Ghost In The Machine
by Security Electronics and Networks | @Articles Product Reviews | November 8, 2012, 8:00am AEDT
KEY drivers are conspiring to strangle the genius of modern electronics. These include a relentless pressure on price and a subsequent reduction in quality, performance and reliability. Taken to logical conclusions this means buyers are getting exactly what they pay for – less.
The result in all areas of electronics is a consumable culture of churn that sees solutions fail to leverage lateral advances in technology. This problem plagued SCSI’s founder and managing director, the late Steve Acott, who spent decades trying to bring to fruition his glittering personal vision of the perfect wireless monitoring solution.
One of the industry’s monitoring pioneers, Acott managed his own monitoring station with wife Debbie in the 1980s before acquiring Guardwell Security Services out of which was spun Guardwell Communications, a company that ultimately became leading wireless monitoring manufacturer and provider, SCSI.
Acott’s vision was a highly secure communications device capable of transmitting alarm signals in the event of line failure that he thought could replace Securitel and direct line comms in high end applications. Fascinatingly, when spin-off Guardwell Communications released its Guardcell product in 1991, it really was a true precursor of a future in which through-the-air signals would change the fundamental nature of human communications forever.
This all sounds very obvious in the last months of 2012 but when I visited Guardwell in 1991 to see the new Guardcell product, the idea of smart phones was science fiction stuff. Guardcell was so far ahead of its time much of the technology was incomprehensible to a market chemically bonded to tradition. Undeterred, however, Acott persevered with wireless and slowly and surely his business grew.
The closure of the analogue mobile network in 2000 demanded the development of a solution capable of reporting over the digital GSM network. This and the runaway growth of commercial mobile services and coverage led to the founding of SCSI and the development of the company’s Direct Wireless solution.
Typical of Acott’s restless, perfectionist nature and indicative of the long evolution of modern wireless communications over the past 2 decades, SCSI never stopped developing new versions of what it saw as the perfect secure wireless monitoring communications unit. And when Acott passed away in 2009, his quest did not end. At Security 2011 in Sydney, SCSI released Acott’s last communications unit, a solution the team hoped would be the ultimate expression of secure wireless alarm monitoring technology.
But, according to SCSI, the product was not quite good enough to meet its own exacting standards. The failings of external engineers and the challenges of remote manufacturing had combined to see Acott’s dream of perfection short-circuited by tiny flaws of design and build which were outside SCSI’s control.
Fast forward 12 months and I flew to Melbourne a couple of weeks ago to talk with general manager Daniel Cananzi and SCSI’s new MD, Steve’s son, Dale Acott, about the brand new version of the Direct Wireless product, the DTU3G/IP. Just released, the unit was wholly designed inhouse at SCSI and is being manufactured locally at SRX Global’s big factory in Melbourne.
Meeting Cananzi at the SCSI office it’s quickly clear the man has lost none of the fierce enthusiasm that has long defined him. For Cananzi, the DTU3G/IP embodies more than a summation of parts – it’s the expression of an entire doctrine – a fast, secure, always-up monitoring path. As we chat, Cananzi is candid about the flaws in the earlier product and he says the company incorporated its own ideas as well as ideas expressed by clients into the design of the new unit.
“There’s the product we launched at ASIAL in 2011,” Cananzi tells me, pointing at a compact controller on a nearby wall. “After that release we decided the unit was too big and it didn’t do everything we wanted it to do. It was scrapped and we started again.
“In fact, there’s nothing wrong with that product and we used a lot of the design again in the new DTU3G/IP but we wanted to make the product perfect so we held up our sales for another year to get it right.”
According to Cananzi, this time the board was designed inhouse and it’s being built in Australia to ISO 9001 standards. While he doesn’t go into detail, behind Cananzi’s words there’s a frustration that seems to be the manifestation of many years of trying and failing to get contractors to materialise a service provider’s concept of absolute product perfection.
“Instead of depending on external contractors we put together an inhouse engineering dream team to handle the design for us this time,” he explains. “We’ve invested nearly $2 million in our engineering team so far and we believe our engineers are some of the best in the country. We’ve really put the effort in and we spared no expense at any level, we did not economise on a single resistor.”
While he’s no longer around, Steve Acott’s presence is integral to the DTU3/IP. Sitting in the SCSI office at Seaford, an office Acott was so proud of, listening to Cananzi’s enthusiasm spooling up I can’t help seeing in my mind’s eye Acott across the table, bouncing out of his chair with excitement.
“Steve dreamed about a system that worked like this years and years ago but it couldn’t be done using the technology of the time,” Cananzi tells me. “He kept investing and investing trying to build the perfect wireless alarm communication product but suppliers and manufacturers never delivered exactly what he wanted.
“That’s very much the reason we took ownership of design of the product and why we’re building it locally. We are building the product Steve wanted to build and building it here in Australia where he would have wanted it built.
“We’re designing it here and making it here and sparing no expense. And the reason for this is that our sale is not the hardware, it’s 10 years of reliable telecommunications support for an alarm panel.”
While we’re talking, SCSI’s MD Dale Acott arrives. Third generation electronic security industry, he’s a quieter man than his father but has the same passion and relentless focus on the company’s product.
“It’s been 3 years of considerable effort and expense to get here,” Dale tells me. “We’ve put all our effort into building a product that is 100 per cent the best it can be. Having engineers inhouse isn’t the cheapest thing but we’re financial stable and in order to build the best solution we were prepared to make the considerable investment required.
“We stretched our engineers, too. We just had to get it right. For example, we threw away the plastic housing 3 times and went back to the drawing board. We had to get this solution absolutely right.”
What exactly are we talking about here? It’s easy to think of an alarm communicator as a simple device but nothing could be further from the truth. There’s a multiplicity of functions, a combination of necessarily integrated technologies and a sort of ‘self awareness’ that makes an alarm communicator like this extremely difficult to design and build.
Operationally, the DTU3G/IP wireless alarm communicator connects to SCSI’s DirectWireless alarm transmission network and is based around new dual-SIM technology. It provides 6 secure paths of communication between alarm panel and monitoring station including Telstra NextG, Optus 3G, Telstra GPRS, Optus GPRS, Ethernet and PSTN. Using wireless, reporting times are a snappy 250ms from remote premises to monitoring station.
SCSI's Daniel Cananzi (r)
Features of the DTU include 3 reporting paths into monitoring stations (frame relay, 3G and PSTN), plug and play connection to alarm panels, Contact ID, an RS 232 Serial Interface, a general purpose alarm input, a remote controllable output, a tamper input, a CPU monitor, alarm panel interconnect supervision, monitoring of power supply voltage, 3dB multi-band antenna, remote ACK of alarm signals, and the ability to provide full event audit trails to the monitoring station.
SCSI has gone with multiple 3G networks because it says wireless networks cannot be guaranteed to be up all the time and that when a 3G network fails traffic drops back to 2G which is frail technology that benefits from little investment. According to Cananzi it’s for this reason that a pair of 3G wireless networks is the best solution and he says the networks SCSI is using have never been down together. With a private IP network thrown into the mix you get 100 per cent uptime.
As part of its development of the product, SCSI put a lot of effort into getting a handle on the sorts of environments the DTU3G will be operating in. Part of this process involved installing dozens of third-party alarm panels at SCSI and then testing their inputs and outputs so as to ensure the DTU was equipped to communicate with all of them.
“We’ve invested nearly $2 million in our engineering team so far and we believe our engineers are some of the best in the country. We’ve really put the effort in and we spared no expense at any level, we did not economise on a single resistor”
“We set up exact panels used by big clients, wire them up to their specifications – Tecom, Concept, Protege, whatever panel it is,” says Cananzi, showing me a wall groaning with hardware. “We go through this process so we can understand the endless variability between all these panels. For our device to be utterly reliable we need to understand all alarm panels, their supply voltages and signal strengths.
“We’ve done fuzzy logic that allows our DTU device to vary itself to suit the panel it’s connected to and we’ve used an intelligent dialler capture because panels vary in their specifications. You don’t see this from other manufacturers.”
It’s certainly impressive dedication and it shows the level of intensity the company is putting into its work, I think as I poke around the panels, some of which I’ve never seen in the wild. In fact, SCSI’s commitment to preparing the DTU3G for any possible eventuality in terms of alarm system support really is taken to extreme levels.
“If we have problems in the field we will search our database to find the panel model number so we can work out what could be the issue,” Dale tells me. “But if we don’t have the data we’ll go so far as to buy an old panel off a customer if it’s being replaced just to bring it in and test it so as to broaden the capability of our solution to handle variations it comes across.”
As we talk, Cananzi calls up a DTU3G/IP in the field from a workstation in the company’s DirectWireless control room.
“Look at this remote solution I’m monitoring live,” he says scrolling through management software. “We can see here that the Optus SIM is in use while the Telstra SIM is ready to go. We can also see the panel is getting 50V and returning 51V to the DTU. We can also monitor the heartbeat from the keypad coming back to us so we know the panel is ok and we can see the PSTN voltage and that the tamper is sealed.
“We can also see the alarm relay is open, that the unit is on DC power with 13.5 volts in the bus and that the battery is producing 13.7V. See here the temperature of the device in the field is 48.5 C and there’s the SIM test time for the second SIM which will be tested tomorrow at 10am. We can see all that from here. This is fully audited, fully locked and we have a 120ms Smart Ack. All these signals take milliseconds to reach us from the remote site.
“We can watch installations remotely and tell clients if they are functioning to the spec and we can report on this daily or weekly, telling clients how many installations they’ve put in and whether or not the installations were done correctly. When an installer rings we can tell them, hey you haven’t installed this right. And all our monitoring and documentation is to milspec.”
Something Cananzi keeps coming back to as we talk is the fact that this product is not about price – in fact the DTU3G/IP is the least expensive unit on the market.
“We did not try to save money, we tried to build the best product,” he tells me. “That’s because our business model is to build an alarm monitoring solution that will last 10 years or more and is completely future proof.
“The radio we buy is $US80 and it’s the world’s best radio. We could have saved $US10 by using something else but it would not be the world’s best wireless alarm monitoring product if we had done. Our hardware is about quality and nothing else.”
While I’m chatting with the boys we take a tour of the office and as part of this I get a chance to chat with engineer Dave, who builds and commissions control unit testers. With 30 years experience in the design and testing industry, his opinion carries considerable weight.
“You’d be amazed at how many functions this thing has,” Dave explains to me. “It looks like a simple thing but there is function after function after function. I’ve seen every part of the DTU3G/IP hardware-wise and it still surprises me.
“In fact, I rang one of the designing engineers as we were working on developing the testing of this unit to tell him I thought a particular circuit was absolutely brilliant. Most engineers would have used multiple lines to the microprocessor to manage a particular function of the DTU but the SCSI engineering team had done the job with just 2 lines. It was one of the most impressive circuits I’d ever seen.”
In the factory
As part of my demo of the DTU3G/IP, we duck out to SRX Global to get a look at the boards being manufactured. It’s always a joy visiting an electronics manufacturing facility and the SRX Global setup with 6 long surface mount lines is the biggest I’ve seen. The whole plant is environmentally controlled with heating, humidification and cooling in order to prevent oxidation of board components. Vital too, everything undertaken at SRX has to comply with the company’s quality standards – including ISO 9001, ISO 13485 and ISO 14001 environmental accreditation.
But it’s not just the process of manufacture. The whole setup at SRX Global is impressive, with everything precisely controlled from Inwards Goods – there are 55,000 line items to look after – all the way through to board testing on completion.
What’s abundantly clear to me is that it’s a real process getting electronic equipment built. There’s documentation for everything, complete traceability of raw materials. Nothing is left to chance, right from the moment a component arrives, through to testing on a jig. This is the way it has to be and I can see immediately how valuable it is for this process be handled locally.
We watch a board going through the manufacturing process. There’s something thrilling about watching a surface-mount line running at full tilt – the roar of the fans and conveyors, the woosh-woosh of the picking machines storming out 45,000 placements per hour, the smell of hot flux, the glistening metallic tongues of the wave solder machines.
“All the DTU3G /IP boards are made here at SRX Global in Mebourne,” Cananzi yells at me above the hubbub of busy machinery. “SRX makes high-end products for motor racing, communications, medical and defence industries. “Honestly, it’s been a really good process. SRX Global has been very good to work with. They are professional and they really understand that we are all about quality.
“SRX has given us advice on the best and most economical ways to build our boards – we give them our drawings of our design and build and they go through and say, don’t use that resistor or that component because it’s end of life. Or they’ll tell us a component should be surface mounted instead of soldered – so we are working closely at all times.”
Testing is another recurring theme and Cananzi explains that ensuring absolute integrity of every product shipped is undertaken multiple times.
“We’ve really raised the bar in terms of the quality of the build and the quality of the testing,” he tells me. “During manufacture there’s camera testing, then there’s pre-testing, post testing, inline testing and then functional testing back at SCSI on our own purpose-built jig.”
Before we leave SRX we look at the dedicated SCSI test jig which is in the process of driving through hundreds of separate function tests covering about 150 individual component tests on both sides of the DTU3G/IP board.
“Once a board comes off the reflow machine is goes through an automated video optical inspection then it goes onto this test jig,” Cananzi says.
“On the jig, every function of every component is tested individually to ensure the integrity of the entire board. That’s before our engineers conduct our own tests before the product is delivered.”
Back at SCSI HQ we check out boards newly arrived from SRX being tested by SCSI’s engineers. The circuitry of these boards is detailed and even though it’s a modest-sized controller, the DTU is functionally very complicated thanks to the high level nature of its operations and the demands on its processor. Looking at a board on the SCSI test jig I can see the surface mount work is impeccable.
“We’ve got 300 units manufactured and tested this week – we are just finishing off the tests on these units,” explains SCSI engineer, Dave.
“In this automated test system there are about 138 tests but in each of the tests there are sub-tests. This machine combines in-circuit testing as well as function testing – it tests each component on the board as well as functional testing, providing stimulous, getting responses. The idea is to test up front because it’s much easier to catch something in the manufacturing process than after it has shipped and been installed.
“Every board that comes here has already been thoroughly tested by the factory except for the actual connectors. What this unit here does is connect to the board and provide stimulus and look for responses to all functions including connectors.”
According to Dave, the boards have a secret little general purpose relay that’s been set in a particular state so that its contacts are shorted by the factory’s test procedures.
“The first thing our SCSI test software does is check to see if those contacts are shorted and if they are it means the factory has properly tested the board,” he explains. “It’s just a way for us to be sure the board has gone through every test at SRX and helps us to ensure that we are sending out a product that is defect-free.”
Every function test at SRX Global is re-tested at SCSI.
“Our inhouse testing checks the DTMF tones, inputs outputs, it’s a whole of function test that is logged and recorded in a database that’s time/date stamped,” Cananzi tells me. “This means we know when the board has been put together, tested, we know everything about every board and we have it all on record.”
At the end of the tour of SCSI and the factory I sit down and chat with Dale Acott, Debbie Acott and Cananzi about the development of the DTU3G/IP. It’s obvious at all times that their minds keep returning to their boss, husband and father, Steve Acott, a man whose dream has materialised in this new product.
“Steve would be loving this – he’d be up, he’d be down – he wouldn’t be able to contain himself,” Debbie tells me. “This is the culmination of all the dreams and all the effort he put into building the ultimate wireless alarm monitoring solution.”
Do you think Steve’s progressive ideas about wireless alarm monitoring are strengthened even further by the inevitable swing to IP, a shift that will bring about the demise of digital dialler he predicted back in 1991? I ask.
“IP, whichever way the end user looks at it, changes the landscape and monitoring stations need to stop thinking about their rebate and start thinking about IP, where they are going and what heir long term revenue will be,” Cananzi says.
“That’s why we have invested millions of dollars in this solution. This is a reinvestment we’ve made because the world is going away from a POTS-based network to an IP-based network. We believe we now have the world’s best commercial alarm monitoring solution and we will be pushing this technology through into a domestic product as well.”
The DTU3G/IP has to be seen as an enhancement of the proven DirectWireless solution doesn’t it? I ask.
“Yes, that’s exactly what it is, Cananzi says. “We live and breathe end-to-end alarm reporting and that’s what the DTU3G/IP gives our customers. If you are a central station and you want DirectWireless it takes ten weeks to run the private network because it’s full fibre. And this DTU3G/IP lifts the level of security and functionality at the client end to the same levels.”
Way back on a warm Melbourne afternoon in March 2004, when SCSI first released DirectWireless, I was chatting with Steve Acott.
"DirectWireless will change the landscape," he insisted. "One day it will support alarms in homes and business, it won't just be used for high security and commercial sites, either. This is a product for every monitoring station and every alarm system."
Eight years later, as we stand on the doorstep of an IP-based future devoid of digital diallers, it’s clear to me that Acott was right.
By John Adams