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In 2012, the cinema industry saw different projector manufacturers coming above radar with laser- based prototypes. At the same time, most of them were careful in translating these technology demonstrators to fixed and confirmed product availabilities. In this article we'll give a glimpse behind the scenes as to what Barco has been doing and is doing towards full productization . The same applies to pretty much all product development work; so feel free to ask your suppliers what they are doing and where they currently are in their productization. We unveiled our 55 000 lumens, 4K digital projector for the first time to the public in January 2012. We considered (and still consider) the technology de-risked at that time: we know how to build a state-of-the art laser illuminated projector. But where does it go from here?
What makes a good prototype?
The 2012 demos used prototype projectors; of which only a few units were built. This means, among other things, that from a component viewpoint, these were sourced from suppliers at low volume pricing. Hence, the accumulated cost of the building blocks in those prototypes are above the sweet spot of commercial viability for any exhibitor. We believe that a real product should not only make technical, but also commercial sense.
A second reason was the lack of a full certification by official third-party bodies; certifying the product for its normal use. This has to do with general stuff like government directives for building electrical devices (CE, CCC,...); which are typically not applied to prototypes. It also has to do with laser-specific things. The framework for certification is in place for use cases where lasers are common (e.g. light shows and events), but not – yet – for standard exhibition. Practically, it meant that we informed our audience before every demo about the unique nature and received their official consent... not something that is manageable in day-to-day cinema operations.
A final reason is that we explicitly designed and built the units to be prototypes. They were built to work, not to live. For example, we did not take into account yet end-user design or design for serviceability. While Barco's standard cinema projectors are appreciated because of their ease-of-use and ease-of-serviceability; these prototypes were built and demoed by a specifically trained team. They knew the in's and outs of the equipment; they even knew how to turn an ‛out’ into an ‛in’! In this technology de-risking phase, this flexibility is more important than guaranteeing fast service interventions and intuitive maintenance during operation. The same holds for ‛design for manufacturability’: the prototypes were built together for maximum versatility, not for a short takt time during production.
The phase that we are currently going through is all about bringing the prototype to a real finished product. Doing it encompasses many domains. From a product design viewpoint, it means pushing the technology to the limit: creative design of optics, mechanics and electronics to build the best possible laser projector. Laser illumination brings a range of new opportunities (e.g. see our previous article on the image quality puzzle): product development is all about getting the most out of those opportunities.
Of course, product design always starts with the end-user in mind. For that reason, all the things we skipped in the prototype, now move to the top of the list: design for use, design for serviceability and design for manufacturability. This includes things like easy installation, easy operation, easy maintenance, easy service, modularity, scalability, ... But also peripheral things such as tooling, documentation, training, ...
Another part of productization is setting up the full ecosystem, from start to finish. From the manufacturer's viewpoint, it means setting up framework agreements with approved suppliers, in order to guarantee availability, volume pricing, lead times, ... Laser suppliers are new entrants in this ecosystem.
To the projector manufacturers, it means integrating new components. To the laser manufacturers, it means serving a new market with new requirements. Downstream, we’ll enable our customers and business partners with finalized product specs, options, sales processes, marketing materials, ...
Finally: testing, certification and compliancy are all crucial factors, whenever laser illumination is used in a cinema (as explained above). Besides functionality and performance testing, testing also implies lifetime testing. This YouTube video gives an idea of the kind of testing that we do. Built to run for thousands of hours per year in cinemas, we want to make sure the units will perform across their lifetime before leaving the factory. Another type of testing has to do with certification and standardization: not only the CE-type of tests we mentioned above, but also the DCI compliance that is crucial in digital cinema. All of this is not only a standard part of putting a product onto the market; it also provides ease of mind and ease of installation to all parties involved. Standardization and certification are crucial because they provide a common language and reference behavior. When we talk about the technical viability of a finished product, this is crucial.
What will we finally deliver?
The two most asked questions from the outside world during the laser productization phase are probably "When can we get one?" and "How much will it cost?" (the same 2 questions asked during any product development phase). You'll understand that we cannot give away all our secrets; but we do commit to delivering a product that meets the requirements of cinema exhibition. Not an exotically expensive gimmick nor a ridiculously low lumen gadget. However, by continually pushing the boundaries in product design, the laser projector, once perfected, is bound to redefine the industry standard. What you can do with it, how you will use it, the lifetime maintenance,... will all be a significant improvement on what exhibitors are used to now. Yet, it will be a recognizable Barco product, boasting all the features our existing projectors are noted for. Fundamental parameters such as ease-of-use, reliability, modularity, lowest TCO, ... don't get thrown out of the window because you move up to laser illumination.
 This translates as the cycle time, which sets the pace for industrial manufacturing lines.
 The act of modifying something, such as a concept or a tool internal to an organization, to make it suitable as a commercial product.
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