Fail to plan, plan to fail

Whether you love it or hate it, project design and documentation is essential to any project. Without it, you’re setting up to fail. Amy Wallington looks into some of the tools making this process simple for integrators.

It’s that age-old phrase again: “If you fail to plan, you’re planning to fail.” But it’s completely true! Are you guilty of not spending enough time in the design and planning stages of a project, not being detailed enough, or skipping the process completely and ‘winging it’ on site? If this is you, it’s time to make a change.

Designing and documenting a project, no matter how small, large, or complex, is arguably the most critical stage of a project. Without it, how can you know what is being installed where and how it’s all connected? Furthermore, how can you ensure you and the various teams are all on the same page?

“Getting the design right from the start makes every part of the project that much easier as everything has been thought through beforehand and nothing is left to chance,” says Keith Jones, partner at designflow. “Although our industry is complex by nature, and bigger projects can be dauntingly complicated, the actual design process itself should always be the same for every project. The process should follow naturally progressive steps that flow along with the project’s process. By using this step by step approach, complexity can be minimised for each step.”

An example of a pictorial schematic from Stardraw Design 

Integrator, Xavier Wilcox, director at POWERPLANT home automation agrees that this process is crucial to provide everyone on the project, including third party contractors, with clear and unambiguous information for a straightforward installation. He adds: “Generally, the less complex the design, the more robust, reliable and future resistant the system will be. All documentation issues must be easy to understand, or you can run the risk of your design being misinterpreted, installed incorrectly, or worse.”

The time invested in the design and documentation process for each project varies depending on the size and the requirements of the client. Deciphering exactly what the client wants is essential to this process being successful. It’s normal for designs to change throughout the process but the main pillars of the design need to be decided before any on site work is done.

“If it’s a small to medium sized project, then most of the time you’re straight in front of the client/decision maker,” points out Davy Currie, ops director at Genesis Technologies. “For the bigger jobs you may have to deal with a gatekeeper, such as the architect, interior designer, consultant or the client representative, but the sooner you get in front of the actual client (and bill payer), the better. Regardless of project size or who the client is, that person has got to take the responsibility for what they want, and you should base your detailed design on that agreed/approved/signed off brief.”

Once the brief is clearly established, the detailed system design can begin. But what consists of a good design? “The investment of time, at least two pairs of qualified eyes and the more detail the better,” answers Currie. “Consultations with manufacturers for the different component parts is also a good idea. Assume nothing, it won’t always do what it says on the tin. A good design should include all the necessary information for the client to fully understand what they are getting, and the install team shouldn’t need to ask any questions. A good document control process will breed consistency and a clear document issue register should sit at the top of every design pack.”

“Generally the less complex the design, the more robust, reliable and future resistant the system will be.”

What tools are available to integrators? There are various programmes and software out there to help, two of which are Stardraw Design 7 and D-Tools. Both are designed in such a way to make the design and documentation straightforward and painless. The two platforms have proven to be very popular within the residential integration market.

Josh Carlson, senior marketing communications manager at D-Tools states: “The need to ensure that engineering drawings accurately represent what was actually sold has driven many AV system integration companies to look for an integrated solution for project documentation.

“D-Tools System Integrator software directly integrates with industry-standard drawing applications – Microsoft Visio and AutoCAD – to enable data-driven engineering drawings through a simple drag and drop interface. Drawings are synchronised with the project BOM to ensure that all documentation is accurate and up-to-date, improving communication with clients, project teams, and other trades.”

Image: designflow

With a library of over 120,000 symbols from 1030 manufacturers, Stardraw Design 7.3 also allows integrators to drag and drop equipment into the drawing without hassle to result in a clear, precise drawing. The programme is capable of producing five types of drawings: block schematics, rack layouts, pictorial schematics, floor plans, and custom panel layouts. These different drawings do different jobs and give everyone on the team an understanding of what is being installed.

“The schematics shows the interconnection,” says Rob Robinson, CEO of Ltd. “The pictorial schematic just shows that this device connects to that. You don’t need to know the specific cables and physical connections. A block schematic however shows that this device connects to that in this exact way. The wiring team on site will have a big version of this printed so they can use it to pull cables correctly.”

It’s important to note that these designs and drawings will not just be used for the AV integrators on site, but every profession working on the project will most likely have some sort of involvement. “It’s critical in this industry that we can interface with architects, consultants, and others on the job,” he continues. “Many of those involved do this using AutoCAD or something that will generate a DWG file. Stardraw can import those files, and more importantly, not only does it respect all the objects, but it can be edited too, giving the user control of it. It gives you the ability to manipulate DWG files without having to purchase or learn AutoCAD.”

Outsourcing the design process to a specialist is also an option. Designflow can get involved at any stage of the project from the initial designs and specification right the way through to producing drawings and anywhere in between. Jones says: “We only work with integrators; our company exists to help them save time and deliver better projects. Typically, we take the initial information in from an integrator and then come up with a design, specification, and client proposal. Once this is approved, we complete all the detailed design and documentation required to deliver that project on and off site.

“If we are not involved in the initial design, specification and proposal process then we take in the specification from the integrator and complete the detailed design and drawing element.”

These programmes also make it easy to convert drawings into a spreadsheet, listing the cables and their connections giving workers something to refer to while on site.

Not using a design tool can waste a lot of time and money and can lead to issues during the build. Wilcox thinks it’s beneficial to look at previous projects when designing a new one: “As a company, we spend a fair amount of time and resources analysing previous installations to work out what works well and not so well,” he adds. “We always endeavour to install equipment and systems that we know will perform as we expect at the time of installation and in the future.

“A straightforward system design could take us one to two days to complete, a large project may require many weeks of design and ongoing documentation updates throughout the project to completion.”

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