Does it “Fit”?


Credit for this month’s topic goes to Michelle Montazeri, Director of Digital Signage at Legrand, and a DSF board member. She requested a dive into the concept of “custom” as opposed to what is commonly referred to as commercial off the shelf. From her business perspective I am sure she was mainly interested in hardware… but taking it further, the idea of standard versus custom applies to all things AV and digital signage related. Using the purchase of clothing to illustrate the point, sometimes you can buy “off the rack” and other times you desire a perfect fit, and “custom tailoring” is in order. Deciding when to do what is the key to the outcome you desire. Availability, time, and budget all play important roles in the decision you make. Let’s break it down!

This requires a short definition of terms. At the heart of the discussion is the meaning of the word custom. It has three generally accepted meanings. At one level the term “custom” refers to a practice or behavior that is specific to a particular group. There are related terms such as customary and accustomed to that relate to patterns, habits, routines, common practices, and procedures. It is the custom or practice to do XYZ.

Another meaning of custom is to make something from scratch according to the specifications of an individual. Closely related to that is the adjective to customize where a standard product is modified in some manner to fit an application more appropriately. 

Putting this in context of AV and digital signage, all meanings are relevant. There are customs, practices, and habits (good and bad) common in our industries. There are standard products and services common to our applications. There are customized products and/or services using standard offerings as a foundation and there are custom products and services made from scratch. Please forgive the over generalization but think good, better, best. There are times when each is most appropriate.

Standard Products

Under the umbrella of industry customs (aka practices and habits) we have standard offerings in hardware and software. These products are packaged or ready-made hardware or software, which address the generic (typical) needs of the market and applications. In the federal government procurement lexicon this is known as commercial off the shelf (COTS).  This means that the offering is a standardized product that already exists and is readily available as is from commercial sources. On the plus side standard or COTS products provide lower risk due to upfront work in R&D on applicability and are easier to specify and purchase often at lower costs. On the downside standard products may not be a “perfect fit”. This begs the question if good enough is in fact good enough? In many cases it may be but consider what the alternative upsides may provide as it relates to your objectives, budget, and ROI.

Customized Products

These come into play when a standard product is close to what you want but not quite close enough. Go back to my clothing metaphor. You go into a clothing shop and select something off the rack, but you need it tailored for an exact fit.  Nonetheless, you need to do a gap analysis to see what features you need that are not provided by the basic COTS offerings.

A hardware example in digital signage may be a mount or a kiosk. For your application a modification (from minor to major) is needed. A software example might be a CMS. It may require some modifications or additions to the package (coding and/or plugins) to meet your needs. In all cases there will be an added charge to customize. In both instances you need to consider the value in what this costs (think cost/benefit) to achieve that perfect fit. Keep in mind that many companies who focus on standard offerings (hardware and software) do not offer customization.

Nonetheless, you need to do a gap analysis to see what features you need that are not provided by the basic COTS offerings.

Full Custom

Custom products are products that are designed to meet the specific needs of a customer. The customer provides the product specifications, and the company designs and manufactures the product. This is advantageous because the customer has complete control over the design of the product, which allows them to get exactly what they want.

Now that we have reviewed the categories (standard, customized, custom) let’s circle back and explore what might be your best approach. Well, the proper answer is “it all depends”. This is a great approach because this opens up a conversation to explore what it might depend on.

This is a conundrum fraught with complexities that should be considered. The easiest path is to start and stop with standard products. On the hardware side if you have a 55” flat panel you simply specify an appropriate mount whose VESA mount pattern fits that display and move on. If you need a CMS buy a standard offering that comes a close as possible to what you think you need. On the content front you use pre-produced templates and stock photos/graphics. This is fine as far as it goes… but in some (but not all) cases this may miss the mark. The viewer experience may not be all that it could be, and the result relative to the objective and outcome is not what you would like.

The first step is a careful evaluation of your needs. If standard products don’t measure up then the first alternative is to customize. In a project you may not need to customize everything. You select the areas where standard offerings are fine but in others customization is called for. As noted earlier some companies support customization requests and others do not.

If standard offerings are not sufficient and customization is not an option that leaves full custom to consider. The issue with a custom solution is availability, time, and price. As Michelle Montazeri points out, relative to mounts “On the fully custom front we have customhouses (read: fabricators who specialize in ground-up custom) that can create just about anything, but it comes with a hefty price tag.” We can apply this observation to CMS software and content creators as well. In the building trades this called “cost plus” meaning time and materials. The true “costs” of custom is on your dime. It is time (including design, testing, manufacturing etc) and materials. In addition to cost, there are other caveats to full custom. There is a lack of future-proofing, and scalable or large-scale production, etc.  As Michelle opines, “It all begs the question, is the custom juice worth the squeeze?” The very firm answer is “maybe” (or “it depends”) if the results of full custom are worth the price.

Michelle Montazeri, Legrand AV
Michelle Montazeri

As Michelle points out “As manufacturers we feel ultimately responsible for ensuring clients can position their DS where it has the greatest impact and visibility.”  She goes on to say, “This sometimes requires a custom (or customized) solution, which is where the challenge lies.”  A standard product off the shelf may not meet that objective. This ports over to software and content creation as well. It all boils down to the greatest impact. The challenge of what to do is there for the manufacturers and system design and integration firms alike. It begs the question as to whether you have met your objectives or do you compromise them in some way or perhaps bite the bullet and invest in a customized or even fully custom product. You decide.

In AV and digital signage, we have a plethora of tools (aka. solutions) at our disposal. It is incumbent on each of us to not settle and take the easy way out. Consider the objectives and focus on those. Select the hardware and software for the best fit possible. Use standard COTS hardware and software components where there is little to no downside. Customize when necessary and available and go to full custom when that solution begs to be employed and availability, time, and budget permit. In our world one size (and type) does not fit all.