7 Strategies for Ensuring Smooth Electronic Systems Integration

If you're thinking about installing a new electronic system (or upgrading an existing one), follow the advice given to students: do your homework. Of course, with so much information available, this task can prove daunting, even challenging for the most technologically minded. But if you follow these eight strategies, you'll be well on your way to ensuring your system is "a go" rather than a costly blunder.

1. Ask yourself the most important question first: who'll be using the space? The system needs to be user-friendly for everyone who encounters it, from the person who has much high-tech experience to someone who has none. Also, consider how people might use the space in the future. A quality system will have "head room," and will address the fact that technology changes quickly. For example, a big trend right now is wireless technology. While you may not be ready to go that route yet, it makes sense to consider it now so when you upgrade your system, you can do so in the most cost-effective and efficient manner.

2. Assign a coordinator who'll see the project through from start to finish. This coordinator is someone who already exists within your school system. Whether it's the facilities manager or Director of IT, this person becomes an advocate for your school. He or she will be the point person for everyone involved in the project-from architects, to lighting companies, to electronic systems integrators, to everyone on the school-side. His or her job involves conveying the school's needs and requests to the vendors involved. Having one point person to ask questions of-and answer to-makes everyone's lives easier.

The project coordinator should review the budget, set the system requirements, accept final systems design and, at the end, carefully review all invoices while doing a walk-through of the project to make sure everything that was supposed to have happened did. By being involved in the project from the beginning, the coordinator confirms that the school gets what it wanted, needed and absolutely what it paid for.

3. Create a wish list. The best way to consider the future is getting everyone together who'll be using the space and asking them what their wish lists are for the room. Do they need video? A podium with a light? Speakers for voice and singing? One mic or ten mics? They should think about everything they must be able to do, and they should think about everything they dream of being able to do. Think outside the box-what are some future uses for the room? An example that illustrates this point is the modern "cafetorium"-rooms that are used as cafeterias for students during the day and as auditoriums for assemblies, nighttime and weekends events. The most effective cafetoriums are ones that were slated to be multipurpose rooms from the very beginning, as opposed to those that were retrofitted after the fact with different features or functions added here and there.

Once you have everyone's wish list, the project coordinator will compile it into one readable, workable document. Divide the list into tiers: the must-have items, the would-like-to-have-now items, the future items, and the dream items. You might be surprised to learn that some of those future or dream items might be more affordable than you think...especially if you plan for them now. Those high-quality mics you want may only work with certain equipment. If you get incompatible equipment now, you'll have to spend even more when you decide to upgrade the mics later.

This sort of equipment flexibility might cost more up front, but it will ultimately save you time and money in the end. First, you won't have to spend more money for new equipment or upgrading existing equipment. Second, you won't have to devote hours to researching what you need and having someone install it (and making sure it's integrated with the existing systems). Do it right the first time. Even if you don't see an immediate need for a particular piece of equipment, consider how much more it will cost to get it now...and what that could mean for savings down the road.

4. Interview electronic systems integrators. After you make your wish list (and get it into a readable, workable document), interview at least three electronic systems integrators. Keep in mind a systems integrator deals with convergence. Think of all the different things that can go on in one room, such as a classroom or auditorium. You have video, sound, heat, blinds, lights, etc. A systems integrator makes sure all these different systems coordinate-or converge-with one another and work properly together.

For example, picture yourself in a modern classroom with a presentation system. A teacher may be required to lower a projection screen, close the blinds and turn off the lights before even beginning the video presentation. With proper integration, the teacher could accomplish all of these tasks with the push of one button on a control panel. In other words, all electronic systems would be integrated, which increases their functionality while making them easier to use.

A quality systems integrator company will take your wish list and help you turn it into a workable project. The systems integrator will assist you in developing a budget, drafting the design, buying equipment, communicating with other vendors and, finally, installing and testing your system.

How can you find a quality systems integrator? Here are some things to keep in mind:

• See if the company is a member of the National Systems Contractors Association (NSCA) (www.nsca.org) and/or InfoComm International (www.infocomm.org).
• Make sure the company provides experienced technical support.
• Make sure it offers a warranty on the services provided.
• Make sure it's reliable and that it's been doing custom design and installs for a while.
• Check the quality of those on staff, such as the engineers and technicians.

• Ask about licensing, certification and education.

Make sure you check at least three references, and make sure the references are from projects comparable to yours. For example, you may get glowing reports, but if the references are from a condo complex or a corporate office, how do you know the systems integrator will understand your school's needs? You want to work with a company that has experience doing systems integration for schools, mainly because ease-of-use (think teachers, students and staff) and safety are key areas of concern...more so than the boardroom of a large company.

5. Don't jump at the lowest bid. The lowest bid is not always the best bid. Get at least three bids, and then have your coordinator closely review them. The key is making sure the bids are apples to apples and not apples to oranges-it should be quoting on the same specs and comparable equipment. If you get three bids that are quite different from one another, something's wrong. Revisit your RFP (request for proposal) and make sure it's clear. Get another couple of bids to compare.

When bids come in low, it's often because the company is suggesting cheaper equipment. While affordable equipment doesn't always mean poor quality, do keep in mind that quality equipment is critical to the success of your system. If the bid offers cheaper equipment, ask where the equipment is coming from. You may end up replacing it or fixing it more, and it's possible that the warranties won't be as good. You want equipment from manufacturers that have solid warranties. This shows they stand by their products, which means you're less likely to have any problems with it. And if you do, you have the warranty as insurance.

6. Avoid buying equipment over the Internet. Remember, the Internet doesn't have any regulatory bodies or oversight. You might find equipment that looks like a quality product. But just imagine what would happen if the equipment breaks down, you try to get it fixed and then you discover it was a knock-off. Take, for example, a man who bought Shure microphones on the Internet. When one needed maintenance, he tried to get it fixed, but it turned out that it wasn't a Shure microphone after all.

7. Consider the disruption a build-out and installation will have on your school. When possible, try to coordinate projects around summer breaks and vacations. But if this isn't feasible, make sure you work with a systems integrator that's willing to work a flexible schedule, such as weekends and after-hours. No system is worth a major upheaval to the school day.

And as a bonus for reading this far:

8. Leave the design and installation to the professionals. It's tempting to have someone from your school with technical knowledge install your system. But keep in mind the following points:
• A systems integrator does this every day-it has a better sense of what goes on, how to troubleshoot for problems and how to handle surprises.
• If the school does the installation itself, it won't have a full systems warranty. So if something goes haywire, the school won't have any recourse.
• Systems integrators understand how to integrate and implement everything-from the order certain equipment must be installed to issues with complex wiring.

Getting a new electronic system does require work up front, but it will be well worth the effort when it ultimately saves you money, time and headaches.