Engineered to move: David Richards develops products and relationships at MiT
“We keep our ear to the ground, so to speak,” says David Richards, VP of engineering at Moving Image Technologies. “Almost any time there’s some new development, whether it be an upgrade to projectors, servers, or some other aspect of the technology in theatres, someone here at MiT will realize that there’s a new interface problem, or some other aspect of the change that could use a new product to address it. And we’re off on a new product development!”
Not surprisingly then, “everyone in ‘Engineering’ is also in ‘Research & Development,’” he points out. “Or more correctly, they do their own R&D. When an engineer is assigned to develop a product, they do whatever R&D is required to support that development.” In certain cases, some of that research information may come from the sales and marketing people who are speaking with MiT’s customers. For developing these new products, “there is almost no firm template,” Richards reveals. “It varies widely depending on the complexity of the product.”
When building an automation product for d-cinema use, “the customer wanted us to add a fire alarm interface to it,” he recalls, providing one example. “The development of that additional functionality only took a few weeks from request to shipping the first units. An example of a more extensive design project was the XL-Mover system to motorize 2D and 3D format changes. It required development of electrical and mechanical subassemblies comprised of a new circuit board design, sheet metal parts, machined parts, control cables, and so on. Being an entirely new device, that product probably took four to six months beginning from the customer inquiry to having the first prototypes ready to send out.”
Over the past ten years, Richards and his team have pursued a policy of creating products that make sense to cinema operators and that provide practical solutions for daily operations just like the XL-Mover does. “Many of our new products are variations on existing ones.” He brings up another example that was initially developed for a post-production house wanting “to have digital projectors side-by-side with their existing film projectors,” but went on to much broader use. Once MiT started manufacturing the iMage Mover track system, “we got interest from several commercial theatres,” he recalls. “So a slightly different, simpler version of the product was developed for that market. Then a few years after that, we were approached by a company that makes much larger projection systems to develop an extra heavy-duty version of the system.” Although the iMage Mover was somewhat permanently rolled aside by the digital conversion, “there continue to be slightly different versions of the system.” Featuring “carriages that are longer and thinner, or shorter and wider,” he says, “we have about five or six different flavors of that system now.”
The same is true for other solutions like MiT’s “Image Surge” line of surge-suppression products, Richards continues. “We came out with the IS-30 device when we realized that digital projectors were failing due to power fluctuations and voltage spikes.” Again, in response to a very practical need, “we developed that product as a three-phase unit specifically for protecting the sensitive projector electronics. It worked so well that we received requests for similar products that would protect other components,” ultimately leading to three more versions.
“On something fairly complicated like the IS-30 or XL-Mover, we follow more or less standard manufacturing industry practices.”
Richards lays out the development process that includes prototypes and field testing. “We’ll come up with an initial design. We try to make sure there are no obvious mistakes, but we don’t worry too much about the minutiae because we don’t intend the first units to be sold anyway. Typically the initial prototypes will be used just for internal testing, or maybe a sample would be sent to a customer, possibly as a non-functional ‘dummy’ unit. Also on any electrical product, we’ll need a few samples for testing by the regulatory folks. In industry jargon, these are usually called ‘alpha’ units.” After they are manufactured and testing has begun, “we almost always see a number of minor changes that are needed.” Once those changes are implemented, Richards orders a larger quantity of beta units. “Perhaps as many as 10 or even 20 units if we are fairly confident in the design and the customer need is urgent. Sometimes the beta release is fine and will become the version used for volume production. In other cases there will be additional minor changes needed that are implemented in a third release of the design. Of course, there are almost always minor improvements ongoing in all the products we make, but the changes are minor and not apparent to the user.”
Looking at the impressive line-up over the years, there must be some innovations that Richards is particularly fond of. “The most exciting moment for me personally was probably seeing the first light come out of the xenon console that our chief engineer and I designed. But that feeling has been repeated many, many times since then with the first trial of every new product.” The first shipment of that console to a theatre in spring 2004 counts among Richards’ proudest moments. “It incorporated a lot of great features; by the final iteration it was an extremely robust and reliable piece of equipment. We had very few problems or complaints about the product.”
Given how “it reflected a lot of late nights and hard work to get to that point,” Richards cannot help but be “a little disappointed that solid-state power supplies have been completely taken over in our industry with the advent of digital projection. Of course you can’t stand in the way of progress, but I just wish there was some other application for that power supply.” Another “very reliable” product line taken out of commission by d-cinema is MiT’s platters with solid-state control system. “I don’t think I ever got word of one of our platters throwing film on the floor due to a failure of the control system, as is or was a fairly common occurrence with some platters. It was a good feeling to go into a booth that was running films on our equipment, and to see it just keep chugging along, hour after hour, day after day with very little intervention required.”
“We’ve had our share of products that customers approached us to make,” he confirms about things that actually did not make it. “We went through the preliminary stages, provided cost estimates, and got all the way to building sample units, when the project would die for a variety of reasons. In some cases, that was because of organizational changes at the customer company,” he recalls. In others, “the product requirements changed substantially in the interim after we were first approached, or perhaps an off-the-shelf product was found that provided the desired functionality cheaper than we could manufacture it.”
While this could be rather disappointing, Richards assures, “there have been very few nightmares” along the way. “One recurring problem with our xenon power supply early on was getting it to reliably start the lamp. We were doing everything according to the information provided by lamp manufacturers, and any other documentation we could find in writing. But despite doing everything exactly as documented…the lamps just did not start reliably. Clearly, there was arcane knowledge required that was not in any book. The problem was only solved by asking experienced old-timers in the industry about the symptom we were seeing and if they had any suggestions. A couple of people suggested increasing the open-circuit voltage above what the lamp data sheets said was actually necessary. That did the trick.”
Whether he would start up MiT all over again is a “classic question” that he finds tricky to answer nonetheless. “If everything was exactly the same, then yes, the same me from ten years ago would make the same decision again. But I’m not the same me, I’m older. At this stage in my life, my decision would be colored by the security, when considering how hard it would be to get another job if the startup didn’t make it. Also, the economy in general isn’t quite as good today as it was ten years ago. Luckily it’s a hypothetical decision I don’t have to make!”
Equally lucky, David Richards is still working with the same guys who were “still fairly young in 2003.” How have they stayed together as a team all this time? “I think we all recognize the areas of expertise in other members of the team, and we pretty much each leave our colleagues alone to do what they’re good at… The prospect of ‘being your own boss’ is certainly very attractive.” In closing, he concurs, this overall entrepreneurial approach and team expertise are key elements that set MiT apart from the competition. “The feedback that I get from the customers I interact with, as well as my business partners, is that we seem to be regarded as pretty good at doing custom projects for customers very quickly. For a company that has the sales volume we do, we have a relatively small management team. So we have very little inertia, and it allows us to react quickly to any new requirement from the marketplace.”
Design and development: Close-up on David Richards
“In the first years of the company, MiT was clearly an ‘engineering and manufacturing’ company. Although we still manufacture a lot of what we sell, some of my partners would perhaps characterize MiT as more of a ‘sales’ company today. I still consider MiT to be an engineering and manufacturing company, because that represents our most unique attribute—whereas anybody can buy and sell equipment manufactured by others.”
David Richards has been involved in the cinema industry since 1985. He spent seven years in engineering and engineering management positions at Christie prior to becoming a co-founder of Moving iMage Technologies in 2003. He has been active in SMPTE since 1986 and has served on several of the SMPTE standards committees including Film 20F and D-Cinema 21DC, as well as their predecessors F2, P3 and DC28. Richards is past chair of the SMPTE Hollywood section (1996-97), past chair of the P3 Projection Technology committee, and was program chair for the two SMPTE conferences devoted to film in 1997 and 1998. He is the author of several SMPTE papers and articles for various trade publications. He has a background in mechanical, electronic and electrical engineering design.
In addition to managing the people in MIT’s engineering and quality departments, Richards says he is “fairly hands-on in developing the new products for the company. Many of the overall design concepts, as well as a fair percentage of the actual engineering drawings themselves, come from my desk. I review and approve all the drawings that come out of my department before they are released to vendors or customers. I write most of the user manuals, technical field bulletins, and internal test and inspection procedures.”
Another substantial portion of his work involves component engineering, which he describes as “specifying everything from integrated circuits and transistors to purchased assemblies such as power supplies and other equipment.” Richards works closely with MiT’s purchasing department as these components “frequently become obsolete or have availability problems. There is constant research required to identify substitutes and replacements.” Most important, perhaps, is his support of the sales and customer-service departments “when customers have specific questions about the operation or use of our products, or when they have requirements for new products."