What it does:

Vortek® from Hoffend & Sons, Inc. is the first standard, fully automated rigging system designed to eliminate and replace counterweight rigging. In the past, most automated rigging systems consisted of a lot of custom work, especially at the control end. With Vortek, Hoffend has essentially made automated rigging a box product, albeit a very large box. “It really is the first off-the-shelf control system,” says Peter Hoffend, president, Hoffend and Sons, Inc. By using standard parts that they designed and engineered, paired with a control system that takes full advantage of the latest developments with microprocessors as well as software based upon Microsoft Windows XP embedded, Vortek is a complete rigging solution.

The Vortek self-contained unit is 75% lighter than other motorized rigging, and considerably lighter when compared to counterweight systems. Each system replaces one counterweight lineset, and contains a small computer. All of the Vortek units are coordinated and controlled from a central command position. The Vortek Automation Center (VAC) uses touchscreens and menus to control the entire technical operation of the rigging system from a single station. The VAC can accurately move multiple scenery pieces at once. VAC includes a wireless remote operating station option, so that the production can be run from various places in the theatre.

Lightweight molded loftblocks have sideguards and safety gates that reduce the possibility of sheave intrusion. I-Batten is a lightweight aluminum batten that includes a quick trim system and a built-in curtain track for quick, easy hanging of drapes, travelers, and other soft goods. I-Batten has overload and underload safety protection.

“Fundamental to Vortek is the continuously applied mechanical brake,” says Hoffend. “If there is a major catastrophic event such that the entire gear box disintegrates, the drum will move less than a quarter inch and the load will lock up. The brake is connected to the drum, so…the drum would move only a quarter inch. That is done mechanically; there is no electrical assistance to that brake.”

Much thought has gone into safety and how the overall system operates. “We have the ability to not only weigh and feedback load information to the front end on individual pipes, but we can tell you the entire load weight on the structure of the building; the front end can read that,” comments Hoffend. “In the event where they overloaded structure — we have seen industry catastrophes — and the structure peeled away; if that were a Vortek system and you simply programmed in ‘when I hit a certain load, we can't move.’ The Vortek would monitor that and would let you know you violated a safety issue and give you a red flag. The Vortek addresses safety on those issues aside from the fact that it all reports back to the front end.”

Vortek is designed to allow users to essentially clip it on and plug it in and be ready to go. Installation time is greatly reduced compared to a traditional rigging system. When people look at the cost savings of eliminating all the extra structure and overhead needed for a counterweight system, not to mention the labor savings, the Vortek system comes in at or below what a traditional system would have cost. With the added safety benefits over a counterweight system, the Vortek system looks like the smart choice in many applications.

With all of the safety features and benefits, Vortek is ideal for school applications, but its benefits apply to any theatre, studio, or performance space. The system is really ideal in retrofits and renovations where a traditional system may be impractical.

How It Came To Be:

Vortek is the product of years of focus on how to create an off-the-shelf rigging system coupled with the years of experience that Hoffend and Sons have in the rigging business. Hoffend has been involved in theatrical rigging since the 1920s and, in the boom years after WWII, installed thousands of counterweight rigging systems across the country. In the 1980s, Hoffend designed the MicroCommander, the first computerized control system for motorized stage rigging. Don Hoffend Jr., a third generation family member, designed and patented the first lineshaft system. During the past two decades, Hoffend is responsible for many large-scale rigging systems for theatres, concert halls, opera houses, and arenas. All of this knowledge would come to fruition in the Vortek system.

“Our original conversations at the beginning were that we need to create a mass-producible rigging hoist module,” says Hoffend. “We did all these big performing arts centers but we were always reinvesting all the dollars into the technology that was building these big venues into Vortek. We were going at it, building and testing, until we applied for all the patents for Vortek in July 2000. We put the first beta sites on the street in 2001, and then beta tested it for three years in a couple of select venues. So we knew where we were going in 1993, but we just didn't know what it would look like until we got there. We launched it at LDI in 2003, but we told everyone they couldn't get it until January 2004 when we rolled it out. By June 2004 we had built our first production assembly line.”

What's Next:

Hoffend has implemented several expansions to the Vortek product to make it more user-friendly, especially for installers. “We have just released the Vortek LT line, which is Vortek that incorporates all the electrical down to the batten,” says Hoffend. “We provide the circuit strips on the batten. The nice feature is all that electrical now comes as a complete system. So now cable management is embraced by Vortek LT; we now have all the flat cable running down to the batten and we sell you a complete system solution, so the only thing you have to do is put it up like another Vortek.” There are three models of the LT: Front of House; House Light; and TV Studio.

Another area for growth that Hoffend is exploring is with OEM relationships with allied manufacturers. With the flexibility of its VAC, Hoffend can easily include controls for other stage machinery. “We are now incorporating other major OEM manufacturers with Vortek; we have strategic partners,” says Hoffend. “We have done this with one of the major curtain track manufacturers; we are doing this with one of the major lift manufacturers; and we are going to be doing this with some of the major shell manufacturers.”

Hoffend sees an unlimited potential with Vortek and they have a lot of R&D work in process to continually expand the product line. As for future growth, Hoffend sees much possibility with OEM relationships. “Vortek is going to continue strengthening with our partnerships and we are going to continue to develop our product,” explains Hoffend. “We've got stuff in R&D that is really going to take things to new heights. Vortek has demonstrated that we are a technology company for rigging that has made its mark. I think that mark is going to expand in quantum steps as we go forward from here.”

What End Users Say:

Darrell Ziegler, theatre technical specialist with the architectural firm Westlake Reed Leskosky in Phoenix, has used Vortek on two projects to date, a new high school and a retrofit of a 1920s theatre. The Saenger Theatre in Mobile, AL, was converted from a hemp house to motorized rigging. “To do the Vortek installation at the Saenger, all we had to do was add two pieces of roof steel and install Vortek,” says Ziegler. “The Vortek installation process saved three to four weeks of time over installing counterweights.”

The other installation was for the Westlake Performing Arts Center, in Westlake, OH. “In Westlake they were impressed with the safety factor,” says Ziegler. “They liked the idea of high school students not using counterweights.” Ziegler feels that Hoffend is responsive to his needs, especially when he requested an addition to the Vortek Wireless Remote Controller. “I have been very pleased with them. I especially like that they now have the wireless e-stop, especially for cues that need you to walk the wing to see an actor leave before the cue moves.”

At the Long Hollow Baptist Church, in Hendersonville, TN, stage director Duane Hayward is impressed with Vortek's ease of operation. “I had never run an electronic system before and in the space of two hours I could run it in the dark.” Long Hollow Church has six Vortek units, and they are used quite a lot during every service, especially between songs. “For different sermons or songs we run the scrim or the cyc in or out,” comments Hayward. Hayward has crews of 15-20 volunteers running their services, so ease of use is paramount. “The best thing about it is I can set up a show and I can teach someone in about ten minutes how to run it.”

At East Bloomfield High School in upstate New York, 17 Vorteks were installed in the theatre in January 2003. “The Vortek installed in our Performing Arts Center adds a new exciting feature to our education process,” comments Fred Wille, the superintendent for East Bloomfield Central Schools. “We are exceptionally pleased with the deliberate and careful planning Hoffend exercised when installing the computer controls. Vortek safety features and economies combined with access by the students with handicapped conditions allow a truly unique experience.”