If your workplace is in the midst of a major technical overhaul and you're seeing new faces in the hall, odds are you're brushing past experts hired as system integrators. Slow down. You might want to double back and talk to one of them: They probably are working on changing the way you'll do your job in the future.
"System integration isn't about throwing technology into a building," says Jeff Muhleman, vice president, sales and contracts, for systems-integration company DST. "It's about building and designing a solution that will help the station be more profitable."
With today's TV facilities becoming an increasingly complex mix of information-technology, standard-definition and high-definition equipment, it's more important than ever to bring in experts to sort through the myriad options.
A move to the new digital technologies should be about more than simply adding digital videotape machines or video servers to work on procedures that are 45 years old. "Putting in new technology doesn't do anything," says Muhleman, "unless you get rid of the legacy thinking with respect to workflow."
These days, integrators do more than simply set up equipment racks and wire gear together. Says Tom Canavan, president of A.F. Associates (AFA), "The trend is a need for reliable technology consulting, workflow analysis and future planning. Stations need someone who knows the specifics of a technology and how to implement them."
It's from such knowledge, Canavan says, that customers will find real value in a firm like AFA. Integrators typically take best practices from past installations and apply them to new ones. The result is an evolution in development that consistently pushes forward the latest equipment, networking and design trends. "We may not know the exact solution," says Muhleman, "but we have an array to choose from so we can start digging into the design and workflow processes early on."
The importance of systems integrators has grown for other reasons beyond technical competency. In recent years, TV organizations have cut staff engineers and simply don't have the time to keep on top of all the technological trends. "It's more difficult for [management] to staff those positions and do projects themselves," says Canavan.
That lack of staff also makes integrators more important for a wider range of projects. Most organizations are no longer staffed to undertake even a single-room rebuild. "You want to make sure the integrator is involved with the space planning so the facility has the proper loads to power all the equipment and to meet any noise criteria," says Fred Beck, president of Beck Associates, an integrator with offices in Denver; Austin, Texas; and New Jersey. "You want us involved as early in the process as possible."
Doing otherwise will not only make the project more difficult (and costly) to complete but could also require tearing out recently constructed facilities. "Sometimes, we'll go in and say this won't work," Beck says, "and make them tear stuff out." A poorly placed junction box or air-conditioner unit, for example, simply can't be worked around.
"We've seen master-control rooms that were 45 feet long and 16 feet deep," Muhleman recalls. "That sort of thing is the result of not having someone experienced in integration watching over the project."
The planning process ideally begins with station senior management setting the ultimate goals for the facility. But involvement should start much lower on the station personnel food chain. "Operational people and anyone who will touch the content need to help develop the overall plan," says Canavan. "The goal shouldn't be limited to a reliable technical plant; it should also offer workflow efficiencies."
Muhleman concurs, adding that it's always important to include in the discussions the folks who press the buttons in master control. "They're on the front line," he says, "and that's where you'll find the nuances that could make a facility twice as efficient."
When Beck's team begins working on a project, the first thing it does is work up a generic equipment list from similarly sized projects. That helps with space planning and room layouts. Once the team and station settle on a layout, it's time to nail down the actual equipment best suited to the task. The equipment is ordered, construction begins, and then the new gear is dropped into the newly constructed facility.
If stations attempt to undertake facility design themselves, they may not be aware of the equipment options available. "We work with every manufacturer of equipment," says Canavan. That can make a big difference when a facility looks to bring together servers, automation systems, asset management and other gear. At their best, systems integrators are exactly what their name says they are. In a complicated field, they're good to have around.