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A designer chooses a cabinet style and size, and enters that into his or her software program. As if by magic, the cabinet is ordered and a CNC-linked machine is cutting wood to spec, only minutes later.

Well, it's not quite that streamlined but almost. Design software has extended far beyond pretty computer graphics into the starting point of a network that has the capacity to greatly improve one's business, according to manufacturers surveyed by Kitchen and Bath Design News.

New technology 
A few years ago, design software was an option some designers enjoyed computer graphics, while others found them cumbersome and preferred hand drawing. But increasingly, software has emerged as the gateway to all facets of business in the Internet Age. 

"Manufacturers had been behind in technology, but in this last year, it's really exploded," believes Shane Oakley, v.p./business development for Planit-Autograph, in Lexington, KY. 

"We call it a supply chain or a sales chain. It gives a manufacturer and its dealers the ability to automate the sales order processing."

Musgrove adds, "Kitchen designers can design using software. Once the design is complete, with a push of a button, it goes into the pricing order entry system, and that gives them an accurate price they can show their client. They can also electronically send that to the manufacturer to order their kitchen. The manufacturer checks inventory, confirms the order, and then the information is sent into a production system, which routs information to [machinery]."

Generally, a company buying into a system will begin with the component it needs the most [usually order entry], and work into the others, Musgrove adds. 

The goal is a smooth, error-free path from design to finished product, according to Richard Chappell, marketing manager for Cabinet Vision Inc., in Tuscaloosa, AL. "A lot of mistakes are made" in transferring information from one piece of paper to another, he elaborates. A paperless system, with automatic order forms, electronic transmittal to shop drawings and cutlists, can eliminate thousands of dollars worth of clerical errors and the resulting headaches, he notes. 

In addition to linking systems, software companies seem to be linking to one another. Musgrove notes the creation of the Kitchen Software Industry Alliance, comprised of Twenty-Twenty, CADKIT and Pattern Systems. Links be-tween the companies' software enables the alliance to go to manufacturers "and offer them a complete solution from design to order entry to production." 

Similarly, Planit and Autograph merged last year, releasing their new Millenium software; the same corporation also owns Cabinet Vision, though the two companies' operations are still separate. "We're still in the process [of merging Planit and Autograph]." explains Oakley. "But the company has grown by leaps and bounds."

Graphic solutions

"Photo realism really hasn't changed much [this year]," thinks Musgrove. Currently, the push is to add motion to the still pictures, providing a virtual walk-through that would enable one to, for instance, open cabinet doors, or "walk" the client through the design. However, software manufacturers admit that this is an addition that's nice, but not really necessary. 

"Everybody wants to make sure they have [advanced graphic] ability, [but most designers] don't use it," says Musgrove, who believes that most designers prefer to stick to the more basic aspects of a program that can be done quickly.

"[Graphic improvement] will go further, but at a slower pace," believes Jeffrey Welge, v.p. of Cabnetware Inc., in Woodland, CA. He adds that 80% of Cabnetware's customers stick to program basics, "and then you have the other 20% who are always pushing the limit." In the past year, the trend toward more furniture-like, ornate cabinetry is necessitating those additions in design programming, he adds. 

While photo realism is the graphic standard these days, designers have complained that the programs lack brand name accuracy for instance, they want to feature a Sub-Zero refrigerator, not a generic-looking one, and it's not available on the program. In response, software companies are working with manufacturers to make more accurate and comprehensive catalogs of brand-name appliances, countertops, etc., which can be inserted into a design for added realism. 

However, "most companies are putting out generic looks," while continuing to assemble graphics libraries, admits Welge. The latter is sometimes slow going. "The manufacturers aren't willing to put the effort in at this point they just don't see the need," Welge elaborates. Despite the advertising advantages of providing the library samples, "the economy is so good right now, people are having a hard time keeping up with manufacturing their product, let alone trying to promote it."

"Our industry is driven by the demands of the designer," counters Chappell. "If there's a designer who's doing a great deal of business with a particular manufacturer, the pressure is on that manufacturer to support and maintain the software [to enable them]." But, he adds, "some companies are much easier to work with than others."

Another problem with computer-generated graphics, according to some designers, is that they find that many ultra-high-end clients still prefer "artistic" hand drawings. CADKIT offers a solution in the form of Squiggle, a file hand-off that gives a hand-drawn look to a computer graphic, with the attendant order and revision advantages of a computerized design. "People love it," declares Musgrove.

For custom cabinet shops, the issue has been streamlining cutlists and pricing, rather than elaborate photo realistic renderings. Leslie Murphy, spokesperson for KCDw Cabinetmakers Software in South Dennis, MA, cites KCDw's cabinet-focused program, which provides "complete design, with wall elevations and floor plans and 3-D color drawings [along with] the cut list and pricing, contracts and reports." The next upgrade, due out this year, will include CNC links that tie in directly to automated CNC saws and other carpentry equipment, as well as a more photo realistic look to the graphics. 

But manufacturers caution that fabulous software by itself isn't enough. Fancy graphics "don't sell the job," notes Musgrove. "What sells the job is the excitement and the knowledge of the sales person."

Connecting to the 'Net
"Any software that's going to be coming out in the next two to five years, if it's not Internet-based, it just won't be successful," declares Welge, and others surveyed agree. The possibilities are endless, though technical problems remain.

For instance, CADKIT offers an Internet-based order entry system, wherein the manufacturers' catalogs will live on Web sites, and a dealer placing an order can do so through the site. "[The catalog is] always up to date, [incorporating any] price increases or a product change. That will increase ordering speed and correctness," says Musgrove, adding that only dealers will have access to the sites (requiring a password) for a more streamlined operation. 

Web sites geared towards professional designers can also offer catalog additions. Mouldings and special applications for cabinets are the most frequently requested items from Cabnetware's site, Welge reports. He believes downloading off the Web site will eventually replace mailing software upgrades and catalog additions to the company's designer client base. 

Web site downloads are also available to homeowners who want to make preliminary design sketches to take to a professional designer, explains Oakley. "End users can hit a [manufacturer's] Web site and actually design their kitchen using a manufacturer's catalog and our software. 

"We figure they're sitting around Saturday morning, drinking coffee in their bathrobe, [saying] 'honey, let's hit the 'Net and look at a kitchen and maybe redo ours,'" he elaborates. Manufacturers' sites can also direct homeowners to a dealer and/or contractor in their area, Oakley adds. In the near future, "we can tie everybody in with design on line." 

The primary problem with the Internet? "It's too slow," says Welge. "We offer things to download on our Web site, but with large graphic files, with most transfer rates now, that's going to take hours." 

"I refer to the Internet as the World Wide Wait," quips Oakley, who quickly adds that newer, faster modems, as well as affordable phone and cable company Internet access lines, will soon solve this problem. Planit-Autograph's Millenium software is also programmed for faster downloading, he adds. "While you're looking at screen one, we're already sending the information for screens two and three." 

Looking to the future, Musgrove sees the development of ERP, Enterprise Resource Planning, accounting and inventory control software, particularly useful for manufacturers, that links up to the other electronic systems to further streamline an operation.

Oakley cites CMS, Customer Management Systems, a front-end system that enables designers to automatically track their designs, link customer information to the design and process their order to the manufacturer.
Overall, the new developments in technology spell doom for designers who still insist on working without the advantage of a computer, manufacturers agree. Not being able to transfer information electronically is increasingly a major downside; similarly, client-mandated changes can be easily incorporated in a computerized drawing, whereas a hand design must be completely redone, notes Cabinet Vision's Chappell. 

"More and more [kitchen and bath firms] are finding they have to get into the software business or they're just going to fall behind," insists KCDw's Murphy. 

Concludes Chappell, "In our industry, 10 years ago, when you walked into a shop, you may or may not have seen a computer. Now, if you walk into a kitchen designer's shop and you don't see a computer, that business will not be around in another three years." KBDN