Thursday, 17 November 2011

Video Conferencing

This is a topic that crops up from time to time; and it’s one that I have some experience with.

A decade or so ago, people were selling Video Conference (VC) equipment for use with ISDN lines; these were OK, but there were technical issues with the data stream bandwidth and Quality of Service, and the user experience could be less than satisfactory. Pictures would be blocky or pixelated and even audio could be a bit of an issue, especially with multi way calling.

But the benefits to the business were really valuable, so people tolerated poor quality. Even if we only had a couple of VC meetings every week, the cost savings were very significant to the company that I worked for. At that time (2000 – 2004), we had calculated that we were saving around £25k to £35K per year. This was based wholly upon petrol / mileage costs saved with the sites about 200 miles apart.

When it became possible to use IP based systems, the quality of both audio and video improved quite considerably as the compression ratios were better and bandwidth higher and more consistent; and the user experience was such that people actually wanted to use the facility. I put this in at my current employer at all company sites, and I’ve estimated that we have saved around £450k to £500k over the last 6 years (for a capex of £25k and very little opex). This is based upon petrol / mileage / flights, hotel accommodation and subsistence allowances that would otherwise have had to be paid for.

This of course does not take into account the less tangible benefits; work / life balance (less travelling, fewer later nights), carbon footprint / environmental costs, user interaction. We found that most staff were able to collaborate better with VC meetings, and this generated some useful ideas which lead to key improvements in many areas. This also helps staff (and even some managers) feel more engaged within the activities of the business.

It’s become so valuable that we are now seeing senior managers wanting access to a VC function on their desks. We provide this capability through units which look like PC monitors, but can be switched to VC screens. We have experimented with smaller products; Skype, OCS / Lync and others, but the managers do like the larger viewing screen and it’s difficult to persuade them to use smaller viewing windows.

I think that almost inevitably, we will be moving to Tele Presence at some stage; once they see the improved quality of the product, I suspect they will be demanding it instantly. I’ve seen and think that it is pretty awesome; if you haven’t had the chance, then call your regional supplier, as they will be delighted to demonstrate their offering. Our current equipment is still functioning well, but has more than paid for its installation so replacing it would not be too much of an issue. The costs for purchasing the new hardware are a bit higher, but considering the cost savings, it would be well worth it.

Friday, 4 November 2011

A-PDF Watermark Service is one of the best tools I have come across ..

For some time now, we have had a bit of a technical challenge within our Technical Drawing office. These guys produce about 2,000 to 3,000 different engineering drawings a week, all of which have to be saved and then accessed by a large number of people within the factory as well as others throughout the different sites belonging to the business.

We have a Document Management System that allows us to link the drawings to various modules within our ERP software; this is really useful as part of a drive towards using less paper throughout the business. This can be useful, but only if the file is attached to the right item straight away; and often that isn’t possible for a number of technical reasons.

The problem is that when you get that number of files, there is a key issue. How do you identify the right drawing and associate this to the file? We have tried a number of different methods with file names etc. but this doesn’t always help. Imagine that you have the printed drawing; it says that it is a left handed swivel arm, but how do you know what file that drawing came from if you want a second copy?

After some discussion, we decided that what we needed was a simple tool to allow us to imprint a modified file name onto the drawings which included works order number, quantity, and required date of the component. This would then allow anyone looking at the drawing to identify exactly what file the drawing came from and they could then quickly locate the relevant file and the also know where to look within the ERP system.

After some considerable research we found A-PDF Watermark Service from A-PDF. This useful little tool allows us to add those details of the drawing’s file name onto a designated place on each drawing; and it does so automatically.

Using this product meant that we saved the time in hand writing (or typing) the information onto the drawings and it also removes the element of human error. It’s installed on the relevant file server and runs as a background service that processes the files automatically; and seems to easily handle the work load that we are throwing at it.

We highly recommend this product as a simple but effective solution.