Welcome to the Machine

Welcome to the Machine

Better, faster photo-realism marks today's design software, but challenges remain. 

By Daina Manning

Photo-realism refined
Design software originally presented a "cartoon" drawing that gave clients an approximation of what their kitchen would look like. Over the years, the design capability has improved, with such 3D photo-realistic features as greater customization, textured surfaces on countertops, cabinetry and walls, and catalog libraries of brand-specific products such as appliances that can be dropped into the design. 

"The cost of 3D photo-realistic drawings has come down to a reasonable level, and the speed has gone up where it's easy to use," says John Murphy, president of KCDw Cabinet Closet Software, in Dennis, MA. "You're not sitting there waiting and waiting for the drawing to come out. And, the look has improved dramatically over the last few years."

"We're seeing a lot of designers moving to more customization of their layouts," offers Kelly Taylor, v.p./design for Cabinet Vision Inc., in Tuscaloosa, AL. "Their clients are expecting more from them. Now that Lowe's and Home Depot offer computer designs, everyone is expected to offer them. They want to show the roll-outs and cutlery dividers, open the doors and model it."

Jeff Welge, v.p./operations for Planit-Cabnetware, in Woodland, CA and Lexington, KY, adds that software programs now provide more detail to handle elaborate cabinetry styles. "We've added the capability to deal with scallops, rosettes the frilly stuff," he laughs.

To save time, 20-20's Version 6 has introduced the AutoDeco function, which will automatically accessorize a kitchen, adding lighting, plants, etc., notes Gerald Wood, v.p./manufacturers' relations for 20-20 Technologies, in Laval, Quebec. "It gives a nice ambiance and saves a lot of time for the designer," Wood explains. The styles feature also allows manufacturers to insert jpeg photos of door styles for a more precise look.

Ironically, all of this realism is almost too much, believes Ted Knudsen, marketing manager for AA World Sales.com, in South Bend, IN. "You can scan a sample of a countertop and it looks very realistic," he elaborates. "But, the moment you print it out and hand it to someone, you're in trouble." When the finished product doesn't look exactly like the computer-generated drawing, the client is frequently disappointed, which leads to slow pays and requests for do-overs.

"I've heard all kinds of horror stories," says Knudsen. "People have had to take out countertops or [exchange] appliances." 

Welge concurs, "You need to put a disclaimer on drawings."

"[The designs] are not exact any more than Toy Story is an exact rendering of real life," says Taylor. To emphasize that a drawing is a drawing, it's possible to install a program such as Squiggle, which makes computer-generated lines look more hand drawn.

"You're dealing with a computer," adds Wood. "Monitors and graphics cards will show colors slightly differently."

Wood adds that a credible designer should have a door sample to show a client in addition to a computerized rendering. "You don't want the client to say, 'that's very nice, but it's not what I thought it would look like,' " notes Alan Frey, director of product quality for Advanced Relational Technology, makers of Chief Architect by ART, Couer D'Alene, ID.

While many agree that computerized design is an essential sales tool, controversy remains. "[These days], everybody wants to see the pretty [computerized] picture," says Murphy. "If a [kitchen dealer] hands them a crummy hand sketch, people lose confidence."

But Robert Gowen, president of Pattern Systems International, in Mt. Arlington, NJ, cautions that, "If you're not careful, a computer program can make a $60,000 kitchen look like a $10,000 kitchen. When we're striving to sell a custom kitchen, we don't want it to appear routine. If you can make the customer think he's special, that [his design is] hand drawn, it'll look more expensive." Many designers agree.

answering the call
The pricing and ordering function of design software, along with manufacturer-generated libraries of brand-specific appliances and other products, remain problematic, manufacturers agree.

"[Lack of] accuracy is the number one thing [designers] are afraid of," declares Knudsen. He notes that a perception of inaccuracy remains even with programs that are actually quite accurate. 
Gowen points out, "There's no substitute for man's eyes and brain. He can be more creative than a computer."

Manufacturers' updates are another problem."The ugly truth about pricing software is, the manufacturers' catalogs are never up to date," says Murphy. "Prices change hourly, frankly. There's no way they can be up to date."

But, Welge counters that they're doing the best they can. "Manufacturers are almost sending us the [price] catalogs before they send them to dealers, so we can get started entering those in," he remarks. Frey adds that accuracy is improving, and notes that his program has developed a method of rounding numbers that provides increased accuracy, which affects the program on many levels. 

Several manufacturers, for instance Decotech, are attempting to rectify the problem by providing more generic numbers to provide an approximate estimate without trying for to-the-penny accuracy. Similarly, KCDw will look at the job as a whole, duplicating methods that manufacturers use to calculate their prices. Murphy insists this method will get to within $100 accuracy on a $10,000 job.

Alternately, "We have formed alliances with several manufacturers and we're linking directly with their ERP systems," notes 20-20's Wood. This will enable instantaneous updates. "They'll use the 20-20 catalog to design the kitchen, the order will then be sent into the manufacturers, and will automatically go into their ERP system [which provides the pricing] and get back order confirmations," he explains.

Manufacturer cooperation is at the crux of another big challenge for software designers: product libraries. "We've made strides, definitely," says Taylor. "But, are there still [problems]? You bet."

Cabinet Vision works with manufacturers to create their objects and make them stretchable [for use in greater applications]. Using the symbols also makes communicating specs to the manufacturer easier, she notes. "But, it takes a long time to get those catalogs developed. It's a time issue, and a learning curve, too. And, it changes; that's the biggest issue. You get the catalog update done and they say, 'here's next year's.' That will always be a battle. I don't see it going away."

Faced with these problems, many software programs are giving up on manufacturers' libraries and developing ways to enable designers to make their own symbols, as well as using or modifying existing libraries. Frey also anticipates that third-party companies might get involved in the symbol-creation market, while Taylor believes that downloading new symbols from the Internet may be a solution. But, she adds that some manufacturers aren't sophisticated enough in computer technology. Companies with dial up 56K modems aren't able to take advantage of interactive programs because of the time it takes to download these systems, she elaborates. 

But, Knudsen points out that downloading software from the Web has been a hit for AA World Sales.com. "We used to run ads in magazines, get an inquiry, send out literature, sell demos, give demos away. It was fairly costly," he recalls. Now, customers can download the demo from the firm's site. "It does everything but save and print. We haven't sent out any literature in two years."

Similarly, Murphy notes that KCDw rents its software to users through the Internet, to good effect.

"There are plenty of 'mom and pop' operations that can't get the money together [to buy]," he says.

"[This way], they rent it as they need it. It holds the cost down." Consumers can also rent the program on a one-time basis to design their own kitchen. "KCD is extraordinarily easy to use," he insists. The program comes with an on-screen tutorial to get people going, and can also be used to design closets.

The company 20-20 also has an online software program for consumers that currently gets more than 100,000 uses monthly. The consumer designs the kitchen for free, then the results of that plan can be stored in a 'kitchen vault' or e-mailed to a designer, Wood elaborates. "Then, they can get together and finish the design." That program is also available in an equally popular closet-planning version. 

Similarly, Planit-Cabnetware offers the capacity to run Millennium from a dealer's Web page. "[A customer] lays out his or her cabinets using a manufacturers' catalog and gets a quote," he elaborates. "The clients have to sign in to do this, so this gives the dealer an opportunity to contact them later, saying, 'I see you spent time on my Web site.' "

Despite all of the challenges, design software continues to gain prominence, and most believe it's clearly the way of the future. "Eighteen years ago, everything was done by hand," Wood says. "[Now], there are more people using CAD programs than they are [doing hand drawing]. It's just a matter of time." KBDN