Recently, NEP’s Creative Technology (CT) team in the UK launched a new dedicated Systems Integration business, bringing on industry veterans Graeme Bunyan and Jack Strong to lead the charge. Though new to CT’s operations in the UK, NEP and CT have been providing systems integration services for decades in just about every industry in broadcast, venue, and corporate settings around the globe. With experts around the world on both sides of the aisle – providing both permanent and temporary facilities solutions – we sat down with some members of our team to see what lessons they have learned from one another.
Meet Our Panel
Graham Lowen – Director, CT Ireland
Sid Lobb – Head of Vision & Integrated Networks, CT UK
Graeme Bunyan – Head of Integration, CT UK
Jack Strong – Business Development Systems Integration, CT UK
Andrew Nu – Business Development Systems Integration, CT Middle East
Scott Nardelli – Senior Vice President, NEP US Broadcast Services – Integrated Solutions
John Mills – Director of Business Development, NEP US Broadcast Services – Integrated Solutions
Knight: I think to start, it is important to talk about the significant differences between supporting a client with a permanently installed solution (systems integration) versus creating a temporary solution for the live event market. What do you see as being the most fundamental differences between the two?
Lowen: I think it all really starts with the approach and the process. I see them both as operating at different speeds. By their very nature, event-based or temporary solutions require a much more “just-in-time” approach. Typically, you have limited time and you need to move quick and get it done. The event is happening, and you have to be ready to go, period.
Alternatively, a typical systems integration project has a slower pace. There are specific timelines, longer lead times, more pre-planning, more deliberation.
SI projects also typically have more structure set up around them – structure that you don’t typically have with a temporary project. This does tend to mean that there is a bit more flexibility with a temporary project.
Nu: Absolutely agree, Graham. The clients’ approaches are different, aren't they? Live events clients often want or need you to work at maximum speed and maximum flexibility. They need you to move fast and they expect that a little bit of invention might need to take place along the way. Whereas for clients in the SI world, it’s quite preferred you take your time, engage in lots of planning and documentation. It’s a more diligent process with, typically, much longer lead times.
Bunyan: Yes, I mean, change happens absolutely on both sides, but how that's handled on both sides is slightly different – because the implications are different. On the SI side, we are provisioning extremely specific equipment, based on very specific requirements, and the clients, ultimately, are buying it. It is their equipment at the end of the day. Once it is purchased, it is done, and change can be exceedingly difficult at that point.
Whereas on the event side, the client doesn’t walk away with the solution after the show. You are working from a large inventory of equipment and if the decision is made to change technology, if it’s not too late, change is an easier process.
This is part of the reason that the process must be more deliberate, and there needs to be much more pre-planning on the SI side. It is a significant commitment.
Nardelli: Oh, absolutely. SI requires more pre-planning – but also, at the end, a ton of detailed documentation. This solution isn’t going anywhere. It will have to be operated and serviced for potentially years to come. You need very clear documentation that shows exactly where every wire goes, what every element does. It is a critical component and a significant difference between the two. Understanding this, and being able to provide this documentation, is critical to systems integration.
Lobb: Alternatively, on the event side, there is less structure and process – which has its own challenges. But it does mean that we, generally, have more flexibility on the technology and equipment. Ultimately, we are buying equipment for our own inventory, so we can over-spec everything if we want. We can bring a £2,000 solution to a £500 job, and that gives us a lot of flexibility in the end – and much broader tolerances for change and last-minute changes.
Lowen: Following on from that, if you are a systems integrator that also has a rental company in-house like CT, you will have this big inventory for your rental business. This has been such a benefit to us because we are able to demonstrate theories in-person to our clients. For instance, if we have a client who is looking for a solution with edge blending, we can show them first-hand the difference is between a 20K and 30K lasers. No matter what it is, we can say to our clients, “Come on up to the warehouse and we will show you.” If you don’t have that, you are going to have to rely on a 3rd party manufacturer or incur the cost to do a demo. This first-hand experience, seeing it in action, can be key to choosing technology.
Mills: Absolutely, Graham. We also find that, because we have an inventory of equipment at our disposal, we can lend gear to one of our SI clients if something needs to be repaired or if they need to augment their solution for an event. Being able to do this all in-house is big – we know their solution, so we know exactly what they need.
Strong: This is something Graeme and I were excited about when we joined CT. Access to this rental stock, for our engineers on both the systems integration and live events teams, allows us to craft bespoke solutions behind the scenes to test and try technologies in new applications and environments. It also allows us greater ability to bring in partners to collaborate on new, groundbreaking solutions. It is exciting.
Knight: This is a great point, and I think perhaps a great place to pivot to what these two can offer each other. What they can learn from one another.
Lobb: One thing I see as a trend in live events that can benefit systems integration is that increasingly our clients are coming to us to provide content services. Our expertise in workflows to achieve the best results, is complemented perfectly by ensuring the content is not only of the right format/resolution/bit depth, but also that it is designed to make the most of the end display. At the end of the day, we take ownership of the entire solution. We need to have an intimate understanding of everything. We don’t have the luxury of pointing to a different provider or a manufacturer, and frankly we don’t want to. We take pride in it.
Nardelli: We see this on the broadcast end of systems integration as well, Sid. On the broadcast end, often systems integrators are just experts in the wiring bit. They do the drawings and pull the cable, but they aren’t there to configure equipment or install it. They don’t know anything about that end. As part of NEP, we know it all inside and out. We have experts specializing in every portion of an end-to-end solution, so we take ownership of it all. We have teams engineering and operating every type of broadcast facility all over the world, so if we need an expert, we have one on-hand. This is definitely a way that the knowledge we gain from event-based deployment benefits permanent installation.
Bunyan: Absolutely. Often in systems integration, you will hear a contractor say, “That's a networking problem,” or “that's lighting’s issue,” or, “If you look at the contract, you'll find software is actually third party and we've given you the hardware. We've proven that Windows works on it, so anything else is your fault. Your problem to deal with.” And the client was just sitting there asking, “Where do I go from here?”
We want to take ownership, and with such a broad range of expertise in the company we can. When you become a one-stop-shop, having intimate knowledge of networks, content and other specialist elements becomes critical.
Lowen: Yeah, network and IT knowledge has become critical. And if you look at the background, the history of it, it’s the video guys driving it, the ones more equipped to deal with it, than, say, lighting. And, on the event side, we might be doing a job where there is no network, or frankly, they don’t want to let us on their network, so we create and manage our own. It has given us that knowledge and experience. Traditionally, on the SI side, you are dealing with the client’s network, so it doesn’t lend itself to gaining that knowledge and experience as readily.
Lobb: This is something our event-based experience lends to SI. We have deep networking expertise and knowledge across CT and NEP. And deep knowledge of 2110 standards.
Strong: This experience and knowledge of the whole ecosystem, software, workflows, and networking from the live event end contributes a lot to us in systems integration – it empowers us to take full ownership. For our new UK team, we also want to bring in a bit of the process from the live event teams, too. They work collaboratively, get things done efficiently, get things done to deadline no matter what, and are experts at thinking on their feet and problem solving quickly. When you marry this with our systems integration expertise, it really becomes something unique. It adds unprecedented value. For instance, if a client needs urgent support, our teams are in an outstanding position to provide it and help de-risk projects.
Meredith: Getting into technology is interesting here. Do you see any benefits of one or the other, SI or events, pushing technology forward?
Strong: Generally, not always, but generally in the world of systems integration, clients are reticent to look at new technology until it's been tried and tested environment. It has to last more than a month or so, like in the live events world. It needs to be robust. It needs to stay working for five to ten years. So, the technology has to be proven. They don’t want to take chances.
Lobb: I think from the live event side of things, we try to invest and move forward strategically – which is easier because we own the tech. This year, more than any other, has shown us that technology is changing rapidly and to deliver for our clients we have to keep up. I mean, there are things we are offering now as mature products that weren’t event thought of last February.
Bunyan: I think the live events market does drive designers forward. Within our fixed install markets, especially from the experiential side of it, you know they're looking at the big live events and saying, “How do we do that.” Interestingly, a lot of that has come from CT.
The challenge for us is making these grand and sometimes experimental solutions designed for a single event or limited run permanent. It has to start every day at nine and end at six, work the entire day. And often they want it to work with one push of a button. How do you re-create that solution, so it is stable long-term and doesn’t require a whole technical team to run?
I think the event side can learn from SI here, though. We provide a design. We integrate the design, and we maintain the design for years to come. So, six months, a year, five years down the road you suddenly find that two or three of the components are not quite as reliable as you hoped. That information from the aftercare feeds into the design process again, so you don't make the same mistake twice.
Lowen: Graeme is spot-on. What I have seen in my years working on both sides is, if you have teams dedicated to both live events and systems integration – teams that are truly experts in each – they really benefit one another and make the sum total better. It is a one plus one equals three situation. The perspective, approach, and knowledge that each bring to the table can create a great dynamic.