Software Steps Up

In many ways, kitchen design software has evolved considerably in the past few years. Photo realism has achieved a beautifully detailed level. CNC link machines have greatly facilitated cabinet manufacturing, at least on the stock and semi-custom levels. Programs have expanded to include overall administrative functions such as scheduling and invoicing.

So, why do so many designers not computer-phobic in other areas of their business resist the trend? Software manufacturers admit some challenges remain with their products, and in addition to adding new capabilities, they are dedicating considerable resources toward eliminating those problems.

A Middle Ground
It used to be that software was divided into two categories pro-level programs that cost thousands of dollars, and very simple consumer-targeted programs for under $50. And, many designers saw neither as a good fit the inexpensive programs were generally viewed as too simplistic to be of any value to a professional designer, and the very expensive ones were often more of an investment than designers were willing to make for something they were still uncertain about committing to for the long term.

But now, several manufacturers have introduced moderately priced professional versions that can do much of the work of the higher-end programs one of the creative solutions offered by the burgeoning design software industry.

AutoKitchen is a program with photo-like rendering capabilities and an AutoCAD engine, explains Miguel Merida-Nicolich, general manager of MicroCAD Software Inc., in Tenafly, NJ. "We took what we think is the best of AutoCAD, which is the power and the flexibility, and then we took what's not so great the complexity and we tried to make [our program] very easy to use," he elaborates. An icon-based approach simplifies matters, he adds. "If you sit down for a couple of hours, you end up with a very decent idea of what icon to pick to do what."

The user can work in 2D and see the design in progress in 3D at the same time, Merida-Nicolich notes. The price of the program ranges from $500 to $2,000, with the higher-priced version including the capacity to add, modify and edit catalogs.

Similarly, Chief Architect's updated program is available in several versions with price points ranging from $50 to $500, explains Scott Harris, v.p./sales and marketing for Chief Architect, in Court d'Alene, ID. The professional program "is a very robust product, it's great for visualization if you're doing kitchen and bath design," he notes. "We have a fairly extensive library of cabinet doors and other furniture and fixtures." The programs have progressively more complex but compatible features, so someone lacking in computer savvy can start with the most simple program and work their way up to the pro level, he adds.

AAWorldSales.Com has also come up with a new product, DecoTech, which sells for $400 an economical price point enabled by the fact that the software's pricing module doesn't include manufacturers' catalogs, reports Ted Knudson, manager of AAWorldSales.Com. However, Knudson notes that this has always been a problematic area, with many designers preferring to do pricing by hand. The program has other advantages, such as a convenient way of putting in islands and peninsulas without first installing an invisible wall, Knudson adds.

Cabinet Solutions XP, by Extreme Software Products, is an easy-to-learn custom cabinet manufacture program for under $1,000, adds Knudson.

Software programs are also expanding to other parts of the house, for instance, closet design, notes Harris. In short, the market now offers several ways for a designer to get their feet wet in the software market without a huge investment.

Bells and Whistles
For those who've already taken the plunge with a full-blown, high-end program, manufacturers continue to improve the process. For instance, KCDw, a program geared to the custom cabinet maker, has recently added custom lighting to enhance its photo realism, notes Leslie Murphy, sales representative for KCDw Software, in South Yarmouth, MA.

Twenty Twenty's software now sports a business manager function. "It's a miniature ERP for kitchen and bath dealers," reports Louise Chartier, v.p./sales for North America for Twenty Twenty Technologies, in Laval, Quebec. "It could do your scheduling, purchasing, and invoicing; it connects to Quick Books [and] the Internet, and it comes with a template for our customers to go and create their own Internet Web sites."

CADKIT, recently purchased by DesignSoft, includes an ordering function that can tie into another program, ProductionKIT, which is widely used among manufacturers whose catalogs CADKIT supports, notes Noelle Meade, manager of support for CADKIT, in Denver, CO. "Our program has full AutoCAD functionality, which is daunting in that the learning curve is a little longer," she adds. "But we believe the ability and capabilities [make it more than worth the time investment to learn the program]."

A recent merger of Cabinet Vision into the Planit group, now titled Planit Solutions, has caused that company to target its products Planit, Autograph, Cabnetware, and Cabinet Vision to different sections of the market, explains Roger Taylor, president of Planit Solutions, in Tuscaloosa, AL. Autograph is "an entry-level product geared for the builder market," says Taylor. "It's more about repetition and speed and how to quickly produce a design, not necessarily high end." Planit Millennium is geared for more advanced design, while Cabinet Vision bridges the gap between the two. The company is also focusing on making its products more readily available with Planit Online; additionally, it is looking at developing a consumer-grade product to install in kiosks at home centers.

"The arms race in software features is over," says Taylor. Today's challenge is, "Does the software meet the needs of the clientele?"

Problems & Solutions
Ask anyone who uses kitchen-specific design software and two areas for improvement will inevitably be mentioned. First, designers tend to mistrust the pricing function of the programs. So, even those who love the programs' vastly improved 3D photo realism a dramatic shift from the "cartoon" look the renderings had only a few years ago often use the software to prepare client presentations, but continue to price by hand.
"We hope that they'll let go of their adding machines and trust the labor intense work that the manufacturers put in," says Chartier. She adds that with 20-20, "we do not send out real data a cabinet manufacturer is ultimately responsible for releasing accurate pricing to his or her dealer base."

Chartier believes that this method can result in 100% accuracy for stock lines, but admits, "semi custom manufacturers, where we start adding in built-in factory added modification then you're looking at compounded pricing formulas. If the end user mixes it up, it could have a large bearing on the pricing. [And] the greater risk comes with the full custom lines." For instance, she notes, "If an accessory is not meant to go into a specific [cabinet], and the end user does it anyway, then it could have an impact on pricing. This is a struggle that we've been up against since day one. But, by every account, everybody's growing their business with their software."

Taylor believes that his company's multiple software lines which employ a common data catalog also provide a more efficient way to ensure accurate pricing. "I think the tools we're utilizing today are becoming more sophisticated, and our ability to maintain manufacturers' data has been a priority of a long time," he elaborates. "We're going to be utilizing electronic data from the manufacturer, downloaded from their [internal] ERP system and transferred directly into the common data model."

Meade believes that manufacturers are becoming more cognizant of the importance of the design programs, the same way Web sites were once viewed as optional, and are increasingly being viewed as a necessity by businesses.

Other programs have taken a different route. Chief Architect's set up "does not include an ordering function, but does let you draw up a bill of materials," says Harris. "You can get manufacturer-specific, so if you've imported Kohler fixtures in there, you can make a plumbing schedule. But we don't actually tie that into [the program]."

Knudsen believes part of the problem lies in the methodology: comparison pricing brand vs. brand instead of each brand vs. the same generic price schedule. "Every brand has certain nomenclatures that don't cross reference," he explains. The new idea is to use a generic table, then cross reference with a particular manufacturer's catalog. Updating the catalogs will always be a problem, he believes, so a less expensive program with just design capability and another method of pricing is an alternative.

Photo realism was improved by drop-in libraries of 3D, brand-specific manufacturers' products to give a rendered kitchen a more realistic look. But, many manufacturers haven't recognized the value of producing the libraries, which can be both time consuming and expensive, and designers complain that the libraries available are inadequate and don't include the more exotic products.

"We've been a little disappointed that a lot of manufacturers don't have 3D representation of their product out there," admits Harris. "We keep our library separate so we can add new content. We have a creation program," which enables designers to take a generic symbol and personalize it to be brand specific, then store it for future use.

Meade notes that CADKIT is "looking for [program users] who have a lot of exotic symbols that they've built. We'll probably harvest those and put them in a CD, and distribute them to everybody else."

A seemingly effective method of obtaining new symbols downloading them off a manufacturer's Web site hasn't been widely adopted, but remains a future option for distribution of symbols.

But overall, Chartier believes manufacturers are catching on to the value of contributing to libraries, and sees this as an area that will continue to improve. KBDN