Originally published in the February 1998 issue of:

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When the New Wears Off

by Barry McKinnon

of Mc2Systems Design Group

...we don't often spend a lot of time discussing the period after the installation warranty expires in magazine articles.

Because of the time frame between design of a system and the installation of a system, it can be difficult to know how any particular product may perform in situ for extended periods of time before the opportunity arises to specify it again.

The systems that we are all in the process of integrating and converging all have a lifetime. Much like people (if I may be allowed to anthropomorphisize, a word I can write much easier than I can pronounce) systems are conceived, nursed through the pre-natal period with much care and attention, then launched into the world with a slap on the backside (that would be the commissioning process), and sent on its way. Again much like an apprentice human being (a child), the system obstetricians and pediatricians ( the consultant and/or contractors) are both involved during the birthing process.

There may be a wide variation of quality of lifetimes for our precious, and sometimes precocious system, but we don't often spend a lot of time discussing the period after the installation warranty expires in magazine articles. Even though the consultant and contractor will feel that they have gotten to know our fresh faced young system quite well during its formative period, it will have its own life experiences that will shape it, and its behaviour. The behaviour it exhibits after it sets out on its own still reflects on us as consultants and contractors (and manufacturers too). Perhaps we should investigate this admittedly stretched analogy to see what Dr. Spock would have to say about the expectations for our system.

Both the consultant and contractor stay in close contact with our young system through its pre-adolescence (0-12 months). Certainly any major problem that occurs in the first 12 months of the installation warranty period will result in a call to both the consultant and contractor, and the gathering around the sickbed of the young system, lavishing care and attention on it, and reassuring the concerned system owner that everything is under control and the system will be right as rain in no time. The first few weeks of a new system are always the most critical, but as an overall industry we have greatly reduced infant mortality in system components, which enhances the likelihood of the system seeing teen-hood (that 13th month, right after the installation warranty expires) with limited care and intervention.

The consultant and contractor normally focus on the first 12 months of system life, as we both are concerned with how the young system is fitting into to its new family setting, how it interacts with its sibling systems (that would be the system integration part), how well it is adapting to its new environment, and how its owners are getting along with it. Sometimes corrective measures need to be applied; the equivalent of glasses, braces, orthopaedic shoes, etc. to help the new system fit with the program. This is also where genetic problems with the system components may become apparent. Pieces of equipment that have minor defects or worse yet, systemic problems that are not correctable, both cause great concern amongst all the parties. There is nothing more frightening to all than finding that a system component is failing, where no intervention will help and the component must be transplanted. Specification sheets for products seldom have enough genetic information included to predict the long term health of a product, or to foresee sudden and deviant product behaviour. We have all experienced the pain and sorrow that this type of system failure causes, and the difficult process of returning a product to meet its maker (who sometimes will be in deep denial over the problems that have returned their prodigy to them). For these manufacturers one can only have hope that they will eventually be able to break through denial and deal with these traumatic events so that it is possible to specify their products again.

This is the period where problems in workmanship or in design generally manifest themselves, usually within the Terrible Twos, the first two months of system operation. In that time most of the system functions will have an opportunity to have been used, and any shortcomings will make themselves known through much screaming and crying, usually on the part of the owner, users and local experts. This can make it very difficult for the consultant or contractor to get any sleep during this time, and the look of pure exhaustion may be readily apparent on their faces. It is very important that both the consultant and contractor stay on top of these situations and keep the owner from becoming distraught.

The system will progress through its first 12 months, and the owner and system will get to know each other and hopefully the owner will come to respect the system for what it is and what it has become as it takes its first steps into life without the safety net of an installation warranty beneath it. The work and effort all of the support group around the system will determine how well it copes on its own. The care or abuse it has experienced through its first 12 months will also determine how well socialized it is, and how it interacts with people in its teenage months. At this point the consultant and contractor don't have any control over the type of people that the system hangs around with, what sort of experiences it will have, and this is a difficult time for all as the system's behaviour still reflects on the consultant, contractor and manufacturer.

Sometimes the owner will happily accept the system and welcome it into its role. Sometimes the unfulfilled expectations of the owner will manifest themselves at this time and much pressure will be put upon the system to change and become what the owner could not have, despite the technical or economic realities that may prevent that. This can be very difficult for the contractor or consultant to see happen, often watching helplessly from the sidelines. Sometimes the entire strength and value of the system will be subverted by the owner's desires, and wholesale changes will be made by an owner with little or no understanding of what the system was or could have been had it been treated well and had the owner taken the time to see what was in front of them. We're talking system self-esteem here. For the consultant and contractor who have to watch this, it can be heartbreaking, and is enough to make one want to remove the system from your project list as it is bullied or abused, or falls into a destructive pattern of experimentation with inappropriate and non-specification equalizers, loudspeakers, mixers and rewiring of its inputs. There is currently no law against system abuse.

OK, if I stretch this analogy anymore I'm afraid it will snap and come back and hit me, so lets talk directly about the issues I've analogized near to death. The system does have a life after the installation warranty expires, and maintenance of the system is a fact of life, nothing lasts forever and entropy always wins. The contractor of record will be the one most directly affected by long term maintenance issues, but the consultant needs to keep apprised of these issues as well. The major long term issues are equipment suitability and reliability, and the workmanship in the installations. If either the contractor or consultant stop paying attention to these issues, and what happens after the new wears off, it will be bad for both.

Because of the time frame between design of a system and the installation of a system, it can be difficult to know how any particular product may perform in situ for extended periods of time before the opportunity arises to specify it again. Often a product that appears to be eminently suitable for the application, at least from product demonstrations and specifications, will be selected for several projects within a short time frame. While it is understood by most consultants that the product demo will be done with a tweaked or hand-selected device, it is hard to predict how far from the production norm that demo device may be. Spec sheets don't really tell you much about the time-based performance, like how long will the product meet spec, and how far out of spec it may drift when it goes, or how difficult (and expensive) it is to return to spec as it ages. Often this is because the manufacturer will not have the info from the production devices, only accelerated life tests on pre-production prototypes (assuming they've done that in the rush to get to market)

There is another good reason for the consultant to stay aware of what happens to a project after the installation warranty expires, and that is to maintain a sense of how the contractors treat their clients in the long run.

Any shortcuts that the contractor may have taken during the installation process will come back to haunt them.

With the speed at which products are introduced it is difficult to see what the long term reliability of products may be before selecting them for a project, especially in the visual presentation side where equipment development tends to be revolutionary rather than evolutionary. For this reason, it pays for the consultant to keep in touch with contractors doing design/build projects using the latest hardware and get feedback on product quality from the field. In theory, the design/build contractors have a shorter time line between getting a project and completing a project, so any problems that are product related will become apparent to them much sooner. Where there are serious genetic defects in products, and they are adequately severe that they may render the equipment unusable in the long term, it is much better to find out through the contractor grapevine than wait until they appear on your project jobsite. It is unlikely that the manufacturer will volunteer this type of information. The consultant and the contractor both need to be aware of the long term maintenance costs of the systems they are handing to the owner.

There is another good reason for the consultant to stay aware of what happens to a project after the installation warranty expires, and that is to maintain a sense of how the contractors treat their clients in the long run. This is part of the long term relationship that the consultant is trying to build between the successful contractor and the owner. Not all matchmaking works of course, sometimes the personality conflicts will mean an inevitable split after the installation warranty period, but even how that split happens is still of interest to the consultant. No matter how big or small the system is, to the owner their system is very important. It is important that contractors treat every system and every owner like they are valuable to them. Some owners make that difficult to do, but that is where the business character of the contractor is important. When a consultant takes on a small client, they have to be treated as well as a big one, and that level of interest and concern needs to be reflected in the contractor's relationship to the client too. The contractors that recognize the value in building long term relationships with their clients are the ones that the consultants wants working on their projects.

Service of installations can either be a good revenue source or a nightmare, and its hard to predict how any service call will turn out till it's done. Unless the contractors have dedicated repair people, a service call means having to pull installation techies off of current projects and assign them to an existing or old project. We all know that service can be much more time consuming than installation (and some of that depends on the original workmanship, but I'll return to that later), so the service tasks are often grudgingly assigned, knowing that a new installation time line may be affected.

It is also much more fun to install systems than to troubleshoot and service them. It can be very satisfying to take new stuff out of boxes and assemble and install it in racks and hook it all up neatly and cleanly. It is the very reason IKEA[tm] is so popular. It can be much less enjoyable to be spending the third or fourth day trying to find some glitch or intermittent condition that just keeps the system from working properly, but not enough to keep it from working at all. It's like going to IKEA[tm] and finding that you're missing one fastener that is absolutely necessary to finish assembly of your piece of furniture. The BILLY[tm] may look mostly finished but it wouldn't support the weight of the books without that last fastener. You have to go all the way back to IKEA[tm] and pick up the one last item to complete that project, and that will be the least satisfying trip you will make to that store. So it is with completing systems, sometimes the last few steps to completion are the least satisfying but the most critical, and the ones that the consultant is looking for.

Workmanship is another factor in system longevity and survivability. Any shortcuts that the contractor may have taken during the installation process will come back to haunt them. Anything that was not thoroughly tested or documented can be a problem later. With any luck, this is where the contractors learn that the reason the specifications require thorough system testing and documentation as part of the installation process is to catch problems before the owner takes delivery of them, not just to reduce the profit margin. There can be few things more embarrassing or sweat-inducing for the contractor than to have the system fail during commissioning and be unable to trace or localize the fault because of bad rack wiring layout or labelling. This is, of course, the very reason that detailed and instrumented gain-staging and testing is called for, it is much easier to test, verify and troubleshoot a system when it is being installed rather than later in the process (like when the owner and consultant are standing there).

The long term lifespan of the system is primarily influenced by the equipment reliability and the installation workmanship. The contractor ends up living with the aftermath of both, but they generally only have direct influence over the workmanship. The contractor can do themselves and the consultant a favor by keeping the consultant informed about product reliability so that the contractor's responsibility is kept to the workmanship that they control. The consultant needs to pay attention to both equipment and workmanship issues to provide the maximum benefit to their client, which is where their primary responsibility rests.

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