On a hot day in September, I flew to Dallas, TX with Anne Johnston and Bill Groener to visit PRG. It was like a blast from the past, with Rusty Brutsché at the head of the conference table, Jim Bornhorst discussing product development, and great photos by Lewis Lee capturing the early days of rock-n-roll lighting decorating the walls. But now that Brutsché is part of the far-reaching PRG operation, with its large rental network, he's back to developing products that are not for sale: his original modus operandi as CEO of Vari-Lite. In speaking with Brutsché and Bornhorst (and looking at the photo of the off-the shelf parts that were used to create the seminal VL1), I started thinking about product development and what it takes to get an idea from someone's imagination into the hands of the end-user. To that end, I spoke to several manufacturers about their process; because the idea hit me in Dallas, we'll start with PRG.

PRG: Market Opportunities

For Bornhorst, engineering manager at PRG Lighting, it all starts with a requirement, either generated by the market itself or by the perception that a market opportunity exists. “The first and often most difficult task is to develop a list of features that are technically within reach at a manufactured cost point that the market can bear,” he explains. “Sometimes, an enabling technology comes along, such as the development of a new light source, which then generates an opportunity for a new product. More often than not, however, it's the mix of features and how well they are executed that leads to success.”

How does he get input from end-users? “There is no formula here,” Bornhorst says, noting that input about the need for a product can come from contact with lighting designers, board operators, production people, or his colleagues at PRG. “You know, everyone has a ready opinion of what the market needs,” he points out. “Since PRG is a rental company, we have daily contact with many technically competent people. This information makes its way to the development planners via scheduled technical planning meetings, where office managers, production people, and corporate management come together for the purpose of defining new development directions.”

Asked if there is a difference in R&D for products that are for sale vs. rental, Bornhorst replies: “I think there is, having done both. Products for sale have a much more demanding price point, which is driven primarily by the feature set and the competition.” He also finds that engineering time is spent removing the manufactured costs wherever possible, which can lengthen the development cycle.

“Products for the rental inventory are driven by the potential rental revenue returned from the company's investment in R&D. This is compounded by the costs to maintain and service the rental product. It is sometimes prudent to put more into the initial cost of the rental product if these costs are offset by lowered operational costs, improved product lifetime in the market, and perhaps improved features that attract end-users to the rental house supplying the proprietary product.”

Bornhorst also feels that testing is critically important to the successful deployment of a new product. “If there are problems with the initial production, the market will be reluctant to invest,” he says. “It takes a long time to recover from engineering errors that get out of the plant, and it is extremely expensive to rectify problems in the field. We find that it is critical to get a working prototype together as soon as possible, so that testing can begin very early, well before scheduled production. Having an early prototype at the compliance lab helps uncover emissions and susceptibility problems as well as safety issues. If detected early on, these can be rectified and tested again with the improved prototype. I can't stress strongly enough how important testing is and how difficult it sometimes is to determine the correct suite of tests to apply.”

Recent proprietary products under development at PRG's 20,000 sq ft facility in Dallas include the new version of the Virtuoso® console with the MBox Extreme media server, the Series 400 power distribution rack, and the AutoPar, a motorized Source Four® Par with a 700W MSR lamp developed as a wash luminaire specifically to meet the needs of lighting designers working in the auto show arena. “The old Vari-Lite manufacturing model has been put into effect for PRG,” says Brutsché. “These products will only be available for rent through PRG.”

City Theatrical: Product Pipeline

For Gary Fails, president of City Theatrical, it's essential to have new products in the pipeline. “We always have a running list of things,” he says. “Some are mine. Others come from our team, our friends, designers, or people in rental shops.” Some City Theatrical products are specifically developed to meet a need or to meet a need in the industry. “Someone will call and ask for such and such, and if we get enough calls for the same thing, we decide to make it,” notes Fails. One of his recent “biggies” is a power/data supply for Color Kinetics LED fixtures. “PRG asked us to help develop this for rentals of these fixtures. One didn't exist that did what they needed it to do. What we make is an improvement on existing technology.”

The AutoYoke®, now an industry standard, was developed by City Theatrical to fill a void. “Nothing existed to move a tungsten source conventional fixture,” explains Fails. “All the moving light technology was arc source. Some designers were asking for a hard-edged, tungsten source moving light that was quiet.” That's how Fails got the initial order of 70 AutoYokes for the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden. “They needed a quiet moving light,” he says. “The AutoYoke is now used as a standard on Broadway. We were the innovators. We listened first and reacted first. Now other companies have created competing products.”

The City Theatrical process starts with a proof of concept or a metal model without finish tooling or cosmetics, “just to prove to us that it works,” says Fails. “We showed the proof of concept for the AutoYoke at LDI ‘98 in Phoenix. This was a second pass, with more real parts than the first prototype. The response was overwhelming; everybody wanted it. One year later, it was available at PLASA where it won Product of the Year.”

To manufacture the AutoYoke, City Theatrical expanded its operations by making the necessary investment. “We pitched the idea to the bank, got funding, took on new people,” Fails explains. “We employed a development team with people from around the world, with a group engineers (electrical, mechanical, software, etc.) who worked externally for the most part. We managed the project, testing and assembly here.” In fact, Fails acquired a new building just to build AutoYokes.

What's next at City Theatrical? “We are increasingly moving into products for LED lighting, which is the future of lighting,” predicts Fails. “It does many things better than the sources we have been using for years — energy efficient, cool, color mixing.” Not bright enough? “They will be,” says Fails emphatically.

Strand: Moving With Technology

Peter Rogers, vice president of Strand Lighting, spearheads product development in conjunction with company president Tim Burnham. “The impetus for new products comes primarily from the fact that technology moves on at such a rapid rate, you eventually have to start over again,” says Rogers. “The last time we did a major console development, DOS was king. Now nothing supports DOS, not even Microsoft.”

This kind of software change has had a big effect on the lighting industry. “The current wave of products have modern operating systems such as Windows or Linux,” Rogers explains. For example, Strand's new C21 dimmer racks are Linux based (one wonders if a new Linux-based console can be far behind?). “Our SN110 Ethernet nodes are also Linux based. It is embedded in the chips that have Ethernet built in. Everything else on the chip is to generate DMX.” In the forthcoming post-DMX era, devices will plug directly into the network, the way the C21 dimmers do, via Strand's ShowNet Ethernet network.

In developing the dimmers, Strand started with foam core models and went as far as soliciting European input, as they are an international product.

“Once the commitment is there to develop a new product, then we respond to what the customers tell us,” says Rogers. “We interview everyone from Peggy Eisenhauer to Ken Billington as well as high-school students. Strand's 500 series consoles are a good example of customer feedback instigating changes. “We have had a software release for these consoles every six months for the past 10 years,” Rogers confirms. “These are driven by what customers ask us to do.”

Rogers has found that before a product actually exists, the customer can provide broad concepts that help define what the scope and core structure of the product should be. “Once you actually develop something, they will give you detailed feedback about what it ought to be. This is helpful in the initial testing stage.”

Lehigh: Updating An Original

While companies like Strand (and ETC for that matter) have been working to develop new paradigms for modern control consoles, the folks at Lehigh Electric have been upgrading an existing model, the Millennium console, originally launched in 1998. “It is not new per se,” says Lehigh's design engineer, Mark Kraft. This console now has a new operating system, Windows XP, with Pathport, Artnet, and Ethernet capability added, as well as a wireless remote control feature. “It is a mid-range console geared toward theatre as well as middle schools, high schools, and churches,” notes Kraft, who points out that moving light control is now an important issue. “Moving lights are more and more prominent in the church and school markets,” he confirms.

The highest-end version of the Millennium has 1,000 channels and two universes of DMX, as well as WYSIWYG built-in. According to Gil Densham of Cast Lighting, Lehigh has gone the furthest in terms of applying the various attributes and features available to console manufacturers through the WYSIWYG Developers Program. Kraft has been working in close tandem since last March with Dany Tancou of Cast. “They provided the development kit that we used as a basis for the console updates, and then we stay in close interaction with Cast,” notes Kraft. “The basic features come from them as items they have developed to add to their visualization software, and we incorporate them.”

When the changes came along for WYSIWYG release 14, Lehigh was in the middle of an upgrade to the console, so the timing was perfect, and they were able to take full advantage of all the exisiting features available for the WYSIWYG console edition.

The updates to the Lehigh console are a result of both client demand and a desire to keep up with what the market is doing. “We listen to what are clients are asking for,” says Kraft. “Rather than launch a new console, we have successfully updated an existing one.” This gives clients the opportunity to continue working with a console they feel comfortable with yet enjoy the features provided by updates in technology.