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Electrical contractors who do office voice/data/video projects are finding that half their work can involve "redoing" rather than "doing." They are spending as much time or more on retrofits - moving, adding or changing existing low-voltage telecommunications cabling to link people, offices, and equipment - as on installing new telecom systems. "Companies restructure so frequently that moves, adds, and changes are a part of daily life," says Stacey Wellman, director of marketing for Tri-City Electric Co. of Iowa, Inc., in Davenport, Iowa. Moves, adds, and changes are supposed to be easy because most office walls today consist of modular panels and partitions, known in the facilities business as "furniture," which can be moved, added, or removed to change office configurations. Since the early 1980s, with the onset of the personal computer, fax machine, and modem, however, this furniture often is modular in name only. Wall panels today are bound together by voice and data cabling, usually with a separate cable for each device. To move a panel, the wires and cables it contains must first be cut or removed and then thrown away. Then new wires and cables must be threaded through the panel, connected, and tested. Consequently, office changes have become a labor-intensive and somewhat wasteful activity. For the voice/data/video contractor, cable removal and installation work must be coordinated very closely with the contractor who is installing or moving the furniture. Now an alliance of three companies is introducing a solution to these problems -DataThing. The product consists of fixed-length plug-and-play bundles of voice and data cabling. Installed as original equipment, it is said to reduce the time, difficulty, and cost of moving furniture and people. DataThing was developed jointly by Haworth, Inc., a furniture manufacturer based in Holland, Mich., and KRONE, Inc., a cable and connector manufacturer based in Englewood, Colo. Cable equipment distributor Anixter Inc. of Skokie, Ill., is the exclusive DataThing distributor. DataThing consists of three components, which can easily be snapped together on site and just as easily taken apart, moved, and reused, in different configurations: The cable bundle itself, called a communications distribution assembly, comes in lengths to match the width of furniture panels in five Haworth systems, with a connector at each end. Up to 18 CDAs can be clicked together to supply a group of work stations without experiencing any significant attenuation loss, says Bob Tuttle, Haworth's DataThing project leader. An infeed assembly, analogous to a power in-feed, connects a DataThing circuit to the building cabling. Wire termination blocks, mounted within the infeed assembly, provide a point for labeling, testing, and administering the circuit. An outlet tap assembly, which consists of a high-performance cable with a KRONE jack at one end and a Tap Fin connector at the other, is plugged into the communications data assembly to provide a work area outlet. DataThing's performance exceeds the requirements of both TIA/EIA 568A Category 5 and Anixter Level 6. Although DataThing is being promoted for its "plug and play" simplicity, Haworth and KRONE guarantee its performance and are providing a 20-year end-to-end warranty. Consequently, they require its installation contractors to be double certified by KRONE, and they are limiting the number who can be. That should give a business advantage to participating contractors. "To install DataThing, a contractor must first be certified as a TrueNet cabling system contractor," explains Gary S. Null, KRONE's marketing communications manager. "To become TrueNet certified, a contractor must be recommended by the local KRONE sales engineer and approved by the regional sales manager." Selection is based on such factors as experience with voice/data/video installation, general business reputation, years in business, previous experience with KRONE products, and the prior year's sales volume. Once approved, the contractor must complete a two-day training course, usually conducted at a conference facility in or near the contractor's home city. A TrueNet-certified contractor then can obtain DataThing certification by taking four hours of additional training. At least 25 percent of the contractor's installers also must complete the DataThing training. "We have a little over 200 TrueNet contractors nationwide, and expect the number to level off somewhere around 250," Null says. "We want to have three to five contractors in major metropolitan areas, depending on population and sales activity." Tri-City Electric is among those already certified, with nearly one-third of its 66 cable installers having completed DataThing training. "We're marketing it as a new capability that makes us better and faster than other furniture cable contractors," says Wellman, the company's marketing director. "And even though DataThing's material costs are more expensive, it should reduce the overall cost of the job because it cuts manpower time. The predominate cost of any job is manpower, not material." Haworth says that the average recabling during a furniture move can cost $200 to $300 per office. Using DataThing can cut that cost by 80 percent, Tuttle says. "Moving even one employee, or just adding cable for a new fax machine, can cost as much as $300 to $600," he says. "A DataThing installation makes it unnecessary to add or replace cable in such situations. You can just tap into the existing DataThing cable." In addition, he notes, the speed with which DataThing can be installed or reconfigured reduces employee productivity that is lost during changeovers. Kirk Cowan, sales manager for Cupertino Electric, Inc., of Sunnyvale, Calif., agrees that speed of installation is important for the company and its 100 datacom technicians. "DataThing helps support fast-track projects, which are the norm around here," he says. "You can only run a datacom installation to a certain point before you have to wait for the furniture people. Then you have 1,000 work stations to terminate and test in a week. That puts a real squeeze on the last part of the job. "DataThing is quicker, it has fewer pieces and parts, and it's a lot easier to work with. And it's a good product." Cowan says he looks for DataThing certification to provide Cupertino with a certain exclusivity and to enable the company to take advantage of collective business development opportunities with KRONE and Haworth. Similarly, Jeff Tindall, systems engineer for Tri-City Electric, says his company is marketing DataThing "as a new capability that makes us better and faster than other furniture cable installers." Tindall also says the new product "will come in handy in helping schedule the work; we're not going to need to coordinate with the furniture installer as much as we have in the past." But what about that unusual name? Where did that come from? "We went through a lot of name combinations, more than 100 in all, but most of them were already trademarked," explains KRONE's Null. "Then we got to the point in its development where we had a number of architectural and interior designers come in to look at it. "Because it still didn't have a name, they just started referring to it as 'that data thing.' It began to stick, and we didn't have any problem at all in getting a trademark on it." BIO: KATZ is a freelance writer based in Rockville, MD. He can be reached at [email protected]