Successful manufacturers of tools and equipment understand that, to be a leader, they must develop and provide products needed by the professionals in the fields they serve.

Most tools used by electricians evolve slowly, and new versions with important new features may look much the same as earlier versions. Other products change rapidly to keep pace with changes in the marketplace—a good example is testing equipment to certify datacom installations in commercial and industrial structures.

Not only do designers of certification testers have to develop capabilities and features that workers need now, they must anticipate changes in standards of the rapidly changing datacom industry. The most recent example of this challenge was development of testing for the new Category 6A cabling standard defining requirements to support 10 gigabit Ethernet over twisted-pair cabling—Amendment 10 of the TIA/EIA-568-B.2 standard (T568-B-10). For more information, see page 150.

ELECTRICAL CONTRACTOR (EC) invited two leading providers of certification testers to discuss how their research and development programs keep pace with datacom testing requirements.

EC: When planning and designing datacom testing equipment, how does your company learn what the market needs and the capabilities and features of tools prospective buyers want?

Fluke Networks, David Veneski, marketing manager, certification products: Customers talk … we listen. We gather extensive “Voice of the Customer” research and listen closely to what they say and what they mean. Often, they can only state the problem. They don’t know what the answer looks like. Our job is to develop solutions that surprise and delight our customers. Fluke Networks is an active participant in industry trade associations and standards bodies. We both can share our knowledge and expertise where applicable and gain valuable insight from customers, channel partners and other suppliers.

Ideal Industries, Dan Payerle, datacom product manager: The customer plays a major role in all Ideal new product developments. Ideal datacom engineers are in close contact with network administrators and cabling contractors through regular on-site visits, trade shows, demonstrations, customer service calls and targeted focus groups to give us a better perspective of their requirements. Our engineers’ understanding of the installer side of the business greatly improves the “real-world” value of our testers.

EC: Do you conduct research within your own organization? Hire outside research consultants?

Fluke’s DV: Both

Ideal’s DP: We use a gamut of market research techniques to stay close to the customer, whether it is hiring outside survey firms or doing something as simple as scanning industry blogs for contractor feedback. One of our most important research sources is our active involvement in industry trade associations. This gives us insights into what direction technology is moving in.

EC: How do you gather marketing research information? Telephone interviews? Mail surveys? Focus groups? Direct contact with product users? Other methods?

Fluke’s DV: All of the above. E-mail/Web-based surveys are very fast and affordable. The results need to be verified, but they are good tools for gathering quantifiable data quickly. We spend a great deal of time and effort on personal visits to customers and channel partners.

Ideal’s DP: In addition to speaking with end-users, we talk to our distributors. A distributor has to be tech-savvy to sell testing equipment, which immediately qualifies them as an excellent source for new product input. A distributor acts as our eyes and ears when a customer comes in with a new requirement for us to meet.

EC: How do you qualify those participating in surveys as being appropriate for the product in question?

Fluke’s DV: We ask the participants about their jobs. It becomes pretty clear, in a fairly short time, whether they are working in a field in which we can help them.

Ideal’s DP: We speak with the network administrators and cabling contractors who use not only our certifiers but those made by our competitors.

EC: Do you have ongoing programs to gather information about product acceptance, to learn of complaints, to gather suggestions for improvements or new products?

Fluke’s DV: We staff a very active Technical Assistance Center. Customers can speak with our technical experts, who first and foremost solve the customer’s problem. Fluke Networks learns a great deal from these customer calls.

Ideal’s DP: In addition to regularly inserting customer response cards into our new products, Ideal maintains a toll-free 800 line for customer comments. We also host a Web site “contact us” portal for ongoing feedback. All feedback is tracked. If a response is necessary, a member of our product management staff will follow up.

EC: What is a specific example of new products or new product features that have resulted directly from input received through research or customer prospect contacts?

Fluke’s DV: [It’s] the rapidly emerging use of Ethernet to control industrial equipment, a task formerly handled by a number of vendor-specific formats. By listening to our customers, we realized that industrial Ethernet was an issue of growing importance and that some common problems associated with industrial Ethernet could be solved using slightly modified Fluke Networks test equipment. The customers benefit, and Fluke Networks is growing in this expanding market.

As Ethernet deployment moves into the industrial space, control engineers and plant managers are adapting industrial strength connectors, like the M12 form factor, for use in their network. Even though these connectors have typically been used for sensors in years past, M12s are now being used for Cat 5e equivalent communication. Our customers asked for a way to test the performance of cabling system with M12 connectors installed. With the DTX CableAnalyzer, new DTX M12 channel adapters and new M12 cables and M12-RJ45 cables, Fluke Networks can help. These adapters test and certify installed channel links to the IEEE802.3 specifications up to Fast Ethernet (100 Base-TX).

In addition, our customers are asking about ensuring their cabling is not part of any productivity downtime, and given the wide range of environmental issues that can affect a network in all the different manufacturing floors, we are providing the industrial IP67 rating on a new set of accessories kitted with our network, electrical and copper testers. Whether plant managers need to protect a switch from debris and motion in a heavy equipment vehicle or withstand a chemical wash down and high temperatures in a large-scale bakery, Fluke Networks offers them easy-to-understand platforms and the accessories needed to ensure that the cabling network is not the cause of any downtime.

Our customers have told us they work in all sorts of environments in all sorts of conditions: indoors, outdoors, on ladders, in lift-buckets, in wet as well as dry weather. They also told us they need tools that are always available and always work. Our Pro-Tool Kits are designed with ergonomically designed Dur-a-Grip pouches that store the tools on a belt, and more importantly, do not let the tools slip out. A Dur-a-Grip pouch will hold the tools in even if the pouch is upside down, yet the technician can pull a tool out for easy use at any time.

Ideal’s DP: The Ideal 10-Gigabit Alien Crosstalk Testing Kit for its LANTEK certifiers originated from the discussions with network designers and cabling installers about a new source of irritation which was causing headaches to the unshielded world in particular. They told us that the problem is that at frequencies around 300 MHz and over, the individual transmission channels begin to interfere with each other. This effect is known as “alien crosstalk” (AXT), i.e., crosstalking that occurs not in the cable links themselves between the wire pairs, but disturbs the wanted signals from outside.

With the increased deployment of 10 [gigabit Ethernet] networks (Cat 6a, 500 MHz) in enterprise and data storage environments, the contractors needed a way to test AXT to ensure that intercable crosstalk does not hamper data transmission. At a time when technicians are already working under excessive cost pressures, an extremely complex and time--consuming series of measurements would lead to an unacceptable additional burden for them in terms of time and money.

For this reason, the AXT kit was designed to work with an existing tester and requires only a simple software update. The dual-head adapter allows each LANTEK handset to transmit on a disturber cable and detect the alien crosstalk on a victim cable from both sides of the link simultaneously, reducing test times by as much as half compared to other solutions when performing a full PSANEXT (power sum alien near end crosstalk) and PSAACR-F (power sum alien attenuation-to-crosstalk ratio far-end) certification. The inclusion of 12 AXT terminators in the kit also maximizes productivity for single-person operation. An additional time-saving feature is the ability of the LANTEK to perform all of the AXT measurements and calculations in the field without the use of a personal computer and complex testing software. This allows any technician to run the test system following the cues of the intelligent graphical user interface and get instant pass/fail results in the field.

We added optional FIBERTEK and TRACETEK accessories to our LANTEK cable certifiers as the result of requests from customers who test both [unshielded-twisted pair] and fiber.

FIBERTEK enables loss, length, delay, bidirectional and dual wavelength testing over multimode and single-mode fiber. TRACETEK traces a fiber run, locating events such as bad splices, and reports the magnitude of the events.

GRIFFIN, a construction and tools writer from Oklahoma City, can be reached at up-front@cox.net.