Digital Design Tools: Innovative technologies make the design process more efficient - Jun 19

By Beth Miller

Interior design tools have come a long way from paint chips, protractors, fabric samples and an actual, physical color wheel. Everything has gone digital. Whether designers are working to create flooring or helping a commercial contractor design an interior space, they are always looking for ways to save time and, ultimately, money. The tools highlighted here accomplish both, reducing the workflow and cutting down the selling process from days and weeks to mere minutes.

The flooring industry has been trying on different digital tools in an attempt to see what fits. For instance, virtual reality (VR) was the buzz only two years ago. At NeoCon 2017, Armstrong offered attendees the opportunity to test drive its VR prototype, and Mohawk’s VR technology called Visual Interactive Studio won a Best of Neocon Gold Innovation award. In the background, augmented reality (AR) was making its way into the flooring world with a more affordable, user-friendly visualization technology that can be downloaded on any handheld device and used immediately. AR makes use of the existing natural environment by simply overlaying virtual information, while VR exists entirely in a virtual environment. The ability to apply products into an existing environment has placed a world of furnishings in the palms of interior designers, manufacturers, retailers and end-users.

At Coverings 2018, Tile of Spain hosted a session on AR that targeted purchasers, sales-people, specifiers and end users, educating them about the tools that creative directors can employ to create effective and layered looks in ceramics-a product development focus rather than simply visualizing product on a floor.

Now, the hot ticket technology is the online visualizer tool. The technology itself is not new, having been in existence for roughly a decade. Visualization technology was initially treated as more of an add-on and less of a tool. However, it is now gaining traction with flooring manufacturers, designers, flooring retailers and end-users for everything from product design to selling. An online visualizer is no longer simply an add-on that allows a viewer to see a product in a room; it is now a tool with the ability to drive analytics, provide realistic room scenes-not just flat images-and offer a wide variety of product options for project design.

Home improvement shows on HGTV and home furnishing retailers like IKEA are pushing home improvement and interior design onto the mobile devices and computers of consumers around the world. HGTV goes beyond television shows to offer design software that assists with home, landscape, kitchen, bathroom and garden design as well as floor plans, home remodeling and 3D home design. IKEA has an online visualizer tool that helps with home and room layout planning using their products. The bottom line? It’s all about choices. As the selection of digital design tools continues to grow, what will the flooring industry try on next? The tools highlighted here offer something beyond the standard fare.

TRICYCLE DIGITAL SOLUTIONS
Located in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Tricycle Inc. started in the flooring industry as a digital marketing solution that supports the commercial interiors business by creating digital samples, known as Tryks, to offer a sustainable alternative to physical carpet samples via paper-based simulations. The company reports that approximately 20,000 Tryks are generated each month. Concerning the flooring industry’s digital needs, Aern Hetem, president, “Tricycle has evolved into a solution provider to visualize carpet that’s not been made yet and to help the carpet industry be smarter.”

Tricycle simplifies the sample request process by providing designers and reps with the ability to browse specific flooring styles, create a digital or print sample and share the Tryk “sample”-a process that started by hand-painting the flooring product on scanning paper. It took two weeks to complete an image, and if a color needed to be changed, the process had to start all over. Using the Tryk Sample Creator, a machine-ready digital file is created that can be sent straight to the machine in order to produce a sample. Hetem adds, “Design software was created to make designers more efficient-to give them more choices. The idea was to be designing rather than making sales presentations.”

While Tricycle specializes in visualizing carpet, it has begun the process of adding LVT wood-look products. The challenge there is to capture the realism of an actual product and not simply mimic a photo of the product. At the end of 2017, Shaw Industries purchased Tricycle to support its commercial business. However, Tricycle continues to operate independently, serving the commercial flooring industry. Other clients include Mohawk, Tarkett, Interface, Bentley Mills, J+J, Nourison, Couristan, Bolyu, Mannington, Crossley Carpets and Longhorn Carpets.

Currently, Tricycle is working on the lighting realism in its simulations. The company is approximately three to four months into the project. Part of this process requires Tricycle to consider the relief-the projection of figures or forms from a flat background-and capture it accurately in the scan process. Hetem says that the relief in the Tryk or digital sample is dependent upon the amount of light entering a room. In order to ensure that the light looks realistic and does not have a negative effect on the relief, a file or image layer is created that can be applied to the room scene image to change the amount of light in the image by either increasing it or decreasing it.

THE COLOR CONDUCTOR
Summit International Flooring, a commercial flooring dealer headquartered in Whippany, New Jersey, launched The Color Conductor in January to coincide with its website revamp. The Color Conductor is a program that lets users create and order custom rubber tile. The tool is designed to look like a piano keyboard where customers “compose” their custom order.

The idea came from David Numark, president and CEO, who asked, “What can be more unique than what you can create yourself?” The goal behind the new tool is to help Summit evolve in order to reach a different audience. Its target audience is A&D specifiers, but it would like to work with corporate and hospitality end-users directly as well.

According to Hailey Moscatelli, brand manager, “We do well with our rubber sales and wanted to expand on that. The feedback has been positive.” The first step was to figure out what the tool should look like so as to avoid the “factory” design of competitor tools. Moscatelli says the end result is “playful yet sophisticated.”

The unique selling proposition for the tool is that it offers a terrazzo look, via the use of the chunk option, that stands out from the other rubber flooring Summit offers. Designers start by selecting indoor or outdoor use, then choose from the 21 colors and select a granule size: fine, course, chunk. The chunk option literally adds chunks of rubber to the mix in addition to fine and course rubber granules. There is a cork option as well, providing an eco-friendly product. The next step is mixing the colors and determining how much of each color is in the tile, at which point the program asks the user to name the virtual sample so it can be saved.

Then it’s on to the visualizer tool. Summit provides a photo gallery made up of six scenes that it feels embody the types of spaces the rubber tile is typically used in. Everything can be saved within The Color Conductor, and there is the option to email the images with the applied swatch. At this point, designers can send their tile swatches or room scenes or both to Twitter or Facebook for immediate feedback.

It takes a minute or two to create one swatch and email it or post it to social media. Moving forward, Summit is looking for feedback on the tool and is planning to expand its color selection and increase the number of room scenes. Perhaps the option to upload designers’ project images would be a possibility in the future?

ROOMVO VISUALIZATION TECHNOLOGY
Leap Tools’ RoomVo visualizer technology is designed to be added to the websites of flooring manufacturers, distributors or retailers to assist the client in the buying process. Leap Tools, founded a decade ago, has been developing its RoomVo tool for the last five years. Based in Toronto, Canada, Leap Tools works with Engineered Floors, MS International, Torlys, Rugs USA and Del Conca, to name a few of its clients. According to Pawel Rajszel, CEO, RoomVo makes it possible to drive the time it takes for the average floor buying process down exponentially.

Rajszel says, “The buying process is significantly hampered by the inability to visualize.” He continues, “There are many small to medium [sized] flooring companies that have phenomenal products but are having trouble getting them into the marketplace. The challenge is making someone appreciate your product when they can’t see it.”

The traditional selling route with a 1’x1’ sample asks the client to place the product on the ground and imagine it in the space. According to Rajszel, it’s extremely hard to make this kind of visual assessment and extremely easy to get it wrong. “You’ve heard the line ‘I wish we’d gone with the other one,’” he says. This is one of the biggest benefits of a visualization tool and certainly a gamechanger. Rajszel says, “It’s especially the case for the smaller companies that don’t have the same muscle or clout to be able to push their product into the marketplace.”

RoomVo’s augmented reality technology allows a consumer to upload an image of any room-or choose from a mix of sample images-and view the flooring product from a mobile device or computer. The program interprets the scale of the room and the perspective in order to make the floor look realistic and not like it has been Photoshopped. Since the visualizer is integrated into its customers’ websites and not, for instance, a standalone app, it’s always running on the latest version.

Engineered Floors launched its hard surface program in May 2018 and made the decision to go with RoomVo to get the products in front of the consumer. With RoomVo, consumers were able to view the 40 SKUs before the sample displays had arrived in-store. The integration of RoomVo with the EF Hard Surfaces website took less than a month, and the products were viewed through RoomVo three times more than through its product pages.

“RoomVo has been a great company to work with,” says Nick Swiney, EF’s digital marketing manager. “Their innovative visualizer has worked flawlessly since day one, and it continues to captivate our customers. The level of realism and accuracy is unparalleled; helping consumers make confident purchasing decisions.”  

According to Rajszel, “On average, we’re seeing a consumer look at two dozen floors every time they enter a site.”

RugsUSA, another RoomVo user, sells rugs online only. As such, Leap Tools can fully track the usage and the point of sale. In a double-blind study with 100,000 of RugsUSA website users, Leap Tools was able to prove that, through the use of the tool, the number of orders increased by 8% site wide. Additionally, it revealed that the average order value increased, so using the visualizer was driving people to spend more.

SKETCHUP’S 3D WAREHOUSE
According to Peter Saal, SketchUp’s project manager, SketchUp was originally released in 2000 and quickly found a following with architects and designers who needed a tool for fast and easy 3D design and visualization. Google bought SketchUp in 2006 and introduced a free version of it to model 3D buildings for inclusion on Google Earth. A year later, SketchUp launched 3D Warehouse, also free, so users could share their models with the world, which led to manufacturers and online marketers uploading models of their products for architects and designers to use in their projects.

Crossville uploaded its complete collection to 3D Warehouse in January, making it the first tile company to do so. The idea was sparked by designers in Crossville Studio’s Texas branch, who put in a request to add the materials to 3D Warehouse to streamline and speed up the product selection process for design projects. Karli Carter, Crossville’s marketing services coordinator with digital media, reports that since January, Crossville products have been viewed 36,000 times with 2,500 downloads. Another feature of the 3D Warehouse is that it indicates where the downloads are happening geographically.

Saal says, “We’re very excited that Crossville decided to add their products on 3D Warehouse. There are a lot of flooring manufacturers on 3D Warehouse but not many from the U.S. Our guess is that folks still tend to think of flooring as a two-dimensional product. 3D helps customers visualize how a product will look in context. We see more and more people using our augmented reality viewer on phones and tablets.”

In 2012, SketchUp and 3D Warehouse were acquired by Trimble, a California-based software developer. Interior designers, architects, contractors, facility managers, homeowners and DIYers use Trimble’s tools to complete both residential and large commercial projects. Saal reports that 1,100 manufacturers have published 300,000 products on 3D Warehouse to date. The process is simple, and services are available to help users optimize their product models and catalog promotion. 3D Warehouse has hundreds of thousands of users and over a million downloads a day.

According to Saal, “What really makes 3D Warehouse different is that it’s an open platform.” In addition to SketchUp, users can download content to use in several other programs, like Revit. Many of these programs have incorporated 3D Warehouse into their software.

DP SYNC PLUGIN
DP Sync, a Designer Pages plugin, has been in development for two years. Designer Pages Pro, Designer Pages’ advanced design software, now has the ability to sync with Autodesk Revit, a building information modeling (BIM) platform, to exchange project data between the platforms. Designer Pages started as a search database for products-and it continues to offer those same features today, like the vendor directory on the website-but in 2012 it started to move toward a project platform, according to Westin Conahan, product manager.

Designer Pages’ database has over 265,000 products across all categories, and those products can be moved to Designer Pages Pro, the project platform. “This is where they start building out their specifications,” says Conahan. “We see designers building specifications in Word, InDesign, Excel and even PowerPoint-PowerPoint is now collaborative through Office 365. But people are figuring out they are wasting so much time using Excel, and they are asking, why are we doing this in Excel and PowerPoint?”

What is unique about the DP Sync plugin is that clients can sync data back and forth however they like. Conahan notes that DP Sync allows designers to start in Revit then pull the data into Designer Pages Pro so they can start to grow those products over time and start building a preliminary budget. Recently, the company has been working on building hospitality features into the program, allowing designers to get a jump on building products in order to provide budget information for an entire hotel or resort project before actually beginning to design. This cuts down on the amount of time spent on the decision-making process so that designers can start sourcing and specifying sooner.

The company has been focused on corporate but is now moving toward hospitality. Conahan says, “Both workflows are very different, so we are having to develop features to accommodate a hospitality workflow.”

The software caters to both small and large firms and is priced affordably. DP Sync is included in a subscription to Designer Pages Pro, starting at $72 per month for two users. The packages go up from there, depending on the number of users and which features are required. Designer Pages, the product sourcing platform, is free and only requires registration.

Carina Clark, interior architect with HED in Chicago, Illinois, has been using Designer Pages Pro for the last four years and began using DP Sync as soon as it was released. In fact, she was one of the product testers. Clark says, “I never have to create an actual material within Revit until I do a sync. When I do the sync, I know it’s going to create all the materials I need for the project in one button.” DP Sync will not sync anything until the user hits the sync button, so there is no risk in accidentally pushing or pulling data from one program to the other. According to Clark and Conahan, the technology reduces the entire process from days to seconds.

VSTUDIO VISUALIZATION SOLUTION
Azul Arc, founded in Atlanta, Georgia in 2006, offers software development solutions like websites and apps as well as 2D and 3D project renderings. According to Ming Ong, marketing manager, “We were giving them away to clients one-on-one then realized that our customer’s clients could benefit from the same tool.” Its vStudio visualizer tool, introduced in 2010, won a Best of Neocon Gold in 2016. The visualizer was originally designed with architects in mind. The company was doing more renderings of buildings to show different surfaces and, through user feedback, realized they wanted the ability to view flooring in a home.

The firm focuses primarily in commercial interiors with large manufacturers and its clients include companies like Panolam Surface Systems-specializing in various surfaces (i.e. marker boards, cabinet liners, backer-sheets, and countertops), walls and cabinets-and Shaw Contract. The tool is fully integrated with clients’ product databases.

vStudio allows users to create digital room scenes and drop any products in on any surface. Colors and materials can be switched out easily. As for flooring, it allows for the application of any flooring type and multiple floors per room. After a floor is designed, it can be rendered as a 2D or 3D image and placed into a room scene, saving flooring manufacturers money on costly photo shoots-props, flooring products and equipment.

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