The Series 400 power and data-distribution system from Production Resource Group (PRG) is designed to distribute power and data in a safe and efficient manner. If you are a lighting designer, production electrician, or production manager for touring productions, industrials, events, or any production that uses power and data in any significant manner, then you should see this system firsthand.

What It Does

The Series 400 is an integrated power and data-distribution system that combines 120V or multiphase 208V power with an Ethernet network in the same cable. It distributes power and control signals to operate automated luminaires or other remote non-dim devices up to 500' away. Unlike other power-distribution racks, this system features built-in control signal distribution. The rack accepts 10/100MB/sec Ethernet, DMX, DMX-over-Ethernet, and RDM, and has the ability to handle protocols simultaneously. It also allows you to route any DMX universe on the network to any DMX output in the system without any cable patching or outboard opto-splitters.

The Series 400 is a modular system to mix and match the right components for your needs. It is made up of the rack, breaker modules, breakout boxes, and trunk cable. The rack houses up to six breaker modules of any type and provides an LED meter module that monitors system current and voltage and additional space for installing optional expansion components. System-wide functions can be controlled at the rack, including power-up, power-down, and testing.

Breaker modules that mount in the rack provide two trunk outputs — with each circuit protected by an individual circuit breaker — for the purpose of routing power and control to the system. Currently, these include 15A 120V, 15A 208V, 30A 208V, 15A/30A 208V, and an FOH breaker module. Depending on the model, breakout boxes supply power and control signal for three, four, or six devices. LEDs provide verification of the power and data signals and can be installed in the truss. There is also an FOH breakout module and an A/B switch to make seamless transitions between main and backup consoles.

The trunk cable is a custom design that transmits Ethernet data and six power circuits over 500' on copper. “I would describe it as a superhighway that carries both information and power in one pipe,” says Jim Bornhorst, senior scientist for PRG. “It dramatically simplifies the wiring of a complex lighting system, and that is where your time savings is.” The Ethernet switches and DMX routing are all internal, eliminating the need for external data cables and devices. Rusty Brutsché, vice chairman and CTO for PRG, adds, “We also have a new Series 400 Ethernet switch that has fiber-optic cable connections, so very long runs between S400 racks can be accommodated. The most important benefits of S400 are significant time savings on setup, configuration, and tear down, and very safe, stable, flexible, and reliable operation of the Ethernet data network and power distribution.”

Regarding safety, Bornhorst discusses one of the S400's key features. “I think that this is by far the safest system we have ever built,” he says. “There is a key-line signaling system — that is not part of our normal communications system — that tells the various types of modules and breakout boxes whether they are compatible or not. The system will not energize this equipment if the two boxes on either end — the one that sources the power and current with circuit breakers on it and the one that distributes it at the end of the cable that has the plugs on it that the lights plug into — aren't completely compatible; nothing powers up. That is the beauty of it. It is kind of a dumb, simple system that we worked out. There are no computers, and there are no chips; it's just wires and relays, so it is almost fail-safe. The other nice thing is that if you uncouple one of the trunk connectors, it immediately kills all of the circuits in that connector before you can even get the connectors apart. So if a stagehand was working outside in the wet and picked up an open connector, he knows that it is not energized.”

How It Came To Be

“We started the development of S400 in VLPS before we merged with PRG,” says Brutsché. “When we were in the sound business with Showco and for all of the Vari-Lite Series 100, 200, and 300 equipment, we always manufactured our own proprietary power and data-distribution systems. When we began manufacturing DMX-compatible products at Vari-Lite, we began using commercially available power, DMX, and Ethernet distribution equipment, and we were not satisfied with the performance of the equipment. We found it unreliable, unsafe, and difficult to configure and troubleshoot. We felt that an integrated power and data system utilizing Ethernet networking was needed, so we began the development of S400. I think Jim Bornhorst and his team did a brilliant job developing the S400 system.”

Bornhorst led the development team — all involved since the inception of the original Vari-Lite Series 100 — which included John Covington, who handled the mechanical design and electrical design; Tom Walsh, who dealt with the digital electronics and Ethernet; and chief of software Charles Reese, who developed all of the software that operates the communications system.

“The American system is fully certified by ETL for use in the United States and Canada,” says Bornhorst. “The European version will carry the CE mark and be RoHS-compliant, which is a new compliance directive from Europe, and has to do with the waste from the product cycle. And, of course, in Japan, it will carry the PSE mark.”

What's Next

In terms of further development, Bornhorst says, “We are developing versions of S400 for Europe and Japan. We had to make some changes, but the European system will be virtually identical to the one in the US with the exception of the power connectors, which will be the common European CeeForm connectors.

What End-Users Have To Say

Kevin O'Brien, production lighting manager for Bestek Lighting & Staging, used the Series 400 system for a corporate event at the Javits Convention Center in New York City. “The rig that we used it with was pretty large — 120 moving lights,” he says. “We used the front-of-house module to run two [MA Lighting] grandMA consoles. I chose the Series 400 system for its ease and convenience.”

There are a few features O'Brien particularly likes about the system. “Mostly, it is the elimination of a lot of cabling — because you no longer need data cable off of your truss to your racks — as well as elimination of opto-splitters,” he says. “Also, it's great that you can address either one of the two ports to any one of 40 universes of DMX at the rack without having to physically plug into a snake.”

Greg Garrison, principal of Garrison Production Services Inc., was the project manager and master electrician for the Mercedes booth at the recent North American International Auto Show in Detroit. “The PRG Series 400 system gives you the ability to adapt to virtually any situation with ease and efficiency,” he says. “It has truly revolutionized the age-old concept of power and data distribution. In the ever-changing auto show market, where cars are always changing positions, and design changes are sure to follow, it is an absolute necessity to have the amount of flexibility the S400 system has to offer.”

Garrison really likes “that everything is integrated into one unit. You can literally put any DMX universe out of any of the breakout boxes anywhere in the system. If the client comes in — as with many trade shows and industrials — and decides to move an exhibit piece or a vehicle, it is very easy to move a fixture. Basically, put any fixture anywhere and reassign the universe by just the push of a button on the racks.”

New York City-based electrician Chris Kurtz has used the S400 system on a number of productions, including a one-off concert for Guns N' Roses and the recent Broadway production of High Fidelity. “The first, obvious benefit is data-over-multi,” he says. “You can put different universes pretty much wherever you need them without having to run separate runs of data. The ability to assign those ports at the rack allows for a good amount of flexibility.”

As for future improvements, Kurtz has a few ideas. Because many productions still have some conventionals in the rig, he requests that the unit “incorporates a dimming system. If you could hook in some dimmers through the Series 400 lines or make one of the modules a six-pack of dimmers, that would be great. A few of the people that I worked with would like the breakouts to be cable fan-outs rather than boxes because electricians are much happier using breakouts; it also eliminates that many more failure points for cable. Now you are adding jumpers in where a lot of times you could just use a 20" breakout and go directly to the unit.”

Jerry “Hodgie” Vierna is the lighting crew chief for the current Justin Timberlake tour and Madonna tour, both of which made a lot of use of the Series 400 system. “Just the ease of programming those outputs and the fact that it is easy to do is a blessing,” says Vierna. He does agree with one of Kurtz's points: “If it could actually incorporate a dimming circuit within it so that somehow, in software, you could switch to a dimming circuit as opposed to just a non-dim circuit, that would be pretty revolutionary.”

Vierna sums up the Series 400 system: “I think that it will become an industry standard in the near future. The backs of the racks no longer look like the scrambled, unorganized pile of XLR cables, jumping over multi-cables. It is all straight multi-cables going into the racks and feeders feeding those racks, but nothing else. The Series 400 system has so many positive things going for it.”

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