Tech Savvy

Tech Savvy

From AutoCAD to cell phones, the kitchen and bath industry is becoming increasingly automated,  sources say.

BY BARBARA CAPELLA LOEHR


And with clients being more tech savvy as well as more design savvy than ever before, designers and dealers are responding to their needs in more cutting-edge ways, note manufacturers.

"[Plus], now the cost of technology has decreased, making it easier to incorporate technology into daily operations and making the adoption rate higher," observes Vipul Shah, v.p./operations for NoWag, Inc.

"What we're seeing in the kitchen and bath industry is the automation of it, through CAD programs [and] on-line catalogs. You can design on the fly if the software has a pricing model and a cabinet list. And, if there are other options, it makes costing the job a lot easier," notes Tim Hmelar, president of NoWag, Inc. in Mountain View, CA.

"What we see is a continuing trend toward graphical design tools," agrees Igor Krichevsky, v.p./business development for 20-20 Technologies Inc. in Laval, Quebec, Canada. "The other trend we're seeing is that design tools are becoming connected to business tools so that you can create a design, send it through an electronic ordering process and then send it to the manufacturer into its ERP system."

According to Krichevsky, there are several advantages to this second trend: "There is no re-keying of orders, and no mistakes or delays being introduced We are seeing dealers understanding and embracing this type of software more and more, realizing the benefits and becoming more effective and efficient."

TECH TOOLS
Certainly, there's a plethora of software, hardware and tech gadgets on the market that can help designers and dealers in their daily operations. But, how do designers decide what they need, and what they can live without?

"The big thing that we're now seeing is that clients are wanting to be more involved in the design process, so designers need to be able to help them create and visualize their design," says Scott Harris, v.p./sales and marketing for Chief Architect in Couer d'Alene, ID. He notes that clients are becoming very visual.
In fact, "consumers are using their cell phones to snap pictures, and compiling their thoughts into a digital scrapbook," he adds.

As a result, Harris believes, at the very least, designers and dealers should have an AutoCAD program in place to provide visuals for clients.

Darryl Weekly, retail sales manager for Planit Solutions Inc. in Tuscaloosa, AL, concurs, noting that most of his designer, architect and cabinet manufacturer clients are using software programs that take them from the CAD stage to the manufacturing process.

"It creates perspectives for the client Then, you can break out countertops, walls, cabinets, etc. and hand them out to installers to show them exactly what they need to do. And, you can price out the entire job, from installation and labor fees to taxes. Some CAD programs even have PowerPoint wizards," Weekly explains.

He further notes how many designers are taking their CAD-equipped laptops into the field and into clients' homes to show them exactly what can be done in their kitchens and baths.

For cabinet manufacturers, Weekly believes that CAM software that can generate cut lists and materials lists would help them save money on wasted cuts and lumber costs. He also sees CNC machines dropping dramatically in price so that even mom-and-pop cabinet shops can afford them.

Miguel Merida-Nicolich, general manager for Microcad Software, Inc. in Cresskill, NJ, sees integration of hand-held laser meters into software, Web-based applications and the expansion of the range of products offered in catalogs to include items such as closets and some light office material as technology that's up-and-coming.

Hmelar lists cell phones, CAD software, e-mail, laptops and portable printers as current must-haves for design professionals. He also cites software that bundles spreadsheet capabilities, PDAs with digital camera capabilities, GPSs, wireless Web capabilities and Web-based applications as the next must-haves, or soon-to-be must-haves.

Weekly also sees the ability to download software upgrades and new catalogs becoming faster and easier. It's something that not only Planit is working on, but other software companies, as well.

There's a lot more information in electronic catalogs now, notes Krichevsky, from finishes to cabinetry styles. "The key to this," he says, "is to send enough data to the catalog level so that data can feed into the ERP or other manufacturing system. The result of this is a more data-rich environment."

Krichevsky further points out that there are a lot of manufacturer portals, and, as a result, a lot more e-commerce happening. Because of this, designers and dealers can offer "fuller" service to their clients. He says this will eventually turn into one portal for e-commerce that has the same interface for everyone something that dealers and designers only need to learn once. Dealers and designers will also have the ability to download the latest catalogs from a central portal, too.

"There will be one location for electronic orders that go to manufacturers and one location for
e-commerce with suppliers," predicts Krichevsky.

But, no matter what technology a designer or dealer chooses to utilize, Weekly offers this tech tip: Remember that today's optimal requirements are tomorrow's minimal requirements. "I'll tell customers, if they have nothing, then buy the optimal, but if they do have something, the minimum requirements buy them a little time before they need to upgrade," he explains.

Krichevsky also offers these tech tips:

  • Choose tools that are embraced by the kitchen and bath industry.
     
  • Attend related courses and seminars.
     
  • Attend trade shows and evaluate tools.
     

"If you are willing to invest some time and money, technology will enhance your ability as a professional," Krichevsky adds.

'TECH TOCK'
Michele Daenzer-Sapp, CKD, CBD, ASID, of Raffinati Cucine Italiane, L.L.C., insists that technology is "more pervasive than we think," especially when one considers who is utilizing technology to facilitate business quickly and efficiently within this industry for example, manufacturers, product reps, salespeople, designers and homeowners.

Daenzer-Sapp also believes that, before designers and dealers start incorporating newer software and tech devices into the way they do business, they ought to have an evaluation process in place. For example, she advises that designers evaluate technology based on the following criteria:

  • Research the availability and accessibility of the hardware first.
     
  • Look for ease of use, which is key for success.
     
  • Check the connection type, and determine whether it's compatible with existing software and hardware.
     
  • Determine portability.
     
  • Figure out if it does what it says it will on the box.
     
  • Ask, "Do I need this?"

Among the high-tech gadgets, services and software programs Daenzer-Sapp suggests designers consider are: video phones, "smart" phones, radio phones (i.e., Nextel, Verizon, etc.) and PDA phones; PDA and Microsoft Office for the PDA; CAD programs for PDAs; construction management software for pocket PCs; scanning software; and job management software and purchasing programs for the office.

Daenzer-Sapp further suggests that kitchen and bath designers seek out and utilize more than just design software, noting, "We shouldn't limit ourselves to just design software. For example, manufacturer programs give us a little more flexibility in design, despite the possible learning curve that may be involved."

However, each designer and dealer must go with what works for them and their clients. An example of this comes from The Office of Carol J.W. Kurth, AIA Architects, p.c. in Bedford, NY.

Kurth says her firm started by incorporating AutoCAD into the way it does business and generates designs. And, now, her firm has the ability to do more custom work because of the software, because she can send something to local distributors of a few of the manufacturers the firm uses, and can turn them into a useable format for the manufacturers.

Her firm can then check shop drawings that are generated by the distributors from the initial CAD drawing, and then the manufacturer is able to produce it.

As her firm realized the capabilities of manufacturing programs, it also realized the advantage of being able to bring its designs to life so that clients could get a better idea of what they will actually look like in the end.

As a result, Kurth researched and found a software program that could do just that: StudioViz, which is a 3D modeling software program.

"We are using it in client presentations," explains Kurth. "It's really helpful because they can see the before and after before we even get started. I think it's given us a more competitive edge it helps us show clients the comprehensive design we are talking about. 3D really helps clients to not only see the whole design and different options, but also to better visualize the details and the elevations."

However, Kurth notes, it's not for the novice or faint of heart: "3D takes a lot more time than you would ever imagine. But, once you have everything input for the design, the ability to make changes is much easier, and it's good for clients to be able to see them." That's why, she adds, if possible, it's best to have at least one person on staff who knows the 3D program to cut down on some of the learning curve and ensure the program can be used to the fullest extent.

Hmelar also incorporated technology into the daily operations of his kitchen, bath and home-theater remodeling firm, the San Francisco, CA-based Tim Hmelar Construction. He uses what he calls his Tech Truck, which he believes "allows me to be more efficient in dealing with homeowners, vendors and subcontractors." Indeed, his firm employs three of these Tech Trucks.

The trucks' energy was converted from DC to AC with an electrical converter, thereby allowing for regular electrical plugs. And, they're equipped with not only a Sony Vaio laptop with two USB ports mounted on a swivel table, a Canon Bubble Jet black-and-white printer and a hardwired, voice-activated Nokia 600 cell phone, but also a Blaupunkt GPS, Handspring Prism PDA with digital camera capabilities and Motorola walkie-talkies. They're also equipped with a Clifford alarm system, installed on all doors and the tailgate, and painted red with yellow signage.

"In short, the Tech Truck has been a real plus for our kitchen and bath remodeling business. It serves as a rolling advertisement, a mobile office and an efficiency expert that saves time and improves profitability," notes Hmelar. KBDN

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