't give a hoot about the engineer's drawing,” Stone said. “He or she doesn't need or want to see it. But any changes made to that drawing affect the product list, which is of keen interest to purchasing. With D-Tools Si, when a change is made to the drawing, the product list is automatically revised, so everybody is up to speed.”

STREAMLINING THE PROCESS

in designing d-tools, the objective was to create software that would streamline the entire design, engineering, documentation and estimating process and at the same time be cost-effective and easy to use. To avoid the learning curve associated with most CAD applications, Si uses the Microsoft Visio drag-and-drop graphic interface as the application's front end (D-Tools is a Microsoft Certified Partner and recipient of the Microsoft Innovations on Windows Award). The user selects the desired product from a database and drags and drops a product icon onto the drawing page. From there, scale drawings are produced automatically, including line diagrams, elevations, floor plans and functional wire schematics. The product icons and the equipment shapes are dynamically linked to a product database, the DataMatrix, that contains up-to-date product information such as manufacturer, model, cost, dimensions, labor phase and labor time. Under “speakers,” for example, one shape would be used to represent a manufacturer's entire speaker line, yet contain the specific data for each speaker model. When the icon is dropped onto the drawing page, the user can specify the speaker model, and the shape configures itself to scale based on this choice. To further assist in creating plans, Si is compatible with AutoCAD, so existing floor plans can be imported and exported.

“We used to pass along a [Microsoft] Excel spreadsheet from which information would have to be pulled for generating purchase orders, invoices, the installers' equipment list and other information,” said Roland Graham, president of AVDMedia of Chewelah, Washington. “But that didn't make any sense. The installers are only interested in what needs to go on the truck for that day's job, so they'd go through the spreadsheet and mark it up to indicate what products were needed when. With D-Tools that list is automatically generated.”

The software offers an array of short cuts to help speed the design process, including the creation of product packages. An engineer or manager might bundle products into System Packages A, B and C. Each system can be pre-engineered to include the products, the necessary accessories, wiring, labor and margins. When plugged in to a project, the designer can be assured that nothing is left out and that the system will be installed accurately.

THE D-TOOLS DATAMATRIX

typically, a project begins with the salesperson building an equipment list using the software's DataMatrix, a window where a project's product data is entered (product category, manufacturer, model number, price and so on). The DataMatrix is the heart of a project. Any time a product in the DataMatrix is changed or removed, that change is reflected in every other file. An amplifier pulled from the list is automatically deleted from every drawing page (elevation, plan view, line diagram, schematic) and every report.

Once the equipment list is complete, the salesperson might use D-Tools' drawing capabilities to create preliminary drawings as part of the proposal. Then the file is passed along to the designer, who can simply drag the information from the DataMatrix onto the drawing page, and the shape that represents that product is added to the plan. The parts list and the shapes in the drawing are all dynamically linked to the same data so every aspect of the project remains up-to-date. As an alternative, D-Tools recently added a text-only version that does not include Visio but is compatible with it (and can be upgraded to D-Tools' Visio-based products). That is a more cost-effective solution for some systems integrators. Salespeople can be equipped with the more economical text-only version that allows them to generate estimates from the same product database and then pass the information along to the designers who work with the standard version of the software to produce the required drawings from the equipment list.

D-Tools opted for a suite of solutions, offering different capabilities and price levels, and all upgradeable so that the needs of a wide range of users could be met. The company also offers a server module so that the software can be networked, allowing everyone in an organization to access the same project file and database. For multiple location operations, the new WebSync feature lets individual locations download updated data through encrypted XML files.

REPORT GENERATION

the shared file concept underlying D-Tools ensures that the various reports the software can generate are synchronized. There are three report categories: client, management and installation.

Client reports can be generated at any time during the design process and can include proposals and estimates with varying levels of detail. Among the many options, proposals can be presented as a room-by-room cost summary or show detailed room-by-room line-item pricing. For efficient product ordering and scheduling of labor, management reports include purchase orders and labor reports that can be sorted by phase. Installation reports provide installers with complete documentation packages that include checklists and detailed wire labels generated from the schematic that indicate the signal type, connector, wire number and the manufacturer and model number of the product to be connected.

A key element in creating accurate proposals is, of course, up-to-date product information, and D-Tools tackles this issue on two levels. First is the company's Manufacturer Partner Program, in which manufacturers' products are loaded into the D-Tools master product database. Participating manufacturers pay a nominal fee to be included; in return, they know that product data entered once is automatically presented free of charge to the more than 1000 D-Tools users each time a project is to be spec'd. The MPP CD-ROM has approximately 16,000 SKUs, which are provided by the manufacturers. That assures DTools users that the data is accurate. Additions and upgrades are downloaded through a password-protected Web site available to registered D-Tools users. More than 50 manufacturers are participating in the program, including Chief Manufacturing, Crestron, Cable Plus and Middle Atlantic.

Another source of product data available to D-Tools users is DataXchange, a Napster-style Web-based product data sharing community that is a free to DTools users. It automatically gathers and shares product data provided by manufacturers, dealers and installers. The database contains information about close to 50,000 products that D-Tools users can download and save to a local database.

“D-Tools includes Visio, a great drawing tool, but we had drawing tools,” Graham said. “The key for us was the tie-in with the database because it eliminates the need to enter data multiple times, and so significantly reduces the potential for mistakes and saves time. The importance of the time saved can't be overemphasized, because when you're saving time, you're saving money.”

To complete the picture, D-Tools software can be linked to virtually any open standard accounting application. “We have an application called QuickLinks for the residential side of the business, but it's not robust enough for commercial customers, and besides, these businesses don't want to change their accounting software, which I can understand,” Stone said. “But many customers like the idea of tying the D-Tools software into their accounting software, and we can do that. There's some initial setup involved, but it eliminates a lot of time-consuming data entry.”

To Stone, it is the way D-Tools ties together all of a project's players that differentiates the software from other management tools. “With D-Tools Si, we have a data format that makes sense for everyone involved in the system integration process,” he said. “The client sees scaled drawings of the project accompanied by a bid. The project engineer has an accurate parts list and live component pricing and can see precisely what the sales rep has sold. The installer has accurate plans from which to work and is secure that these are exactly the plans that the client, sales rep and engineer have agreed to. Management has accurate estimates of the labor required and can use D-Tools to schedule labor, track profitability and time purchase orders for quick inventory turns. Finally, the sales rep is relieved of project management duties to focus on selling.”

Matt Rubenstein, COO of D-Tools, has more than 20 years of experience in the residential and commercial A/V industries.

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