Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Campus Technology: 3 Key Resources for AV Professional Development

In my October 2016 Campus Technology article, I talk about professional development suggestions for AV support departments, focusing on InfoComm certifications, manufacturer training, and industry conferences.  Learn how to use your time wisely for professional development opportunities.
3 Key Resources for AV Professional Development
by Mike Tomei, Tomei AV Consulting 
Working in a technical role, especially within a rapidly changing industry like audiovisual design, installation and support, means that you constantly have to keep your finger on the pulse of ever-changing technology and design trends. I've worked with a wide variety of higher ed AV support staff, with some keeping up with technology and others letting it pass them by. I've made the decision to be diligent about keeping up with technology and industry trends, but it's not always easy to figure out the best methods of doing so. Everyone in AV design, installation and support roles seems to be busy and often totally overworked. Throw in the fact that departmental budgets are always being tightened, and you have a recipe for needing to really pick and choose the most effective professional development opportunities out there.
I've spent lots of time in my professional life acquiring certifications, taking manufacturer training classes and attending conferences. This article conveys my opinions and experiences with all of the above. There are plenty more professional development opportunities than I touch on here, but hopefully these suggestions point you and your staff in the right direction.
InfoComm Certifications
Other than being a member, I have no affiliation with InfoComm International, but anyone who knows me understands that I'm a big fan of the various CTS (Certified Technology Specialist) certifications. There are three types of CTS certifications: the basic CTS, which focuses on industry trends and core AV technologies; the CTS-D, which focuses on AV design and project management; and the CTS-I, which focuses on AV installation practices. I've taken the time over the years to acquire all three of these InfoComm certifications, and I'm very pleased that I made the decision to invest my time in doing so.
I feel that all staff members in higher ed AV design, installation and support departments should be required by their management to obtain the basic InfoComm CTS certification within one year of being hired. It not only establishes that employees are at a certain knowledge level with a baseline understanding of the AV industry and the core technologies, but the study process is also very worthwhile. There's no way that any one staff member can be an expert in every facet of the AV industry, but the process of studying for the CTS exam is a great way to at least introduce AV support staff to all the different areas of the AV industry. Your live event support technicians will begin to understand what the integrated systems designers are doing, and vice versa.
Once AV staff members have obtained the basic CTS certification, they can move on to the next level: the CTS-D (design) and CTS-I (installation) certifications. These are really made for individuals in roles that focus on specific system design and installation duties, and not for your AV support generalists. I believe that it's important for every higher ed AV support department to have at least one CTS-D on staff. Even if you don't have a staff member 100 percent devoted to AV system design, you must have someone who at least initiates AV installation projects by writing a program report or scope of work, and works with your independent consultants/integrators. That person really needs to have a CTS-D, to make sure that he or she has a baseline of AV system design and project management knowledge. I found the study process for the CTS-D exam to be one of the most worthwhile aspects of obtaining my various CTS certifications. The CTS-D exam is certainly the most challenging exam of the three, and I've seen some experienced system designers fail it. The study process really brings together all the InfoComm and industry design standards that the test is based on. Passing the CTS-D exam was my most rewarding professional development achievement.
The CTS-I (installation) certification is another all-encompassing exam that requires a study process, but it isn't a certification that I see very often among higher ed AV support department staff. Often, these departments are relying on AV support staff to provide level one and two troubleshooting and minor equipment repair/replacement, but they push major equipment repair and systems installation out to integration firms. For that reason, I feel the CTS-I certification is a bit too advanced for the level one AV support folks, and most departments don't have a higher level installation technician on staff.
When I took the three CTS exams, the study process was a bit more challenging than it is now. Currently, InfoComm publishes study guides for the three exams. These books didn't exist when I took the exams. The study guides cover the majority of subjects in the exams, but it's still important for the student to pull knowledge from industry experience as well as outside study sources. I've taken many of the online and classroom courses offered by InfoComm. I found many of the online courses to be a bit outdated, and I really got much more from the organization's in-person classroom courses. I took a great online CTS-D study class with InfoComm instructor Tom Kehr that really helped bring many of the design concepts together, but I still did plenty of research using alternate sources.
One of the big reasons the InfoComm CTS certifications exist is to serve the consultant and integrator community. Clients will often require a certain number of consulting or integrator staff to have one or more of the CTS certifications. This is often dictated in the project's bid documents, excluding certain companies that don't meet the certification criteria from even beginning the bidding process. All that being said, I certainly see the CTS certification's value in the higher ed AV support world.
Manufacturer Training
Many of the AV industry equipment manufacturers offer training classes and certifications that are available to higher ed AV support folks. Many people simply disregard these manufacturer-led training classes as sales pitches to captive audiences, but I think many of them are very worthwhile. Naturally the manufacturer's motivation is to pitch their products to their target audience, but these training classes have really evolved over the years to now include useful information taught by some of the most brilliant minds in the industry.
Some of the larger manufacturers in the industry offer "big picture" training classes that teach general AV industry technology and design trends. Naturally they relate these trends back to their specific product lines, but the majority of information taught in these classes is very useful to general higher ed AV support staff. Some of the manufacturers even tailor these classes to academic AV support subjects, so your staff doesn't have to sit through training sessions intended for other industries, such as the latest trends in 911 emergency command center design. Some manufacturers offer these classes online, but I usually get the most out of actually being in the classroom.
Drilling down a bit more, the manufacturers also offer higher level training sessions that often focus on one specific AV technology, or a specific piece of their equipment. Some of the specific content taught in these classes may include AV streaming technology, control system/DSP programming, digital system design/installation techniques and networked AV systems. These classes often rely on lots of hands-on setup and testing of equipment, which is always very helpful. Having face-to-face access to the folks who designed the equipment is a great learning resource.
When it comes to control system and DSP programming classes in particular, I have strong opinions about how AV programming should be handled on higher ed campuses. To really do control system programming right for anything more complex than a basic classroom system, schools really need to devote a full-time staff member to programming. While a full-time AV programmer is a tough expense to justify on most campuses, a staff member who is also responsible for system design, installation, daily support, etc. cannot really stay on top of current high-level programming techniques and features. All that being said, I think manufacturers' control system programming classes can be valuable for any higher ed AV staff. Staff members responsible for system design duties need to take at least the 101 programming class, to make sure they have an understanding of the features and capabilities of their control systems. Being able to at least talk the same language as the programmers (either independent or from hired integration firms) is key. DSP programming is a bit of a different animal, and I do think that higher ed AV support departments should devote a portion of someone's job description to high-level DSP programming. It's an easier learning curve than advanced control system programming, and it's certainly worth the time for managers to send their employees to the higher level DSP configuration classes.
Don't think that these manufacturer training classes require large travel budgets just because the manufacturer is headquartered across the country. Many of these companies will offer regional training opportunities, often renting meeting rooms at hotels in select large cities across the county. I will say, though, that attending training sessions at the company's headquarters is usually best, since they typically don't have the same amount of demo and test equipment at the regional training sessions as they do in their HQ's training classrooms. Some manufacturers offer rewards programs to their customers, who can in turn obtain comped travel expenses to attend these training classes. It's always worth a conversation with your manufacturer rep if your department is able to accept gifts like this from companies.
Over the past few years, the question has been asked if large AV conferences are still necessary, considering the plethora of online resources and manufacturer training opportunities available elsewhere. The record-breaking attendance numbers at the annual InfoComm show each year say to me that conferences are indeed still regarded as worthwhile events. Most higher ed tech managers seem to agree, but with the large price tag these conferences have for registration fees, travel expenses, training class tuition, etc., it's often hard to justify the expense. Still, I feel the show floor booths, training opportunities and networking opportunities presented to InfoComm attendees are an excellent resource to higher ed AV staff. There are many programs at the InfoComm event tailored to higher ed AV support. Between networking receptions, training classes, certification prep courses and technology tours of other schools, it really makes sense for technology managers to budget for their staff to make the trip. I think that higher level design and installation staff members need to make the trip to InfoComm every year or two, while mid- and low-level support staff can benefit from the trip every three or four years.
Even though it's the largest AV conference in the U.S., InfoComm obviously isn't the only event available to higher ed AV staff. Conferences like CCUMC, UBTech and Educause are especially relevant to higher ed AV technology managers. These conferences don't focus as much on system design and installation, but rather on management and administrative topics.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

AVNation EdTech podcast: Episode 46 (Oct 2016)

In this month's AV Nation EdTech podcast, we discuss manufacturers selling and marketing directly to end users, fostering brand loyalty, InfoComm education opportunities for high school students, and VR in the classroom.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

AVNation EdTech podcast: Episode 45 (Sept 2016)

After a couple of months off, we're back with a new AV Nation EdTech podcast discussing OLED display technology, back boxes and flat panel display mounting, and the internet of things.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Campus Technology: A Benchmark for AV Support Staff

In September 2016 I wrote an article for Campus Technology discussing some of my opinions about AV support staffing and I also talk about a staffing survey I conducted in 2014.

A Benchmark for AV Support Staffing
by Mike Tomei, Tomei AV Consulting
How many AV support staffers should an institution have? In my job as an audiovisual consultant, I've honestly never met someone in a higher ed AV support role who feels like their department is adequately staffed and they're not overwhelmed with the amount of work put on their plate.
It's hard to pinpoint why AV support departments aren't usually staffed properly. Maybe it's because AV support went through a transition from dealing with carousel slide projectors to managing high-end digital presentation, collaboration and conferencing tools, and staffing levels just didn't keep up. Maybe it's because AV support departments sometimes fall under non-technical departments (such as facilities) that just don't understand what it takes to properly staff an IT group.
In 2014 I decided that I wanted to study higher ed AV department staffing levels, so I put together an online survey. It turns out I wasn't the only person curious about staffing structure, so I ended up getting a very positive response to the survey. It seems like technology managers are always looking for a data-driven way to approach staffing.
This survey attempted to determine an average ratio of the number of AV equipped rooms per support staff at any given institution. I knew that it would be difficult to compare AV staffing levels across schools, since there are lots of factors differentiating one school from another. One major factor is the school's approach to IT support: Is it centralized or decentralized across campus? Audiovisual technology levels also affect the number of support staff needed. A school with only basic presentation systems in its classrooms needs a very different support structure from a school that has quite a few complex collaboration, capture and conferencing rooms. Schools that outsource their AV design and/or installation work to consultants and integrators, rather than handle that with in-house staff, will surely have different staffing levels. All that being said, I still think that a survey quantifying AV support staffing levels across multiple schools is helpful for higher ed tech managers to at least see a benchmark and have a starting point in determining their staffing needs.
Survey Information
I conducted the survey online in the spring of 2014, and posted a link on a couple of online forums frequented by AV tech managers. I ended up receiving 61 responses, giving me a pretty diverse pool of data to look at. I'm by no means a professional survey writer, but I think the data is very useful.
The first few survey questions looked to gather some information about the respondent's school. I asked for the number of classrooms, meeting rooms and offices with installed AV equipment. I also asked about the number of digital signage displays, and the number of students at each school. Respondents' number of AV-equipped classrooms varied from around 30 to more than 500. Number of students varied from 176 to 50,000 — a nice mix of small and large schools.
I then asked about full-time staffing levels in specific positions relating to the design, installation and support of AV systems. This survey didn't look at staffing levels for AV event support departments. The titles I asked respondents to consider were: director; assistant directors; managers; supervisors; AV project managers; system designers; control system programmers (full-time); field repair technicians; bench technicians; daily support field technicians; administrative assistants/business services employees; and student employees. Every school classifies its AV department staff by different titles, but I tried to focus on a variety of common titles/roles.
The most important result that came from this study is an average ratio of the number of AV-equipped rooms per full-time staff: 43:1. This ratio is based on classrooms/meeting rooms only, and does not include admin assistants or student employees. Some respondent's ratios were down as low as 15:1, while some topped out over 140:1. Obviously there is wide variety in the number of AV-equipped rooms each full-time AV person is tasked with supporting.
Not surprisingly, the most common positions that exist in the respondents' departments are daily support field technicians and field repair techs. Looking at the big picture, I would consider those positions to be essentially the same, with lots of crossover of duties. There are also plenty of student employees reported by the respondents, but I didn't include student employees in determining the average ratio of AV-equipped rooms per full-time staff. Falling into the middle range in the respondents' departments are AV project managers, system designers, managers and supervisors. The most uncommon positions in the respondents' departments are bench techs, administrative assistants, control system programmers and assistant directors.
Many of the freeform notes sections of the survey were populated with comments about how understaffed people felt their departments were, and how each staff person has to wear a bunch of hats when it comes to AV support duties.
Even though all those previously mentioned factors come into play when comparing one school to another, the 43:1 ratio can be helpful as a quick benchmark in determining how far off your AV support department staffing level is compared to others. If you would like to see a full copy of the survey results, feel free to send me an e-mail (mike@tomeiav.com).

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Campus Technology: Keep Your AV Support Team in the Loop

In August 2016 I wrote an article for Campus Technology about when to involve campus AV support departments in design-bid-build projects.  If you need a refresher on the phases of these larger projects, refer to these articles I wrote for Campus Technology:  1, 2, 3, 4, 5

Keep Your AV Support Team in the Loop
by Mike Tomei, Tomei AV Consulting
If you're in an AV support role on campus, you've probably experienced this scenario: A large classroom renovation project is underway, with an audiovisual design consultant subcontracted under the architect. The AV support team is brought into the project too late, after design decisions have already been made, after the AV contractor bidding process is complete, and often after construction has already started. When this happens, the project usually takes two different routes: Either the campus AV support folks ask the project manager for a bunch of changes to the AV system design to conform to their established standards, or the project doesn't have the money for more change orders, and the AV support department just has to live with a bunch of non-standard AV systems. Either way, plenty of extra time and/or money is spent, and it's a stressful experience for all project stakeholders. With a little foresight and planning, though, it doesn't have to be that way.
During the InfoComm show in June, I taught a seminar that focused on the phases of a classroom audiovisual installation project, and I received multiple questions from higher ed technology managers about how they should be involved in the larger design-bid-build construction projects that are typically led by a construction project manager and architect. In particular, attendees asked, at what point during a large construction project should the campus AV support department get involved? My answer: before the project even exists.
You may be wondering how this is possible without a time machine. I'm suggesting that the AV support folks need to meet with the campus construction/facilities management department before projects start. Rather than a meeting about a specific project, this needs to be a general meeting introducing the construction project managers to the established campus AV standards, the AV support department's preferred level of involvement in larger construction projects, and the staff that's responsible for supporting and maintaining those systems. The project managers need to understand the importance of maintaining AV design and construction standards across all buildings on campus. Even if the construction project managers don't involve the AV support department at the very beginning of future projects, they can at least get the campus standards documentation in the hands of the contracted AV design consultant right from day one. (If you have not established clear AV standards documentation for your campus, you can read a 2015 Campus Technology article I wrote about the importance of documenting AV standards.) 
Now that you've stressed the importance of future AV system designs adhering to established standards, you can focus on the important milestones where the project managers need to get the campus AV support department involved. The first major milestone should be right at the beginning of the project, when the construction project manager is just starting the needs analysis (or programming) process with the client. This occurs before the architect has been hired on the project. The AV support folks need to be involved in these initial discussions to make sure that all stakeholders are paying attention to audiovisual system design and installation. I'm not suggesting that the AV department should dive right in and start the design process; rather, the AV team can help the client establish the basic AV scope for the project and remind the project managers that the AV design process needs to be a part of the project's overall design process. Depending on the size of the project, this may take the form of hiring an AV design consultant, looking to an AV contractor for a design-build contract, or relying on the campus AV support department's in-house design services.
Many clients don't realize the scope of AV that's needed on a project until well into the design phases, and sometimes during the construction phase. Having a set of experienced AV support department eyes on the project from day one assures that a relatively accurate AV scope is established. As a consultant, I'm sometimes not hired on projects until well into the architectural design phases, probably because AV design services just wasn't on the project manager's radar. Electrical, structural and HVAC design engineers/consultants are typically hired on the project at the same time as the architect, but many non-technical clients and project managers don't initially think of their AV needs. When I'm hired on a project right at the beginning of the architect's contract, and presented with a clear idea of what the project's AV scope will entail, I'm able to spend the proper amount of time on the AV design portion of the project.
The next major milestone for AV support department involvement should be the bidding process to determine the project's architect. Since AV design consultants are subcontracted under the architect, it's important for the AV support department to review the architect bids and provide an opinion on the AV design consultant attached to each architect's proposal. The campus AV department may have worked with these AV design consultants in the past, and can provide insight into the good, bad and the ugly. The AV department folks are also able to help with evaluating the qualifications of the proposed AV consultants. Watch out for architects who may want to squeeze AV design services into the electrical engineer's scope, or subcontract an AV contractor to handle design only. 
Because of the amount of work and deliverables involved with larger design-bid-build projects, typically the AV design consultant needs to handle the bulk of the work, rather than the campus AV department. Campus AV folks should retain a review role, but not be burdened with the bulk of the design and construction administration work. That brings us to the next major milestone for AV department involvement: The campus AV team should be brought in by the architect and AV consultant during the needs analysis process (during schematic design) to present the established campus AV standards. This will set the stage early on for a solid base of standardized design and installation processes, and allow the AV consultant to grab the ball and run with it for the remainder of the design process. I never feel that AV support departments are stepping on my toes when they ask me to understand their standards at the beginning of a project. Due to my experience in past jobs when I worked in their roles, I appreciate the fact that I'm able to gain an understanding of the established AV standards from the get-go, rather than much later in the project when I need to redo a bunch of design work.
As the design phases of the project evolve, the AV design consultant will be handling the heavy lifting, but the campus AV support department should be involved in reviewing design and construction documents from the architect and AV consultant. The conclusion of the schematic design, design development and construction document phases involves review and approval (by the client) of submittal documents from the architect, engineers and consultants. Typically these take the form of a program report, CAD drawings and construction/bid specifications. Getting these documents in front of the AV support folks is another cross check for making sure that AV standards are being met, and the design hasn't taken a wild turn for the worse. Most AV support departments aren't staffed with full-time design engineers to create all of this documentation, but they should be able to provide these review services as needed. Spending a little extra time in these phases to make sure the AV design is on point will prevent many headaches down the line.
During the bidding phase, when the AV contractor is hired, the AV support department should be involved either in suggesting the list of preferred AV contractors that will be asked to submit proposals, or at least in simply reviewing that list before the RFP is sent out. The AV consultant may suggest AV contractors that have been problematic on past campus projects. Often the AV consultant isn't local, so they don't have the same local market knowledge that the campus AV support department has.
After the AV contractor has been hired, it's typically the AV consultant's responsibility to take a construction administration role and oversee the AV contractor's work. This is one phase that the campus AV department should not be heavily involved with. The project managers need to rely on the consultant and contractor's expertise to install AV systems that adhere to the reviewed and approved design documents. Campus AV support folks may need to review change orders, but they can't get bogged down in the granular construction administration duties that the consultant should really be handling. 
The next milestone that should include the AV support department staff: the client training process, at the conclusion of the construction phase. In addition to a training session for the non-technical clients, the project's AV consultant and AV contractor should hold a separate training session for the technical AV support staff that will be tasked with supporting and maintaining the new AV systems. This should occur after the AV consultant and AV contractor have concluded the systems verification process and punch lists. If during this training session the AV support folks notice aspects of the AV system that don't conform to established standards, or simply aren't working, then someone dropped the ball back in the design and construction phases.
The final major project milestone for AV department involvement should be the AV contractor's close-out submittal. It's the AV consultant's responsibility to review and approve this submittal package, but the contents need to be passed along to the folks responsible for supporting and maintaining the new AV systems. Items such as as-built drawings, control system and DSP programming files, equipment and system manuals, MAC/IP address tables, equipment inventory, warranty details and service contracts all need to get in the hands of the campus AV support department.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Campus Technology: Advice and Reflections on the Best of InfoComm 2016

In July 2016 I wrote a recap of my experience at the InfoComm Show 2016.

Advice and Reflections on the Best of InfoComm 2016
by Mike Tomei, Tomei AV Consulting
If it's June and you work in audiovisual system design, installation and support, then you either attend the annual InfoComm show, or you follow the news coming out of the show and wish that you were there.  The 2016 event was in Las Vegas, and it certainly didn't disappoint — hitting record numbers of attendees and vendors. Plus, more people than ever took advantage of the educational opportunities at the show.
Even though I now work in the AV consulting field, much of my show experience mirrored the years I attended when I worked full time in higher ed AV support. Most of my clients are higher ed institutions, so I try to experience InfoComm through their perspective. This year at the show, I concentrated on teaching, networking and building manufacturer relationships. I certainly got to see many new products, but rather than try to race from booth to booth on the show floor, I instead focused on experiencing some of the other benefits of attending InfoComm in-person. I will preface this article by saying that I'm an independent consultant, and I have no financial affiliation with any of the manufacturers I mention in this article, as well as the InfoComm International organization.
Teaching & Education
When I talk to individuals who are attending their first InfoComm, I always start by stressing that they need to take advantage of the educational opportunities at the show. Professional development is key in an industry that is changing as rapidly as the AV industry is, and InfoComm is your best opportunity for industry training.
This year is the first that I was a presenter for a couple seminars held during the show. I taught a seminar on ADA compliance in classroom AV design, and another seminar dissecting the various phases of a classroom AV construction project. Both of my seminars targeted academic technology managers. A quick poll of each seminar showed about 90 percent of the attendees were from higher ed institutions, with the remaining 10 percent made up of AV integrators, consultants and corporate AV support staff.
Both of the seminars had more than 100 attendees, which was in part due to the fact that InfoComm tried a new seminar package model this year. In past years, we had to enroll in each class/seminar separately, and pay a fee for each. This year, attendees were able to purchase a package that granted attendance to all the Wednesday, Thursday and Friday seminars. This seemed to be a big hit with the large number of attendees participating in the educational opportunities.
Normally I take advantage of the InfoComm University classes that are offered on the Saturday, Sunday, and Monday of the InfoComm show week. These are three-day-long classes that offer a deeper dive into subject matter than the shorter seminars offered on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. If you haven't taken these three-day classes, I highly suggest you look into them. This is an opportunity to learn from some of the brightest AV instructors and professionals in the business, and make some nice networking contacts too. If you're pursuing one of the InfoComm CTS certifications, and you're looking for some classroom instruction to complement your independent study, then look no further than these InfoComm University classes. This year, I didn't end of taking one of these three-day classes only because I already have my CTS-D and CTS-I certifications, and I've taken many of the other courses being offered. I'm hoping that InfoComm adds some new higher-level design and project management classes to their three-day InfoComm University program.
Another piece of advice I always give InfoComm newbies is that they need to take advantage of every networking opportunity available during the week. Attend every relevant event, party, reception, committee meeting, etc. that you can get your hands on. With more than 40,000 people attending the show, you're bound to make some solid industry connections. 
When I worked in higher ed AV support at Harvard University and Ithaca College, I always made sure to attend the annual Technology Managers Reception. This is one of your best resources to meet like-minded AV technology managers at the show. You're bound to find someone from another campus who's in the same boat as you are, grappling with a tricky AV installation or searching for that piece of equipment that will solve their unique AV design issue. Collect business cards like your job depends on it and a few months later you'll be glad that you've built a nice network of industry professionals.
Another aspect of networking at InfoComm that many higher ed technology managers overlook is the goal of meeting manufacturer representatives. Many tech managers want to avoid getting the hard sell, so they slip in and out of the booths and remain anonymous. I suggest taking the opposite approach: Walk into the booth, immediately ask if your regional marketing rep is there, and make a face-to-face connection with them. Sure it'll result in more sales calls over the year, but having a direct contact at the manufacturer is a great resource for product and technical questions. Even as a design consultant, I rely on my manufacturer marketing reps heavily. During the year I constantly contact them with design and technical questions, and at InfoComm I try to schedule 30-minute booth tours with them.
OK, I get it, everyone wants to hear about the new and exciting products that were premiered at InfoComm this year. Unfortunately, it's just not like it used to be. In the past, all the companies waited until the show to introduce their new products for the year. This doesn't seem to be the case anymore, with manufacturers releasing products all throughout the year — and even the products premiered at InfoComm are usually preceeded by a "sneak peek" press release a week or two before the show. 
My goal on the show floor isn't necessarily to hunt down the new and exciting products, but rather to get my hands on products that I need an in-person demo to experience. I'm talking microphone and speaker demos, projector and flat panel display shootouts, and other equipment that can't be evaluated just by reading a cut sheet back in the office. I also like to find manufacturers that may not have the flashy and exciting products, but have the products that will make my life easier as a system designer. Products like unique display mounts, equipment rack accessories, under-table or in-ceiling equipment storage solutions, etc. Head to the back of the show floor to find those smaller companies.
I think we can all agree that the AV/IT convergence has happened, and the premiere products at the show this year certainly exhibited this. The AV industry is all about moving audio, video and control signals over the network, using proprietary or standards-based methods. The audio section of the show floor has always been a bit stale in past years, with very few groundbreaking advancements (compared to the video world), but this year you couldn't help but notice the mention of Dante everywhere. Even though this was pretty evident at the show last year, this year's plethora of Dante-enabled devices secures their place at the top of the heap when it comes to networked audio. 
One Dante-enabled product line that caught my eye was the new audio DSP offerings from Crestron. The company premiered its new Avia line of DSPs, with all the features I'm looking for in a classroom/conference room DSP: AEC, USB interface, Dante connection, VoIP (SIP) connection and control system integration. Crestron has an uphill battle to turn users away from their preferred DSP manufacturer, but with all those features and a design team lead by audio industry veteran Dennis Fink, I think they'll have some success.
Another Dante-enabled product line that I made sure to experience a demo of was the Shure Microflex Advance ceiling mic array and table mic array. The mics have Dante outputs, and depending on the model, offer on-board DSP features like echo reduction, steerable coverage, auto mixing and EQ. Even on the noisy show floor, we were easily able to steer the ceiling mic coverage over to pick up our voices.
Sticking with the networked AV theme, QSC's Q-SYS AV-to-USB is another new product that I think is very useful for classroom and conference room AV systems. In a nutshell, the company is expanding on its Core 110f DSP to now integrate IP cameras and a USB interface. If you've ever struggled with a classroom or conference room web conferencing system design that consists of a bunch of USB extenders, a USB hub and/or switch, control issues, multiple camera switching challenges and poor audio processing, definitely take the time to learn more about QSC's offerings.
I was happy to see that Crestron will be offering DigitalMedia compatible patch panels and premade cables. The AV industry loves to rely on direct cable runs between field devices and rack equipment, with field terminations of male RJ45 connectors. For years, IT standards have dictated that structured cabling needs to terminate at punch-down jacks and patch panels, rather than direct connections between, for example, wireless access points and the network closet switch port. Crestron's new DM patch panels and pre-made cables will help to push AV system designs toward tried and tested IT structured cabling standards.
Another product that rose to the top of discussion at the show is Biamp's TesiraLUX encoder and decoder, which will support video distribution using the AVB standard. Biamp had previously incorporated the audio portion of AVB into its Tesira DSP line, and now will show that video can be transported over a network using AVB. The idea that someone has finally figured out the "V" in AVB is exciting, but I really need to experience this product firsthand before I can consider incorporating it into my system designs.  I'm not totally sold on the idea of AVB being the future of networked AV, so I'm interested in watching how this all plays out.
One last product offering that I took notice of is Middle Atlantic's DC Power Distribution solution. If your AV equipment racks are full of power supplies (wall warts) and power strips for all the smaller devices, then you can look to this product from Middle Atlantic to clean things up. This is a 1RU device that offers different common DC voltage outputs on phoenix connectors, replacing all the individual wall warts. It's one of those tools that will make your installers happy.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

AVNation EdTech podcast: Episode 44 (June 2016)

We recorded our June EdTech podcast live from the InfoComm Show floor.  Bill O'Donnell hosted, Ernie Bailey was there, and we welcomed back Greg Brown.  We discussed our experiences at the Show, and commented on products that caught our eye.

Campus Technology:  Keeping Classroom AV Technology on Track

In June 2016 I wrote my fifth article for my recurring Campus Technology column titled AV Smarts.

Keeping Classroom AV Construction on Track - Part 5
by Mike Tomei, Tomei AV Consulting
Over the past four months, I have written about the design and construction process for higher education classroom audiovisual systems, including the administrative, schematic design, design development, construction documents and bidding phases of an AV design-bid-build project. This brings us to the final phase: construction.
Now that an AV contractor (integrator) has been signed onto the project through the efforts of the bidding phase, it's time to actually install the AV system that we've spent months designing. Just because we're up to the final phase doesn't mean that we can let our guard down and float along to a completed project: This is where the rubber hits the road. The construction phase requires attentive coordination efforts to make sure that all contractors properly furnish and install all the components of the AV system. Even though the AV design consultant may have gone to painstaking lengths to design every aspect of the AV system — even down to the connector — proper construction coordination and communication are needed to make sure the finished product matches the design intent. All of those hours of needs analysis meetings can be thrown out the window with an uninformed contractor making decisions independently in the field.
Architects typically remain on projects after the general contractor (GC) bid has been awarded, in order to oversee the efforts of the contracted GC. The client wants the architect to make sure that the building is constructed as the design documents dictate. The AV design consultant typically provides the same service during the construction phase; the consultant's role shifts from a design role to a review/approve role. It's best when the AV consultant remains on the project to oversee the construction process through final system commissioning and client training. Even if an AV contractor makes every effort to install the same system that's shown on the design drawings and specifications, the contractor just hasn't invested the same amount of time in the project as the design consultant has.
Construction Administration
The construction phase typically starts with a kick-off meeting to get all the contractors, design team and owner's team in the same room. Periodic construction meetings during the lifespan of the project will also take place. Because of the interdependency of all the various contractors, it's important that relationships are established between them early, and construction details start to get hashed out before everyone's tripping over one another on site. This initial kick-off meeting is an opportunity for the design team to walk the contractors through the design intent of the project, as well as discuss project scheduling and other construction phase coordination issues. Being the subject-matter experts that they are, the contractors may throw up some red flags right away as design intent is clarified. Making sure that the contractors have a thorough understanding of the design details right at the beginning of the construction phase means that there will be fewer surprises down the road, when it's harder and costlier to make changes.
There are quite a few pieces of AV equipment that span the responsibilities of various contractors. Items like projection screens, flat panel/projector mounts, floor/table boxes, etc. require furnishing, delivery and installation coordination from multiple contractors that need to work together. The project manager and consultant need to be at the root of coordinating those efforts.
Right off the bat in the construction phase, it's important for the project manager, architect and AV consultant to document everything. From the moment the kick-off meeting starts, all the way to the final client training session, there are lots of ideas, information and changes being thrown around. The introduction of all the contractors into the project creates lots of "cooks in the kitchen." Their input is usually invaluable, but sometimes important items can slip through without a formal documenting process, which causes issues down the line. A contractor may make a suggestion during a construction meeting, another contractor takes that suggestion to be an informal change order, and now all the involved parties are no longer on the same page.
Following a simple, yet organized, project management process can save everyone lots of headaches. Project managers, architects and/or AV consultants who create detailed meeting minutes are taking the first step to proper documentation. Distribute those minutes to all meeting attendees, as well as those that couldn't attend, and everyone is operating with the same information. Weekly written status updates from the AV contractor are also a way for everyone to stay informed.
The submittal process is an essential component of making sure that the final product matches the design intent. In the case of audiovisual systems, submittal materials are items sent by the AV contractor to the project manager for approval before proceeding with procurement, construction and installation. The required submittal materials should have been clearly defined in the construction documents (bid specifications), so there aren't any surprises. The submittal process can be lengthy and costly for the AV contractor, depending on the complexity of the project. If the required submittals weren't clearly defined in the bid specifications, then the AV contractor will no doubt express objection to spending time and labor hours on creating these materials that weren't part of the original proposal.
Typically, submittal materials that are required from the AV contractor are shop drawings, the contractor's proposed project schedule, finalized equipment list, AV furniture details, cut sheets, finish samples, product samples and control system/DSP programming details. Obviously, not all of these items will be required for every project. The AV design consultant is responsible for reviewing and approving all of these submittals, making sure that they follow the design intent as described in the design documents. Contractors are instructed not to order any equipment or begin construction efforts until all of the submittal materials have been approved. Paying attention to the details during the submittal process really sets the stage for a successful construction phase. As long as the AV consultant keeps an organized record of all submittal dates, and responds to them quickly, this process will work well.
Requests for Information
One important aspect of documenting the flow of information during the construction phase is the request for information (RFI). As a contractor is working through the process of preparing for installation, or even while they're in the middle of site work, they may have questions about the design intent. While it might seem easiest for them to pick up the phone and call the design consultant for clarification, it's important for their questions to follow a formal RFI process. If the contractor sends questions on an RFI form to the project manager, and the consultant's response is returned in that same format, then you have easily referenced materials if a question comes up in the future about the same issues.
Change Order
A close cousin to the RFI is the change order (CO). If the question posed by the contractor in the RFI results in a change that involves procurement of additional materials, or additional labor efforts from the contractor, then a CO needs to be issued. The change order originates from the project manager and is sent to the contractor outlining the change, all associated costs, and the new project total cost after the change. All contract scope and pricing changes need to be documented in this fashion to prevent confusion later in the project — and to keep control of the project's budget. Change orders can also be issued when materials and/or labor are being removed from a project, after being deemed unnecessary to the project. Sometimes the contractor is working in the field and decides that a change is necessary to keep the project on track, and seeing no other alternative, they create a construction change directive (CCD). The CCD is sent by the contractor to the project manager for approval.
Quality Control
Depending on the complexity of the project, the AV consultant may wish to be involved with various quality control efforts during the construction phase. This may involve the consultant visiting the AV contractor's shop to test the AV systems after the shop-build process is complete, but before the equipment is moved to the installation site. The consultant may also want to visit the site periodically as the other trades are installing the AV-related infrastructure. Take pictures of all the walls, floors,and ceilings while they're still open and before the finishes are placed on them. Knowing where the cable paths and wall blocking are located after the drywall is up can be priceless. The AV consultant also can perform a final "AV room ready" assessment after the infrastructure is installed, but before AV equipment is shipped to the site. During the AV contractor's site installation period, a few site visits from the AV consultant is a way to make sure that construction is progressing as planned.
Systems Verification
After the AV contractor notifies the client that the systems have been installed, configured and tested, the AV consultant typically visits the site for formal systems verification. Many have started relying on the ANSI/InfoComm 10:2013 Audiovisual Systems Performance Verification standard during this commissioning process. The Performance Verification Checklist that accompanies this standard has become a widely accepted industry standard that can ease the verification process greatly. Whatever final systems verification checklist or criteria that is decided upon should be presented to the AV contractor at the beginning of the project, so all parties are on the same page as to what's expected during these final tests. If specific performance or reference specifications were described in the original bid specifications, then that testing takes place now. A punch list is created by the AV consultant, who makes a return visit to ensure that all items have been addressed.
Client Training
After all systems have been fully tested and punch list items completed, client training can occur. Resist the urge to train clients on partially tested systems, or systems with outstanding punch list items. You only get one chance to make a first impression, and if a faculty member runs into technical issues during his initial training session, he'll never trust that AV system again. It's best to have the lead installation technician or the AV consultant conduct the training session, since they have a deep understanding of the system operation. Conduct a couple training sessions, with one focusing on non-technical users and the other directed toward the technical support staff that will have to operate, service and maintain the AV systems.
Now that the equipment is installed and the clients are trained, don't let the project fizzle out just yet. The final step is for the AV consultant to review and approve the closeout submittal from the AV contractor. This submittal package may consist of the as-built system drawings, compiled and uncompiled control system/DSP programming files, equipment/system manuals, equipment inventory/MAC/IP address list, warranty statement, maintenance contract, keys and spare parts. Again, the contents of the closeout submittal package should have been defined in the original bid specifications.
From an AV design and installation standpoint, the project is now complete. The client gives the final sign-off, the warranty period begins, and our journey through all the phases of the project has come to an end.

Friday, May 27, 2016

AVNation EdTech podcast: Episode 43 (May 2016)

In this latest episode of the AV Nation EdTech podcast, we talk about the Microsoft Surface Hub, lecture capture equipment and methods, and the latest InfoComm/BICSI partnership.  We're recording the next episode of the podcast live from the InfoComm Show floor (the AV Nation booth # N2821) in Vegas on June 10th at 10am.  Stop by if you're attending the show.

Campus Technology: The Ins and Outs of Classroom AV Construction Documents and Bidding

In May 2016 I wrote my fourth article for my recurring Campus Technology column titled AV Smarts.

The Ins and Outs of Classroom AV Construction Documents and Bidding - Part 4
by Mike Tomei, Tomei AV Consulting
This is the fourth article in a monthly series focusing on the design and construction process surrounding audiovisual systems in higher education classrooms. Over the past few months, I have written about the administrative, schematic design and design development phases of an AV design-bid-build project. After the majority of the design details have been hammered out in those phases, we're now presented with the task of creating the documents that will be used in the bidding and construction process. This phase is the construction documents phase, followed by the bidding phase.
Construction Documents Phase
After you've gone to all the trouble of meeting with stakeholders, performing site surveys, reviewing project documentation, researching equipment and creating AV infrastructure/technical design drawings, it's necessary to compile all of that information into a package that can be used for the bidding process, and shows the design intent for the construction phase. Typically, the construction documents created by AV design consultants are specifications and drawings. The key word for this phase is communication. Effectively communicating the AV design intent, scope of work and performance requirements can be done only with properly written and detailed construction documents. Providing contractors with incomplete construction documents is a sure-fire way to cause major headaches for all project stakeholders. Creating a well written/drawn set of construction documents assures that bidding contractors will submit similar proposals that can easily be compared to each other during bid evaluation. The construction documents also become part of the contract between the client and the contractor, so it's important that they're created properly.
Specifications can be thought of as a written document that defines the roles, responsibilities, scope of work, installation standards and performance requirements for the project's AV systems. The AV specifications are incorporated into the project manual, which includes specs for all aspects of the project (not just AV), as well as bidding information and contract terms and conditions. Generally speaking, audiovisual specifications typically appear in section 27 of the Construction Specifications Institute's (CSI) MasterFormat, which separates each aspect of a construction project into different specification sections. Within each section, construction specifications follow the CSI's three-part format, which separates the specification into general, product and execution requirements. Drilling down even further, the CSI created SectionFormat, which defines each paragraph header within the three parts of the spec. The goal is to provide bidding contractors with a standardized look to each section throughout the project manual.
Specifications can be written in many different ways, with most falling into the categories of descriptive, proprietary, performance and reference standard. Descriptive specifications detail the characteristics and requirements of a product without actually naming a specific make and model. This can be a time-consuming and wordy process and, in my opinion, leaves your spec a bit too open to interpretation. I prefer using more of the proprietary method, which lists specific acceptable makes and models. I go to the extent of depicting specific equipment in my design drawings, so I include that info in my specifications to make sure contractors are preparing proposals along the lines of my system design intent. Performance specifications describe the desired end result of an AV system, and the methods that will be used to test that desired performance. I incorporate aspects of this writing method into my specifications, while keeping in mind that excessive performance requirements will drive up the cost and length of the project. Reference standards specifications are similar in nature to performance specs, but they dictate that established reference standards will be used to define the specs. Citing ANSI standards would fall into this category.
Part 1 of a spec includes general information, with subsections including: administrative, references, system summary, milestones, submittals, site conditions, contractor qualifications and warranty. Part 2 of the spec focuses on the products, including acceptable manufacturers, equipment, materials and substitutions. I typically supplement this section with a detailed equipment list as an appendix. Part 3 of the spec includes execution details, like installation and performance requirements, systems verification, commissioning and closeout activities.
Specifications can be a daunting thing to write, since they're all-encompassing. They really cover all aspects of a project, from the bidding process through construction to the final project closeout. Spec writers walk the line of including enough details to give the bidding parties a proper overview of the project and cover the contractual obligations between the client and contractor, without bloating the document with too much information presented in a disorganized fashion. Relying on a qualified AV consultant for specification writing is essential to getting a concise yet thorough specification. There's certainly an art to writing a well-crafted spec.
In the higher ed world, often schools will establish a list of preferred/approved AV contractors through their procurement office. The school's purchasing staff negotiates rates, terms and conditions with preferred vendors. Signed agreements are on file with contracts active for a set amount of time, speeding along the procurement process from project to project. Contractor qualifications have already been vetted, insurance requirements handled and contracts signed. Bid specifications typically cover many of these topics, but since an institution's procurement office has already taken the time to handle this, then a project's AV specifications may take a bit of a different form when dealing with approved vendors. If the bid request is only being sent to pre-qualified preferred/approved vendors, then the AV consultant may not need to address vendor qualifications, administrative requirements, warranty or any other issues that have been pre-negotiated as part of the contractor's preferred vendor contracts. Specifications may take the form of a simpler "scope of work" document. Smaller projects may not warrant full-blown bid specifications. On those smaller projects, often the project's specifications are incorporated into the CAD drawings, in the form of detail drawings and notes.
The second major component to the construction documents phase is the finalized AV CAD drawing package. Most of my CAD drawing process takes place in the design development phase of the project, which I discussed in last month's article. Once we're up to the construction documents phase, I finalize my AV system design drawings and issue the 100 percent set. This drawing package will be included with the bid documents to AV contractors. Making sure the drawings, specifications and equipment list all match will prevent confusion and questions from the contractors during the bidding process.
Document Review
If the architect and project engineers are also in their construction documents phase, then it's important for the AV consultant to review their finalized construction drawing package before it's marked as 100 percent, stamped and sent out to bid to general contractors (GCs). The AV infrastructure drawings created by the consultant are typically labeled as "for reference only," with electrical, structural and mechanical details being translated from those drawings to the stamped architectural/electrical drawings created by the architect or engineers. Take the time now to review those drawings and make sure that all the AV infrastructure requirements correctly appear on them. Once the architect issues the 100 percent drawing set and sends it out to bid with GCs, any changes will have to be an addendum or change order. This also applies to the project specifications compiled by the architect. Confirming that all the AV-related specification sections are included and worded correctly will prevent issues down the road.
After the bidding package is compiled, the AV contractor bid is typically administered by the school's project manager and the facilities contracts department. Project funds originating from public vs. private sources will dictate if the bid is an open or selective bid. An open bid will be publically posted, with any vendor allowed to submit a proposal if it meets the specified qualification requirements. A selective bid is a request for proposal sent to only a select group of contractors, typically based on the school's preferred vendor list or past experience with the contractor. A school's AV design and support staff should be involved with recommending AV contractors for the RFP, to prevent a contractor from winning the bid that has had previous issues with AV installs on campus.
During the bidding process, a pre-bid meeting is helpful to get everyone on the same page. The client, architect and AV consultant will meet with all interested bidders to summarize the project, tour the site and answer any questions. When it comes time to evaluate the submitted proposals, refer back to the opinion of probable cost created in the schematic design phase and updated in the design development phase, to act as a benchmark for comparing pricing across multiple vendors. After the contract is awarded, we're on to the construction phase, which we'll discuss in next month's article.