Being There-without Going Anywhere

Gary S. Vasilash

New technologies are not only facilitating meetings with far-flung participants, but actually make it possible for service calls to be made on the other side of the globe without requiring the services of Northwest, Hertz and Holiday Inn.

Sun Tel Services Inc. (Rochester Hills, MI) is dedicated to providing companies with the ways and means to communicate in a more efficient manner. Which nowadays, explains Hubbs Grimm, the firm's vp of Marketing, is becoming particularly tricky—and demanding—due, primarily to four trends. Specifically:

1. Geography. People are more wide spread than ever before. Going global may be the thing to do, but it surely makes it difficult to arrange to get people together in the same room in a timely manner.

2. Flat organizations. Given the fact that the hierarchy is less dictatorial than it once was, there are now more meetings being held...which brings up that issue of getting people together to participate in them.

3. Partnering. Not only is this in-ter-firm partnering, but also intra-firm partnering. Guess what? More meetings.

4. Paper giving way to electronics. This feature may be more advantageous from the standpoint of getting everyone on the same page—but it is also a matter of making sure that everyone can actually see the same page.

As Grimm puts it in a rather succinct way, "The ability to have meetings and to get things done has gone goofy."

So one of the things that Sun Tel does is orchestrate meetings with people, such as with the MeetingPlace conference server from Latitude Communications (Santa Clara, CA), a system that not only allows the scheduling of conference calls, but also helps notify the invitees that the call is going to happen. Unlike the conventional calls that include a human operator who, in effect, makes all of the connections and creates the temporary network of connected phone lines, the MeetingPlace is a microprocessor based system.

What's more, it works in conjunction with data networks, thereby allowing the transfer of information from PC to PC among the conference participants. In fact, more than a mere conference call, Grimm describes this as a "data conference."

Sun Tel offers MeetingPlace both as a product to companies that are inclined to have lots of conferences or as a service that smaller companies can utilize on an as-needed basis.

Other Technologies

There are plenty of other interesting technologies in that Sun Tel represents, such as the Rear Projection smart Board from Smart Technologies (Calgary, Alberta, Canada), which appears to be a typical conference room white board, except that this white board displays screens right from a PC and—here's the kicker—it (1) allows the presenter to use markers to highlight particular areas on the display, markups that will be captured in a file and later printed and (2) permits the presenter to operate the computer via the smart Board display with a finger rather than a mouse.

But what's one of the more interesting technologies that will help facilitate not only meetings, but actually such things as training and rapid machine repair, hails from a company named Hartness Technologies (Greenville, SC). It is a company that was formed as a result of fulfilling a need that had been identified by managers and engineers at its parent company, Hartness International. Hartness International makes high-speed case packing machines, such as those that are used in bottling plants. As Brian McPheely of Hartness Technologies explains it, the issue was one of maintaining equipment in the most efficient manner.

One thing to know about bottling plants: they operate at tremendously high rates. So if a packing machine goes down, there are a whole lot of bottles that are piling up, and bottles don't pile particularly well. So the people at Hartness International figured that if there would be a means to permit their service technicians to get a good look at a machine that had gone down before having to hop on a plane to some Coca-Cola or Anheuser-Busch plant, they might be able to solve some problems without leaving Greenville.

So they talked with people at PictureTel Corp. (Andover, MA), the leading supplier of equipment for conference room video conferencing. Hartness was interested in that sort of thing, but instead of conference room to conference room, they wanted video feed from the factory floor. Nice idea, they were told, but no such capability.

The VRS—Easy as a VCR.

Instead of moving on to another approach, they set about to develop what is now known as a Video Response System (VRS). This has applicability far beyond bottling. Automotive, where the cost of downtime is, to state the obvious, high, is a natural.

From a technical standpoint, the VRS is first rate in that it bands three ISDN lines together and consequently operates with a bandwidth of 384 kilobits per second. Video signals are broadcast at 30 frames per second. Both of which mean from a functional standpoint that (1) the image is "live" to the extent that what's seen on the screen is smooth and when talking with someone on the other end there isn't an annoying lag; (2) the image is so clear that you can actually read the serial number on a wire (thanks to the 30x zoom on the camera). For all of its technical sophistication, McPheely puts it in perspective: "If you can take home videos, you can use this system."

The obvious part is the camera that's mounted on a wheeled tripod so that it can be readily moved through the workplace. The user wears a headset that allows him or her to communicate with the technician or whomever is on the other end of the system. There is a wireless transmitter for the video and a transceiver for the full-duplex audio. The less visible part of the system is a series of antennae that can be setup so that up to 100,000 sq. ft. of space can be covered by the system. In other words, if a machine in the far corner of the plant goes down, the camera can be wheeled over and it will work.

Service technicians, even thousands of miles away (in the event that ISDN lines aren't available, T-1 lines or even a satellite can be used), can quickly see what's happening and make the appropriate recommendations.

During a recent test of the equipment, a machinery manufacturer in New Jersey was able to troubleshoot a machine using the VRS system. The fix was complete in 35 minutes. The machine in question was in Switzerland.