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2011 Week 4 Recap

The past week was filled with a lot of work-in-process projects, but almost all of those projects are on-going.

Upcoming work with Show Distribution Hoists

This week we started looking at a possible job that requires some easily tour-able lifting motors. Our Pushstick winch isn’t the right choice for such a job, it’s a meaty piece of machinery, but somewhat large and heavy. More importantly, it’s not rated for overhead lifting so I began looking at other options. I’ve mentioned Show Distribution in the past when our Stagehand Mini was used to control their Tour Trolley. They also make a nice chain hoist, the Tour Lift, for lifting applications. It’s a neat machine with the inverter built into the motor housing making a very compact and clean package. After a couple of days of conversations, I think we’ve conjured up a good plan to get our control gear playing nicely with their hoist. Since our control signals are not instantly compatible, we’ll build a little black box of magic to translate between the two systems. Our SpikeMark software will provide an easy and versatile control interface to the hoist which should be a great match for this unnamed potential project.

Without getting too esoteric, the problematic points of integration were:

  • Speed signal: They use a 4-20ma signal for speed with separate inputs for direction. We use a bipolar +/-10vdc speed signal. For long-distance runs between controller and drive, there are some good reasons to use 4-20ma as the signal. Typically, we keep our controllers very close to our drives and the bipolar 10v signal has proven to be a little more versatile. In the past, when interfacing with pumps from Stage Machines, we’ve developed a little converter board to convert between a bipolar 10vdc signal to a unipolar signal with separate direction switches for valve control. Moving to a 4-20ma signal just requires an additional signal conditioner in that circuit.
  • Limit signals: They use a 24vdc signal to signal limits, and we require Normally Closed dry contacts so an additional relay will be needed to provide the dry contact closure.

SpikeMark Documentation

Last spring I hired a freelance technical writer to start updating our user manuals. The first manual to get updated is the SpikeMark manual. Catherine has been working part-time for months and this week we put final edits into the book. The new version of the manual weighs in at almost 200 pages and has lots of new details and diagrams. The manual also now documents ALL of the features in SpikeMark, including those features that used only be briefly mentioned in the release notes.

When I started the company, one of my goals was to create an automation system that came with a manual and a tech support phone number which may sound like modest goals, but for anyone that has struggled to use equipment that doesn’t have either a manual or a live person on the telephone you will recognize how important it is! So, I’m very excited to have a new version of the manual and really pleased with the great work that Catherine has done. The new manual should be available in PDF form on our site in the next week, so watch for an announcement. Of course, all new copies of SpikeMark will be sent out with the freshly printed version of this tome.

New Web Site

Work continues on the next version of the Creative Conners main site. While the current site has served us pretty well since it was revamped in 2008, it’s lacking some infrastructure to make it great. The current version is a collection of hand-coded HTML with some XML files for data storage. This is a great example of “build the simplest thing that could possibly work”, but makes some tasks a real chore. So at the beginning of the year we decided to start building out the next version of the site (v3). The Big Goals are:

  • Make it easier to add and edit products. We currently sell 104 products. There are only 14 listed on our site. Hmmm….
  • Create a good overview page where folks who are new to our products and new to automation can get some advice about how to put together an automation system. We have a lot of detail information available for our main components, but I think we really fail to show people how these components integrate together and how they can be used effectively to make stuff move on stage. For the T.D. that comes to our site and says, “I need to make a moving pallet.” I want to help him find the parts he needs and show him how to get started.
  • A better gallery with lots more movies and pictures of our gear in action. Our gear is pretty easy to use, which is great! However, because it’s so easy to use, we almost never travel on site to theatres to help install the equipment. As a result, we have very little footage of our gear in shows, even though well over 100 theatres use our system. We’re hoping to inspire folks to submit videos of their moving scenery with our $250 coupon, we’ll see how that goes…
  • Online ordering. Finally.
  • System configuration tools to help customers select the components they need and interactively try various “what if” scenarios to figure out how much gear they need and how much it will cost to buy vs rent.
  • Online rental reservation.
  • Customer reviews.

That’s a BIG list. Will it all happen. Yes. Will it all happen at once. No. We’re going to start modestly and build it out throughout the year. The first wave should go live in February and if all goes well, it will look exactly like the old site, with more products. I had intended to delve into the details of *how* we are building this site, but this week’s post has already grown a bit long so I think I’ll save that discussion for another day.

Have a great week everyone!

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