Catching Up With...: Cleerline Technology Group
Technology Integrator: Tell us about Cleerline Technology Group, and the sub-categories and businesses that fall under that umbrella. What does each division bring to the custom integrator community that is unique, in terms of products and services?
Rob D’Addario: Cleerline Technology Group was formed Jan. 2, 2012. This was a new company started as an affiliate of D’Addario & Co., Inc. The formation of Cleerline was specifically to address the desire to capitalize on the innovative technologies developed under Planet Waves Custom Installation, and Custom Install Supply independently, the core technology being Cleerline’s NSF, or non-strip-fiber. Cleerline’s mission is to develop solutions that make the installer/integrator’s job easier and more profitable. The business is structured and supports three product areas. Cleerline NSF is a revolutionary fiber technology that makes terminating fiber in the field a much simpler job. Planet Waves Custom Installation is a product line that simplifies the installation of coax cable and connectors. Also, PW includes HDMI solutions a well as other installer-/integrator-centric innovative products around HDMI. Distributed Parts is a one-stop shop for all of the parts and pieces of an installation that, generally, our customers overlook, or spend too much time trying to source.
TI: A recent focus of Cleerline’s has been to promote and explain the advantages and benefits of the new NSF fiber optics line. What is the technology, and why it is unique?
D’Addario: Cleerline NSF was developed with the simple principle of making fiber optic termination something an installation technician no longer fears. Fiber is the future of all connectivity in the home and office; it will be the medium that the 21st Century is built on. Understanding the installation process for typical fiber optics and the reviewing the termination process, we felt there was a ton of room for improvement, and simplification.
The simple premise we focused on was similar to our PW Coax solution, where we matched the outer diameter of the cable with the diameter of the connector. In superimposing this same principle on fiber, we stumbled upon many other benefits for our customers and pretty much anyone involved with fiber optic installation. Basically, instead of a core + cladding with a 900um buffer, our fiber is core + cladding + integral polymer coating to 125um (the connector standard diameter) + a 250um soft peel buffer (for identification, and color coding).
First, the preparation time for terminating a mechanical splice connector is cut in half. By this advancement alone, we are able to reduce the labor time involved in terminating fiber by 80 percent, taking a job that, with a skilled technician that routinely terminates fiber in about five minutes on average, to an average time of less than one minute.
In addition, the training to become proficient at fiber termination is dramatically reduced. Standard fiber optic training courses typically take eight to 16 hours of class time, and practice in the field. With NSF, we can have someone watch a 10 minute video, have them experience the process, and by the tenth time they have terminated a connector, they are up to speed and completing the process routinely in less than one minute. Any technician working with NSF can be proficient at terminating fiber in well under an hour.
For those experienced in fiber, the benefits go even further. First, the fiber is never exposed, or, better put, the glass is never exposed. This changes things for the long-term stability of the connection. Previously the weakest link in a fiber system is caused by exposing glass to the elements. Dust, oils, humidity, dirt, etc., will all erode the glass; it is a significant problem, and one we have overcome with this fiber design. Since we are never stripping the fiber down to the actual glass, the fiber is more stable in the long term, and connection is more stable.
Next, our glass has a smaller cladding outer diameter, which improves its bend performance. This allows the glass to be much more impervious to sharp bends around corners, but in addition, it makes it nearly impossible for the fiber to penetrate the skin. In fact, we have yet to see this happen. After three years in development and countless efforts in testing and now close to two years of actual field installation, the fiber has never pierced the skin of any of our testers or customers. This is an incredible step forward in the process of fiber optic installation. Fiber has been known to be dangerous and difficult to handle, much like fiberglass installation, but with significantly longer-term health risks and complications, all stemming from glass penetrating the skin.
Another significant advantage is based upon our current soft peel buffer design that is purposely made to be removed by the installer’s fingers. The outer diameter of our soft peel is 250um, which is significantly smaller than the standard fiber buffer 900um equivalents. This allows more strands of fiber in smaller packages. Every millimeter of space you can save in construction is crucial, especially in conduits and space-limited installations.
The durability of our fiber is literally 10,000 times stronger and more mechanically durable, compared to the competition. We have the data to prove this, and it is truly remarkable. This allowed us to design a fiber cable that looks, feels, and acts like cat5 or RG6, but is exponentially stronger and more resilient than both of them. In addition, it weighs less and has infinitely more bandwidth potential.
TI: Aside from the technology behind NSF, what are the benefits of NSF from the standpoints of speed and precision of installation, and ease of use?
D’Addario: Well for last year’s CEDIA Expo, we had four HDMI transceiver solutions on display; the fiber terminations were completed by our warehouse employee with 10 minutes of training prior to. This is a real paradigm shift for many integrators. We are taking a job that was scary and something they literally would rather outsource to make sure it was done correctly, to something they could make into a profit center in a short amount of time. We had one customer train every one of their PMs as well their technicians in the span of a week, and made our product a standard on every job they did moving forward. Prior to NSF, only specialty contractors and those companies that invested weeks of training and thousands of dollars in tooling could work with fiber. NSF makes terminating fiber something anyone do. Essentially, any installer that can terminate a cat5 jack can terminate NSF in the same amount of time or less.
TI: What other product categories is Cleerline developing or exploring to meet the needs of residential integrators, both near- and far term?
D’Addario: Our focus is on expanding the use of fiber; there are multiple directions we approach this from. One is the process of terminating fiber. We feel we’re about 60 percent of the way there with the fiber itself. The other 40 percent is a part of the tools required for the job, as well as the connector itself.
Another area for us is working with current fiber parts and pieces available in the market. Our distributed parts division enables us to bring in the best parts and pieces to support the use of fiber in the home and office. We are in the process of adding several new lines of products that will make it easier for our customers to start deploying fiber themselves for the benefit of their customers.
Lastly, we are partnering with emerging companies that are looking to take advantage of the advantages our fiber creates. The use of fiber has been limited to the pole, the datacenter, and inside walls. Our fiber is enabling concepts that reach much further into our lives, and will transform how we interact with the world around us; faster connectivity is only one portion of the equation.
TI: What are you working on for the commercial integrator community, near- and far term?
D’Addario: From a long-term product development or business development standpoint, we really limit the differentiation of commercial and residential installers, especially when working with fiber. Probably the biggest area in the short term for commercial companies is ensuring that we have capabilities to meet all of the different cable form factors that are required. Residential is pretty simple comparatively, as commercial applications have different demands that we are constantly evaluating and working through with our products.
TI: What products are on the developmental drawing board specifically for CEDIA Expo introduction that you can give our readers a sneak peek of – or, if the show isn’t a target for new-product introduction, what will be the focus of your exhibition there?
D’Addario: We have gotten away from developing products to focus on for tradeshows. If they line up, great; if not, it’s really not the end of the world. We use tradeshows to meet new customers and predominantly get face time with our existing customers. We are constantly looking for feedback, as that is the most important thing we get out of our interaction with our customers on a daily basis, and on the tradeshow floor. In terms of new products this year, we are focused on developing a new fiber tool. We are working to increase reliability, reduce the time and complexity, and reduce the overall cost of ownership. We have preliminary designs and will have patents filed prior to Expo so that we are able show the product in a prototype form and gain important feedback from our customers.
TI: What can you say about Cleerline’s dealer/integrator support policies that make you stand out from your competitors?
D’Addario: It’s easy to say the customer is always right; it’s harder to truly support your customer. We strive to be second to none in terms of supporting our customers; we go out of our way to make our customers feel important at every step of the relationship. Our true north is not just to have excellent customer service and support, but it is to build the ultimate customer experience. We want our customers to know, not by words located on a site, or in an ad, that we have their back, but rather through their day-to-day interaction with us, that they can depend on us in good and bad situations. One of the biggest differentiators we have is our own people. Rick [Sant] and Ryan [Prentice] are former Integrators and were probably some of the best in the industry for over 20 years. They know what it’s like to get a phone call on Thanksgiving morning, or the night before the Super Bowl. They have a deep understanding of what our dealers deal with on a daily basis. As a result, we make it a point that we are the toughest to please, as we are our own customers, and I believe that goes a long way in establishing credibility with the installation community.
TI: Can you provide a broad perspective of where you feel the custom integration industry is headed in the next year – and whether you think business has turned a corner for most integrators?
D’Addario: The short answer is the residential AV market has changed and it will never be what it was. The technology has changed, the pricing has changed, everything has changed, and if you haven’t realized that yet, than it’s only a matter of time. Apple, Microsoft, Google and Samsung are changing the playing field as you read this. Convergence is truly here. Four years ago, I had an Xbox and DVD player in my living room and it took up a shelf in a bookcase. Today I have an Apple TV and it’s the size of two packs of cigarettes sitting next to each other. This is only a small example of what is on the horizon. We are in continuous discussions regarding the use of our fiber in next-generation building architectures. The reality is that convergence isn’t about datacom and AV merging, it’s about security, lighting, AV, data and telephony, all converging on one network, and being installed by one discipline instead of five. The installation will be more efficient, the technology will be more efficient, the bandwidth will be superior, and in the end the products will be more stable and serviced at a higher level. Which industry is going to take the lead on this, that’s anyone’s guess. Is this happening in the next year? Not likely, but we’re seeing signs that it is happening, and it will accelerate within the next two to five years.