Pro AV Logo Originally published as a Consultant's Connection
column in Pro AV Magazine
  September 2003

Updating Aging Mega Projects

In the ’90s, AV projects regularly reached the million-dollar range. Today, those mega projects are in need of upgrades.

By Tim Cape, CTS-D

I recently had the opportunity to revisit one of my older, large-scale projects. The owner wanted to analyze the last five years of their operation, find out what changes or improvements might need to be made, and plot out an implementation plan to update and upgrade their system, which originally cost $3.5 million.

The project is a training facility with more than 25 classrooms with distance education capabilities. Over the last five years, only a few minor upgrades had been made to a couple of rooms. What I found was what one would expect — projectors were showing signs of age, and the composite-oriented sources of 1997 were looking less grand compared to the high-resolution document cameras, slide-to-video converters, and VGA-capable codecs of today.

The audio side of this particular project was in pretty good shape because we had used DSP audio components for mixing, processing, and echo cancellation. Those components were holding up well, so any reconfiguration would be a programming exercise and not so much a hardware problem.

The biggest challenge was the control system. We knew then that it was all about control — just as it is now — and this universal truth was reinforced by the review of this system. Control technology has taken giant leaps in recent years in terms of integration with the computer and the network. This is accommodated nicely by the proliferation of Ethernet ports on pro AV equipment. But the really important advances for large pro AV installations have been in the areas of diagnostic monitoring, help desk functionality, and centralized scheduling and control capabilities. The control system manufacturers, as well as some of the audio and video (especially projector) manufacturers, are finally starting to get it, and they’re responding to the needs of AV managers who have large buildings or campuses that require useable centralized software and network tools.

A revelation in revisiting this facility and developing a facility-wide update and upgrade plan was the realization that a significant investment in AV doesn’t preclude the need for another major outlay when the systems start getting old and in the way of doing business. In a multi-room environment with a central master control, there’s a domino effect that makes incremental changes less practical or cost effective. Upgrading the projector means updating the control system code. Taking advantage of networked monitoring, diagnostics, and control means updating both equipment hardware and code all over the facility. And taking down part of a master control/help desk operation for short periods of time may cause more problems, downtime, and revenue loss than a single major renovation break.

For the project I revisited, the budget for the next round will be between 30 and 50 percent of the original budget after five years of use. That’s a budget number that probably hasn’t been planned for by most big system owners. And it may not be on the radar yet for consultants and integrators either. But because of a market shift in the 1990s, it’s a potentially lucrative emerging market.

The booming ’90s

During the last decade, we saw enormous growth in the pro AV industry. The size of many system contracts rose from hundreds of thousands of dollars into the millions. For most of our clients, these multimillion-dollar projects were a quantum leap beyond what they had experienced before. As such, they were often viewed as a one-shot opportunity to expand an operation or upgrade from a long-neglected and over-utilized facility into a new customized building with all the bells and whistles — including a big, shiny new AV system.

This was a dream come true for many organizations — but then they awoke. Though many of our clients were ecstatic about their new facility, and their clients were duly impressed by the grandeur of the new gadgets, behind the scenes there was a struggle.

The first issue was how to run this big, new system. Most mega project clients went from operating a $300,000 AV installation to one with $3 million worth of equipment. Many weren’t prepared for the staffing and operations budgets they had to maintain once the capital budget was spent. Their former systems were often organically homegrown over a number of years with little or no documentation, and thus very dependent on the one guy who knew how to run the show. But that approach doesn’t work for mega projects.

While lots of money was made available for the capital improvement of a new building, the operating budgets were a separate pot of money that wasn’t always enhanced. Having 40 projectors with expensive lamps to replace was a missing line item on many operating budgets. Having 40 rooms to operate and maintain was a new challenge overlooked in many staffing requests. Not having the tools we have today to manage this kind of facility from a central location made the task even more of a burden.

Eventually, the new owners managed to meet the challenges and learned a lot in the process. It took a while, but the new system got up and running and the operators learned how to handle it, and life was beautiful, or at least workable. While this was happening, technology marched on and new products came to market. But having just gone through a multi-year upgrade to get a new multimillion-dollar system, it was hard for many to think about more spending. And it was even harder for the administrators who had just raised and spent the money to understand why they would need to spend more. So they didn’t spend.

The result is that today there are lots of these large, aging systems from the ‘90s in place. These systems, combined with compelling new technology and evolving end-user demands, will create an emerging market for system updates, many of which will be large new projects themselves, not just a series of small incremental changes. The lesson here is that we should be planning for and educating our clients about how to cope with going from mini to mega AV systems over the long haul. In these tough economic times, this ongoing business is welcome relief.



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