The Systems Integrator
Companies performing a significant amount of systems integration usually refer to themselves as “system integrators” because that is their emphasis and expertise. It has been previously pointed out in this article that as technologies coalesce, systems become more complex and systems integration has become an entity that must be acknowledged and dealt with properly by any audiovisual systems company.
Qsonix Music Management System
As a process, those who have gained the proper insight for effective systems integration may be able to define it or even explain it, but they are good at it because they have developed the skill and acumen for it. If your company has such an individual, you have valuable asset. In commercial systems a highly skilled systems integrator is essential. In domestic installations, such as a home, the systems may not be as large or comprehensive and is generally less demanding from a performance perspective. However, they all have the same requirements and identical processes to install and integrate them. As long as you understand the concept of systems integration and testing, you can become as skilled as you need to be for whatever market you serve or type of systems to integrate.
Once testing of all installed wiring and equipment has been completed (as described in Parts 2 and 3), the focus now shifts to finalizing software programming and systems integration.
Procedures Of A Process
Now that all the preludes to systems integration have been presented, we now continue to define the actual procedures of integration. It is not possible to break systems integration down into a task list of step-by-step instructions as you do for equipment setup and testing procedures discussed previously. Systems integration is unique because it is more of a process than a series of checklists. Once you understand this concept, you will have a better understanding on how to approach it.
The finality of systems integration is to verify a system’s operational integrity and functionality as designed, installed and programmed. In the larger context, systems integration begins an entire process of final equipment setup, programming, functional checks, adjustments, calibration and finally system performance analysis (where applicable). Therefore, it is important to ensure that the equipment installed is operating properly as individual equipment and that any setup, configuration and local programming has been completed. These procedures were defined previously in this article as a prelude to systems integration, even though they are considered part of the entire process. As a result, integration is highly depended on a successful conclusion of the previous procedures.
Tip: Some equipment used in the system will have control interfaces that may require local settings. It is important for this is accomplished at the time of the original equipment setup procedures are performed by installers or the systems programmer prior to systems integration.
Once the system program is loaded into the on-site control system and the programming is complete, the methodical process of checking and debugging the software begins. As has been emphasized previously, when the programmer is ready to begin checking the system to see if his programming code is performing correctly, he has no alternative but to assume the equipment being controlled is functioning correctly has been properly installed and wired. Otherwise, if something does not function correctly in accordance with the control programming, he has to assume it is the code needs to be fixed and begins a debug process. If it is actually something else, such as dysfunctional equipment or incorrect wiring, he can waste a large amount of valuable time before he diagnoses it as a hardware issue and the programmer or someone else has to fix it before continuing.
Documentation is mentioned frequently in these articles because it is so essential to every phase of installations. It is also critical in diagnosis of system issues. Programming requires the knowledge of not only what equipment is being used in the system and how it is electrically connected, but how the system is expected to perform. This is usually a result of collaboration between the customer, sales and engineering in the process of turning operational requirements into design criteria and eventually a system design. Obviously, to program a system you need to have all the documentation of the system design, usually consisting of system drawings or block diagrams as well as installation/service manuals provided by the manufacture. Wiring lists are also critical to systems testing and effective debug of system programming and systems integration.
Tip: Many manufactures have very good comprehensive publications for installation, programming and troubleshooting techniques for their equipment available, free of charge in most instances. Also, most reputable manufactures offer excellent technical support representatives that can be consulted if you are having any kind of trouble with equipment you can’t seem to resolve. It is to their advantage for their equipment to be setup properly and operating at optimal performance.
It is also important that the documentation be accurate. The programmer and systems integrators need to have a set of revised drawings and wire lists that accurately reflect the system as installed. One of the worst time-wasters ever during systems integration is documentation that is incomplete or inaccurate.
Programming and the amount of code necessary vary considerably, depending on the design of the control system and system requirements. Most integrated systems today have some form of touch-panel that requires programming for control.
One of the first issues regarding system programming for a project is how much is developed prior to on-site integration. Ideally you would like to able to do all the system programming at your facility where the control system and equipment controlled by it is setup just as will be installed. The benefit from this arrangement can be significant because it lessens the time required to program on-site during integration and generally provides a better environment beneficial to software programming and debug.
Most programmers can do a significant amount of programming even with a minimal amount of equipment on-hand. The actual programming takes place on a PC using an editor/compiler, so it can start at most any time. However, there is not much that can be tested until the compiled code can be downloaded to the controller. Compilers can check for syntax and other errors in the code but it cannot tell if the “instructions” are the correct ones. Some facilities have equipment that can simulate what will be connected to the control system. For example, low wattage light bulbs can be mounted to a 2×4 piece of lumber to simulate loads for light dimming channels or other control functions such as contact closures (i.e. that turn devices on/off such as lights not on dimmers, fans or other motors controlling curtains or projector lifts, etc.). It usually does not take much provide the programmer with a simple test environment that can yield huge benefits. Devices with serial RS-232 control receivers, projectors, DVD players, etc., are not so easy to simulate and require the actual equipment.
Another device that is well suited for shop programming is the touch-panel. Most have on-board memory where you can download the program from the PC and test it. If the project calls for a touch-panel, this is a critical device to system operation that needs to be done correctly. Design and programming control panels require good collaboration with sales personnel and/or the client to insure correct functionality. At the job-site during integration is absolutely not the place or time for this task to be done, so give it the highest priority.
Tip: Touch-panel programming for sophisticated types such as Creston or AMX allow a large degree of control functionality and customization. These devices offer the most flexibility, but the screens and navigational aspects require a significant amount of expertise other than just coding. Some programmers are not skilled at this aspect. If your programmer does not have the appropriate expertise for touch-panel design, consider contracting this part to a one who does. Another possibility is to buy touch-screen templates that have the graphics and navigational issues designed well are easy to customize for each project. There is nothing worse than a good audiovisual system with a bad touch-panel design and programming, and nothing more frustrating to the users. It is an art to making a complex system easy to operate by users and not all programmers possess this skill. (The author has written an article called “Touch-panel Design Done Right” that discusses how to go about this task correctly and is available on request).
Software/Hardware As One
The best way to conceive successful systems integration is to view the hardware and software acting as one entity that gives a system its proper functionality. While checking and debugging software, correct hardware functionality is also confirmed in the process. In the end, having the hardware and software operate as an entity and perform the way the customer expects it to perform is the essence of systems integration.
Tip: The terminology of software debugging refers to dysfunction as a result of errors in the code that have traditionally been called as “bugs.” A software bug is usually a wrong instruction somewhere in the lines of code (hundreds or sometimes thousands of lines of code, even in a modest program). However, lines of software code have dependencies other lines of code that can also cause bugs. In other words, changing an instruction in one part of the code can affect code somewhere else. It is this dependency that causes software to sometimes be difficult to debug and usually requires the assistance of software tools, usually built-in software compilers and authoring programs, like the ability to monitor parameters while the code is executed. It is not possible for any programmer to predict every dependency within a program, thus there is usually always bugs to squash, thus the term “debug.”
Be cognizant of the contingency factor. Even though the equipment and system wiring may not have any dysfunction or mistakes and the programming is without any “bugs,” this does not mean that the system is functioning the way it should. Engineering may have made a mistake in the design or has misinterpreted a functional requirement from the customer or sales personnel. This is yet another reason documentation is important in any project. Documentation is the instructions issued by engineering on how a system is to be installed and programmed. If those instructions are wrong, the system will not function as the customer expects even though the programming code and hardware have no defects of their own.
Sometimes there are changes that have to be made by engineering or others for various reasons at various times during all project phases that may affect programming, so you need to expect some extra time for such occurrences that may take place just prior to or during the integration process.
It’s A Team Effort
Now that you have a better idea of the composition of systems integration, there is one more important element to a successful integration process: it is a team effort. As noted, system functionality for a project is determined by everyone in the chain; from customer, to sales, to engineering, to programmer, to installers and finally to system integrators. As a result, everyone has a part in successful systems integration and sometimes everyone needs to be involved in this process and everyone involved should be readily available at any time during the integration phase.
While conducting integration, one person on-site is not adequate. You must have at a minimum two people, generally consisting of the programmer or one who is skilled in programming and one who is skilled in hardware diagnostics and troubleshooting. It takes a team to observe system functionality and troubleshoot it. You need one person at one end and another at the other end to view the results and help conduct analysis and diagnostics to resolve issues as they arise. And you best have good communications equipment (emphasis on good) or it will be much more difficult and time consuming.
Tip: Have more than one copy of documentation. People at both ends need a copy. If you have more than two personnel performing systems integration, have copies for each person.
Your entire organization needs to be part of the team effort for every project. It is important that sales and engineering personnel contribute when needed to the integration effort and systems integrators should not hesitate to ask for their assistance. Likewise, it is important to have installation support available at the time of systems integration. Installers familiar with the installation should be on-hand since often times they are needed to gain information about the installation during integration and should be readily available to make changes or correct problems. Management in the company should be cognizant and sensitive to the need for team support and be in constant contact with system integrators during this critical process of the installation to provide the type of support needed at any time. Simply put, everything affects systems integration.
Formulating A Plan
Finally, to conduct affective and efficient systems integration: formulate a plan as part of the process. You need to make sure integrators have accurate, complete and appropriate documentation to formulate an effective one. Remember, systems integration is a process, so you are not going to develop a list of step-by-step instructions. Systems vary considerably in both the type of equipment used, how it is wired and what options are selected. Equipment and system programming allow for a high degree of customization for each project. The net result is thousands of variations, making and kind of a “checklist” a ludicrous idea; so don’t even think about it.
The plan should consist of a methodical process to check every system component and operational parameter based on the functional requirements. This means that in addition to documentation, you need to have a clear explanation on system functionality. Generally it is the responsibility of engineering to provide this to the programmer and integrators. Conducting successful systems integration is base on it, so it needs to be complete and accurate as well.
Formulate a good plan for integration; then execute the process with skill. Whether it is for a large stadium or a home theater, the process is the same. When the system is successfully integrated, you can turn the keys over to the proud owner and watch their gleam. Perfect the skill to become an expert systems integrator and you will be a crown jewel of to organization.
Next up is the conclusion of this series of articles: Part 5: Performance “Evaluation and Certification.” In some instances this is an optional phase, though many require it.
George Wilkinson is a 35-year veteran in project management, system design, programming, testing, problem resolution, calibration and systems analysis for computer controlled audiovisual systems. He is a graduate in Electrical Engineering Technology from the University of Texas. His firm, Advanced Technological Services serves the commercial and home automation industry and is a certified CEDIA designer. The author can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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