In the beginning…

Well, not The Beginning, but in the 1960s and 70s, before high-density dimming, standardized products, and microprocessor-driven lighting control, the theatrical lighting industry was a much different place. Lighting systems were, for all practical purposes, designed and built specifically for each project. Quality state-of-the-art systems were expensive and used in only a few well-funded projects.

In those days, any manufacturer's products were specified either by factory sales representatives or local agents. The latter played an especially key role; thanks to their relationships with the electrical engineers, agents packaged theatrical control systems along with other commercial lighting and control systems. This basic scenario has changed very little in the last 30 or 40 years.

In this model, the theatrical dealerships, with rare exceptions, did not actively participate in the manufacturer-agent-distributor-contractor chain. Systems were sold by distributors, and box goods were sold by theatrical dealers. Of course, systems had only a few control access points. Control connections to those access points were basically analog wiring, installed and terminated by the electrical contractor. Thus, project management, customer service, and field service could easily be handled directly from the factory. There was no added value from a theatrical dealership reselling systems

BUT THINGS HAVE CHANGED

In many ways, the modern era of lighting control began with two products from Strand: the Century CD80 dimmer and the Light Palette control console. The CD80 was more of a standardized product with central dimmer drive electronics that greatly reduced manufacturing cost and made dimmer-per-circuit systems financially practical. The Light Palette was a reliable, capable microprocessor-based board that set the standard for computer lighting consoles. At the same time, there was a vogue for technically sophisticated theatre spaces in high schools, colleges, and community centers. Suddenly, theater consultants' services were in demand, to design more complex systems, usually employing the products and services of multiple manufacturers.

Today, manufacturers continue to develop reliable, standard hardware products that exploit computers and software-driven setups, allowing one to create any imaginable layout with off-the-shelf products. Using technology that has been adapted from other industries with much larger consumer bases, lighting control companies have exponentially increased the capabilities available to customers — without passing along mind-boggling development costs.

There's a price to be paid for these advances, however; systems have become much more complex, requiring the services of many more trained professionals. Today, a system may have a multitude of interrelated control devices that must be set by the user to perform the various functions required by individual productions. These devices may be connected to as many as half dozen different signal types, each with a specific wire and routing requirement. Small lighting systems may have a dozen control access points for console connection, auxiliary equipment input or output, dimmer monitoring, and architectural control. (Large performing arts center-sized systems may have ten to 20 times as many as that). The stage technician armed with a only a multi-meter is hopelessly outgunned when it comes to troubleshooting; oscilloscopes, network certification tools, purpose-built test equipment, laptop computers, and constant training are among the arsenal of a modern-day field service technician. Manufacturers are called upon to provide more intensive service, support, and training than ever before.

COPING WITH CHANGE

In recent years, lighting manufacturers have added support personnel at factories and strategic satellite locations. This system works, despite the obvious negatives:

Just try using the telephone to troubleshoot equipment and operational difficulties on even a moderate-size production system, especially when equipment from multiple manufacturers is involved. Furthermore, remote factory support locations are typically dedicated to extremely large installations and aren't generally available to rank-and-file users. As the demand increases for this kind of support, manufacturers will face skyrocketing costs. Can they afford it? Or will the cost of lighting equipment increase exponentially?

One answer could be the systems integrator.

Beginning in the late 1980s, savvy owners of new, cutting-edge entertainment venues recognized the need for entertainment systems specialists, during the design, installation and post-installation phases. The credit goes to Steve Terry and the systems group at Production Arts Lighting for coining the term “systems integrator,” in the theatrical lighting industry. Systems integrator meaning someone who is integrally involved in a projects (as opposed to making a profit by selling box goods). The value of a systems integrator comes in the form of multiple manufacturer integration, onsite contractor supervision, design services, field service, training, and owner support after the project is complete. There are numerous examples of projects completed by systems integrators. The “O” showroom of the Las Vegas Bellagio hotel (systems integration by Production Arts) is a notable example of a very large systems integrator project, and the Spanish River Church performing arts theater in Florida (systems integration by Miami Stagecraft) is an example of a more modest project. They are wildly different in size and scope but importantly share the common trait of being successfully completed outside the traditional construction model.

Will systems integrators succeed working on smaller systems? Will be they become a necessary part of every installation? Are we seeing a new type of job become a standard part of the package? At the moment, systems integrators are still rarely involved in new construction projection projects. Why is this?

It seems many companies would prefer to work through their dealer networks. Mike Griffith, VP of Electronic Theatre Controls says, “ETC is committed to actively pursuing local dealer participation whenever market conditions make it possible. It's far and away our first choice.” Van Rommel, Strand Lighting's southeast regional manager, adds: “The corporate philosophy of Strand is to move the project management, service, and support out of the factory and closer to the projects. Our dealer network is the logical way to accomplish that.”

Then again, the dated sales model still in place doesn't allow for the cost associated with the systems integrator services and can make the cost of a systems integrator project seem prohibitively expensive by comparison. If a project doesn't clearly specify a systems integrator, a manufacturer who unilaterally makes a bid including one's participation will be at a disadvantage, and will likely lose to the lower-priced competition. Therefore, owners, theatre consultants, and other design professionals must decide if the benefits of the systems integrator warrant the additional cost, and, if so, to actively pursue that goal beginning early on in the design specification process.

When an owner or consultant decides that the value-added services of a systems integrator will be beneficial to the project, what's the best way to accomplish this? Currently, this topic is subject to debate.

The Construction Specification Institute publishes a master specification format adopted by most architects and engineers working in the US. It breaks the disciplines of a construction project into logical sections. Section 16000 contains all equipment and services related to electrical systems; it is entirely under the supervision of the project electrical engineer and traditionally includes theatrical dimming and control systems specifications. In other words, theatrical dimming and control systems are regarded with the same importance as panel boards, commodity lighting fixtures, and thousands of other necessary but mundane pieces of electrical equipment. Critics of Section 16000 specification argue that the dimming and control system should be at a higher priority than commonplace electrical equipment. One production manager, says, “We don't care what light switches, wire, or circuit breaker panels are used as long as they meet the functional needs of the building; however, we passionately care about the dimming and control systems”.

Nonetheless, there are many advocates of the section 16000 specification. Richard Hoyes, associate with FDA Consultants says, “FDA has used Section 16000 specification with success on many projects. We are always open to new ideas but it is not something we would change without clearly understanding the benefits to our clients.” A few other high-profile consultants agree that a Section 16000 specification is best, but add specific conditions that attempt to separate theatrical dimming and control systems and assign a higher priority to the procurement as well as allow systems integrators access to the project.

Section 11000 is defined by CSI as “Equipment,” which takes in a variety of specialty equipment required for different types of buildings. Typically, stage rigging, stage machinery, and curtains are found here. Theatrical dealers asked to participate in the design process have utilized section 11000 in cases where their primary concern was avoiding the section 16000 package, allowing them to bid projects directly to general contractors. A growing number of theatrical consultants advocate section 11000 for different reasons. They say it leads to stricter enforcement of the specification, prioritizing the theatrical systems, potential cost savings, and allows for systems integrator participation. Curtis Kasefang, principal with Public Assembly Consultants, says, “It is in the owner's best interest to keep theatrical systems acquisition closer to the top of the construction hierarchy.” Stephen Placido of TSG Design Solutions, adds, “In our experience, Section 11000 jobs with a knowledgeable systems integrator require less construction administration by all those involved.”'

CRUCIAL QUESTIONS

Going into a project, then, one is faced with many questions. Can the services of a systems integrator provide real benefits to the end users that offset the higher cost? Is it in the long-term interest of manufacturers to actively support the participation of systems integrators in new construction projects? Should the qualifications of a systems integrator be certified in some formal way?

Speculation on such matters is best left to saloon roundtables after the LDI show floor closes. Nevertheless, it is clear that leading manufacturers' remote factory- based support capabilities are strained. More and more complex field configurable equipment is making its way to the marketplace each day, creating a vast installation base to support. Sadly, many complex, expensive systems installed today are ultimately not utilized to their full potential because they are not clearly understood by the artisans using them. The time is long gone when any complex system could be commissioned and turned over to the owner with further support required only in the case of a dramatic hardware failure. Forward-thinking manufacturers will look for ways to more effectively deliver ongoing service and support to customers where they work. In turn, owners and consultants will want complex systems that can be supported in a way that allows the maximum benefit from the dollars spent. The good news for artisans is that the theatrical lighting control industry as a whole seems committed to making the technology available, understandable, and usable towards the ultimate goal, advancing the art of lighting. How that will happen may be coming into focus.

(Steve Welsh is vice president of Miami Stagecraft. Inc. You can reach him at stevew@miamistagecraft.com)