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Videoconferencing smoothes the road for engineering firm

Smith Engineering sets up Polycom network

Videoconference at Smith Engineering ConsultantsIt's Friday afternoon and you're stuck in traffic. You're supposed to be somewhere five minutes ago and once again, it looks like they'll be starting that meeting without you. Sound familiar? It's the kind of problem that employees of Smith Engineering Consultants faced week after week, but not any more. Now when Friday staff meetings roll around, everyone is just where they want to be, interacting, trading ideas, and solving problems via a Polycom ViewStation MP videoconferencing system that links them all together instantly.

Smith Engineering is a mid-sized civil engineering firm based in McHenry, Illinois, with an impressive caseload of projects and clients. Smith Engineering prides itself on being a "family" with highly motivated professionals who work well as a team and have fun doing it. Since owner John Smith began the company almost 20 years ago, its services have grown to include design, surveying and construction layout.

Multi-site conferences

Up until the fall of 1999, Smith brought everyone together for bi-weekly staff meetings in McHenry, and project managers and other employees from the company's Yorkville office would spend several hours a week traveling to and from headquarters. When Smith landed the Del Webb Sun City account in Huntley, they opened a third office there. That meant even more time driving. "Fridays meant only a half day in the office, the rest in the car," according to Pete Smothers, Smith's Systems Manager. Those weekly meetings were too important to give up, but they knew there must be a better way. John Smith and Smothers decided to explore videoconferencing as an alternative.

With the help of United Visual's Dale Bottcher, Smothers educated himself on the different kinds of conferencing systems available. He knew the system had to be portable since so much of their business moves from site to site. It had to connect to all their branch offices at once or to just one branch at a time. But what led him to the Polycom was not having to call the phone company to do a multi-site conference. "The thing we liked about the Polycom is that it has the internal bridge. We can connect to each other whenever we want."

Smothers liked what he saw at United Visual as well. "You can get the equipment for about the same price from anybody, but I look for the personal relationship you have with the company you do business with," says Smothers. "We got a good feeling from United."

Centralized management

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The system Smothers chose can connect up to three remote sites with the home office, then display each at the same time in a four-way split screen. "For the complexity of the technology it's very simple to use," he says. Smothers likes the fact that meeting participants can operate their cameras manually or have them track to speakers' voices. It's easy to switch to the document camera or go to a camera preset that shows a room's whiteboard. Smith Engineering has a wide-area network connecting their branch offices, so Bottcher suggested they hook up their new systems using Polycom's Global Management Software. GMS allows Smothers to control each system from his PC-troubleshooting any problem and even launching calls for a novice operator. "We've found most of the problems with these systems are very simple operator errors," says Bottcher. "Now Pete can solve these things without having to drive out to the branch office." "Fortunately," adds Smothers, "my use of the software has been limited as the system is always operational and our users have no problems."

The whole system is very versatile and gives the engineering firm the control it wants. Along with prearranged staff meetings, Smothers says there are plenty of impromptu videoconferences going on among designers and planners. "It's just become an integrated part of our everyday operations."

Smith has plans to wire two other conference rooms at the McHenry headquarters so they can use the system in any of the rooms. Smothers bought a rolling Bretford cabinet for each system, so it's easy to move them around. But it's the equipment that gets moved now, not the people. By taking its employees out of their cars and bringing them together through videoconferencing, Smith Engineering has made things better for everyone.