SI’s Launch of the Decade: Motorized Shades Like None Other
It took Screen Innovations seven years to launch a motorized shade business that reimagines everything from the super-slim, inductively charged battery to an unprecedented shade-specification app, all demo'd at CEDIA 2017.
Julie Jacobson · September 1, 2017
Screen Innovations is gearing up for its most important CEDIA ever -- not because of some giant new video projection screen but something completely unexpected. After seven years of development, the company is revealing a complete motorized shading business -- not just a complete shading line, but an entire business wrapped around it.
What took so long? SI already makes motorized screens. Can't they repurpose some of the same mechanisms? Maybe, but the company wasn't interested in repurposing anything. They wanted to start from scratch, examining every little thing that scares integrators away from this potentially lucrative business.
To understand the significance of SI's launch, it's helpful to start with the new rechargeable battery and work up to the piece de resistance, an online tool that will change everything you think about the window covering business.
A Battery, a Magnet, an App
If you think about everything bothersome about motorized shades -- especially wireless -- chances are SI nixes them. The new Nano shades eliminate big rollers, bulky fasciae, light gaps, unwieldy installs, cheap plastic endcaps, and the mother of all evils: POBs (plain old batteries).
The shades are beautiful because of their simple contemporary hardware, to be sure. But they're especially beautiful because you see so little of it. Housings and end caps come in more colors than any competitor seems to offer as standard, so it's easy to find settings that can disappear into the environment.
Most notably, the profile of the Box is petite, with a profile as much as 45% smaller than other battery-operated shades. I noticed it right away when I visited SI in Austin prior to CEDIA.
And now we get to the part about the battery.
When Ryan Gustafson, the super-hip CEO of SI giggles like a school girl at the thought of “reinventing the battery,” then we know there must be something pretty cool about it.
The battery in question is a slender, rechargeable Lithium-ion, co-developed with Somfy, a leading worldwide provider of motors for shading systems.
“It’s small and beautiful,” Gustafson says. “You can’t make this thing [shade] so small with D-Cell batteries.”
Size isn’t everything, though. The biggest challenge of battery-operated shades is making it simple to swap out or recharge the batteries.
Nobody wants to climb up ladders and dismantle the shades to replace landfill-clogging batteries. And even with today’s rechargeable models, you still have to climb a ladder and remove something or other to plug a power supply into an itty bitty connector.
What SI does here is genius. I mean, it’s kind of an obvious solution but no one seems to be doing it (yet).
SI uses inductive charging to juice up its motors. Just attach a magnet at the end of a power cord to the Nano’s housing. Plug in overnight, and you’re good to go for a couple of years.
Super-high windows? No problem. Just use a telescoping tool to get the magnet close to the inductive ring on the housing.
Given that the recharging system is so simple, SI has a little wiggle room in the shades’ power consumption. Typically, battery-operated shades employ low-bit-rate wireless technologies to conserve energy. Low data rates are fine for these purposes, but then you need a bridge to convert that protocol to IP if you want to integrate with apps and third-party control systems.
Since SI’s motors communicate natively over Wi-Fi, you don’t need a special gateway to connect to the world. In this case, you can install the shades and “program a system in just a few minutes” using Somfy’s MyLink app, Gustafson says.
He tells us Somfy has new software for MyLink that offers APIs for integration. Out of the gate, SI shades will work with Elan, Control4, Crestron, Savant and Amazon Alexa.
The Genesis of SI Shades
SI’s journey into the shading business didn’t exactly go down like: We make motorized screens. We should make motorized shades too. Same thing, right?
It was pure coincidence that Gustafson hired a COO from a nearby company eight years ago – a company that happened to be a giant shade supplier. The new guy Tom Cooley spent 23 years in the industry before joining SI. Taking an interest in Cooley’s collection of random shade-related gizmos, Gustafson eventually developed a fondness for window treatments.
He was more intrigued, however, by all the flaws in modern-day shades. Wouldn’t it be cool to start a business from scratch “that we knew our dealers and their customers would love?” he wondered. “No more disposable batteries, no ugly dust-accumulating fasciae, and no more re-work?”
SI developed an increasingly long list of all the things that were wrong with motorized shades, and why so many integrators were afraid to sell them.
Gustafson says SI is focused squarely on the home-technology channel: “We have no intention of selling shades through traditional window-covering stores.”
Unlike those specialty shops, most A/V dealers need guidance on the fundamentals – things like measuring windows, recommending the right fabric, quoting a job profitably, and just getting the hardware centered and level across a bank of windows.
So the team spent the next seven years methodically eliminating obstacles and objections.
No More Fears
Dealers who don’t do motorized shades tend to have two paralyzing fears: making any little technical mistake that could have very expensive consequences; and selling and spec’ing a category that doesn’t look anything like A/V.
“I think most integrators want to sell shades,” says Cooley, “but they’re afraid of expensive mistakes.”
Expensive indeed. He estimates some 20% of custom shades require a do-over.
What else scares dealers? Here are a few of the typical deal-breakers that SI addresses with its line of shades and related services.
Darn, I measured wrong again
Measuring a space for shades seems so simple, but this one task dooms a whole lot of projects. To mitigate mismeasurements, SI evaluated a slew of digital tools and selected the Bosch Professional GLM 50 C ($119), a 165-foot laser measure with accuracy within 1/16 inch, and quite importantly a really big read-out.
SI includes one of these in every dealer road kit, and provides vivid instructions on how to measure windows accurately.
Why is it so hard to snap a darn shade into place?
Simple, right? You screw in the brackets and just snap that cassette in place. That may be so, but it often takes two people to get it right the first time – one person to hold the cassette while the other steps back to eyeball it for placement. Otherwise, you think you have it centered when you snap it in, only to realize it’s slightly off when you step away.
Beep … pull it off and try again.
SI designed its shades for a one-person install. The cassette lodges into the brackets partway, without snapping in. The installer can step back for a look, and then nudge the cassette left or right until it’s centered. When ready, just engage the cam lack inside the cassette for a permanent hold.
“This will reinvent the game for installers,” Cooley says.
The cleverly designed cam lock, by the way, solves another big issue in shade installation. Engaging it actually raises the enclosure firmly into the upper bracket, bringing it tight against the window head to minimize any light gap.
As a bonus, SI designed its cassettes to accommodate a light stop – a strip of fuzzy fibers that crush up against the frame to block any sliver of light. Nighty night.
I will never understand fabrics
You look around, and you see a whole lot of fabric options out there. Forget about the design choices like colors and patterns. There’s an array of materials that each serve different purposes – privacy, black-out, temperature control, UV protection, view preservation … Where do you start?
For one thing, SI limits its fabric collection, believing dealers are paralyzed by the dizzying number of options. More importantly, however, SI has created a remarkable software tool that takes most of the guesswork out of fabric selection.
Gustafson says it’s unique in the industry, but I wasn’t about to take his word for it.
Fortunately we had two credible shade guys in the house. Cooley was one of them. James Koenig was the other.
SI just picked up Koenig from shade manufacturer QMotion (Legrand). He’s been in the custom-installation channel for more than two decades and has talked with a whole lot of dealers.
I had quizzed Koenig earlier this year about all things shades, and he knew what he was talking about. So when he confirmed, “Nobody’s doing anything like this,” I believed him.
This is the big reveal:
Online Shade Builder
SI created on an online tool to help dealers embrace shade projects without hesitation, and to make money doing it.
All those business-busters noted above are tackled in the software. Wrong measurements? The system syncs with the Bosch laser measure. Quoting concerns? Use SI’s profitability calculator. Spec’ing the wrong hardware? Not with SI’s Wizard-based tool. Closing the deal? There’s a tool for that, too.
Possibly the most useful tool in the kit is the Fabric Wizard. Dealers don’t need to know what types of materials reflect heat or reduce glare or perform other environmental feats. They simply go room by room, and window by window with the client, discussing requirements for the space.
Indoor models: Nano Box (metal housing), Nano Roll (exposed)
Outdoor model: Zen
Power: low voltage or wire-free via rechargeable lithium-ion battery charged with magnetic connector.
Shipping: Q4 2017 to some markets, Q1 2018 nationwide
Coming: motorized drapery tracks
Use the sliders on the Fabric Wizard to explore tradeoffs between different screen types. At the end of it all, the system presents appropriate fabric choices given the needs of the space. In this view, the customer sees a vague price range as well.
“Picking screen material is not intuitive,” Gustafson says. “With this tool, all you have to do is say what's the most important need for this room.
All the elements of a shading project are included in the tool. At the end of it all, the dealer presents a preliminary proposal to the client and they can make adjustments on the fly. If it’s over budget, for example, you can change one or many shades to a more budget-friendly material. Same with other materials and options “to get to the right budget,” Gustafson says.
All set? Get a signature, press a button, and the order is sent to SI.
Gustafson imagines an ideal world where a dealer walks into a new home with the client, and walks out with a deal.
With that vision in mind, SI created a package of everything a dealer might need from start to finish – the Bosch laser measure, samples of metal housings, samples of end caps, color chips for both, samples of fabric …. All of these items are packed in a hard case and a tote.
"The demo kit gives dealers a complete, elegant show-and-tell solution," says Michael Bridwell, VP sales and marketing. "No more bulky, awkward handfuls of swatch books that ignore the buyer’s main motivation for shades."
This final detail – the careful deliberation over the exact makeup of a traveling demo bag – shows SI is really serious about this business.
“I am stoked to say that SI has reinvented what the world wanted all along,” Gustafson says. “Beautiful shades that are cool!”
At this, I turn to Cooley and Koenig and Bridwell, and they all nod sheepishly. So it must be true.
Screen Innovations CEO Ryan Gustafson explains everything that's wrong with shades.
Julie Jacobson, recipient of the 2014 CEA TechHome Leadership Award, is co-founder of EH Publishing, producer of CE Pro, Electronic House, Commercial Integrator, Security Sales and other leading technology publications. She currently spends most of her time writing for CE Pro in the areas of home automation, security, networked A/V and the business of home systems integration. Julie majored in Economics at the University of Michigan, spent a year abroad at Cambridge University, earned an MBA from the University of Texas at Austin, and has never taken a journalism class in her life. She's a washed-up Ultimate Frisbee player currently residing in Carlsbad, Calif. Email Julie at [email protected]
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