The burgeoning smart-home market seems rife with opportunity, but getting up to speed with the appropriate skills is a must. Steve May talks training with those at the sharp end
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see the opportunities offered by the connected smart home. But what training is available out there for electrical retailers looking to move into the potentially lucrative waters of home automation, networking and custom install?
AWE offers a range of courses through its Smart Home Academy, including lighting, system design and HDMI/4K video distribution. There’s also a Foundation Workshop aimed squarely at independent retailers, which focuses on the fundamentals of smart-home installation. A variety of tasks await course delegates, from in-ceiling speaker placement to terminating and testing network cables.
“Home automation, custom install and the connected home are all differing names for a growing market. The key is to assess where you, as a retailer, can provide added value,” suggests AWE managing director Stuart Tickle. Moving beyond delivery and set-up service makes perfect sense, he says: “It allows you to not only expand your business, but also stand out from the competition.”
Sometimes simply choosing the right technology horse to back is a quandary. KNX is a leading smart-home technology platform across Europe, and has steadily gained traction in the UK. A broad range of compatible products, which offer everything from lighting and HVAC control to home entertainment, are key to its appeal. Currently some 400 manufacturers support the technology. Flexibility and plug ‘n’ play interoperability should make it attractive for electrical retailers looking to offer smart-home services.
The British Electrical and Manufacturing Company (Bemco), an independent electrical wholesaler, runs a free introductory KNX training course from its flagship Wandsworth branch in London, every month.
Julian Barkes, KNX sales and marketing director, describes it as “an ideal environment to get a better understanding of KNX and how it works”. If you think KNX is right for you and your business, you can step up to Certified KNX Basic and KNX Advanced courses, which provide the practical experience required to specify, design, commission and support KNX projects.
KNX specialist Ivory Egg also offers a range of complimentary training, from a one-hour seminar to product training. Marketing head Charlotte Blissett-Griffiths says the courses would suit those “keen to advance their skill set or looking to move into home automation”.
A Three-Day Technician course focuses on the core essentials of lighting, heating and blind control. It’s followed by a more intensive Two-Day Partner course. There are also advanced short courses covering lighting and building control.
So who will you find on a typical training day? “Smart home automation pros looking to advance their skill and knowledge or those new to the industry looking for the best start – AV installers, electricians, networking and security specialists, building control engineers, manufacturers and suppliers,” suggests Ms Blissett-Griffiths.
Distributor Aldous Systems won the Best Training Initiative in the Cedia Awards 2013 for its online training portal, the Aldous Academy.
“Anyone can register as a new user and enrol,” explains managing director Jason Aldous. “We have a whole range of training on structured cabling, home automation, multi-room audio and CCTV. From there you can book on to one of the hands-on training courses that we run all over the country. These get you building and programming real systems and really help you understand how it all works – and you leave with a load of kit that we want you to fit at home or in the office or on a project. We also offer professional services on-site – we like to think the third part of our training is supporting you on-site on your first real project.”
Currently, one of the most popular sessions run by Aldous Systems is Leviton Security and Automation. “It covers security, lighting, heating, access control, multi room audio and AV control… a bit of everything,” says Mr Aldous.
“When it comes to smart-home security, networking skills are critical,” says Jason Hill, group vice-president at Lilin. “The CCTV aspect can be learnt much more easily, but the technical obstacles are nearly always network-related. We teach custom integrators enough in our one-day course to design, install and commission HD IP video systems. They learn about resolution, pixels per metre, lens focal lengths and other core principles. But without networking competency, this information isn’t sufficient to be successful.”
Distributor Invision UK runs an award-winning network training course with Luxul. “Networking can be very off-putting to some people, as it’s seen as horrendously complex,” admits David Meyerowitz, Invision’s product and training specialist. “We take people on a journey to demystifying this growing area of expertise and give you the ongoing support you need once out of the classroom. It’s difficult being a CI professional, as you need to have such a wide range of knowledge.”
Invision also offers training on security systems, in conjunction with security expert Lilin, and home AV through WyreStorm. Says Mr Meyerowitz: “The WyreStorm courses we offer cater for the present and the future of video distribution.”
HDanywhere also provides training for electrical retailers and satellite aerial installers. Media and communications officer Dee McKeown explains: “We manufacture multi-room HDMI and HDBaseT matrixes. We’re one of only two companies in the UK to provide certified HDBaseT Expert installer training, designed to turn anyone from a beginner to pro.”
With the emergence of multi-room AV technologies like Sky Q and Sonos, HDanywhere reports strong growth in the number of homeowners looking to get HD and 4K movies to every room in their home. “The thing about AV is that it’s a good gateway into other areas like whole-home control. We recommend you start with AV before branching into full-blown home automation,” says Ms McKeown.
Jonathan Dugdale, of Dugdales Connected Smart Home, offers some cautionary advice. “There’s some great training through Cedia and manufacturers, but I would take what’s on offer with a pinch of salt,” he says. “It can be too specialised (£100k cinema designs) or too varied. That said, Cedia’s networking course is a must for anyone going into this area.”
The award-winning electrical retailer offers customers security, IT, home automation, electrics, plumbing, planning and design services – “the list is endless, it’s that diverse” – but says newcomers should not overreach. “I’m five years into this space and I still seek the advice of other professionals, from which I learn and build long-lasting relationships. Look to install consumer-friendly products such as Sonos, mounting TVs, wi-fi and home networking as a first step.”
Mr Dugdale also suggests working with a local installer. “Get your hands dirty. Front-line knowledge and communication with the end user are crucial.”
Another retailer that has embraced the smart-home concept is the Hughes group. Its Smart Home general manager, Ashley Shorey-Mills, says: “I’ve been amazed by the array of training. When we started, it began with help and guidance from another retailer who moved into the smart-home world (Dugdales). In my eyes, the best places to begin are with training and industry organisations such as Cedia, and then distributors of smart-home products like AWE and Invision. When we first started, the team at AWE were incredibly helpful.”
Since then, Hughes has invested heavily in training, says Mr Shorey-Mills. “We needed our dedicated smart-home sales team to understand fully everything we do and all products that are available, as well as how it is installed. We have done very basic skills training at AWE to get around 40 staff to a basic level, with then the majority of our training taking place at Cedia with a core team of 12, split between sales and installation.”
But Armour Home business development director Bob Abraham cautions: “There’s a significant step-up from selling what are essentially over-the-counter products to smart-home products We read recently, much to our dismay, that smart-home solutions can cost ‘from as little as £15,000 to £20,000’. Of course, some systems do cost this much, but it’s very important to understand this isn’t a starting point, far from it.”
By way of support, Armour runs free one-day seminars at its training facilities at Woking, Bishops Stortford and Wigan. Alternatively, retailers can dip their toes into the connected market with the Systemline E50 – a £275 music package that “doesn’t require any training whatsoever”.
“It was independents who initially drove the domestic custom installation market,” says Mr Abraham, “and we believe that independents are once again best-placed to provide the degree of customer service required to deliver this new generation of accessible, smart-home products.”