In correlating the developments of window automation[TM] (this term actually was trademarked by BTX in the mid-'90s) to other developments for the home, we are well beyond the first phase of development. The first electric motors for appliances appeared around 1910, but it took 10 years before they were marketable in price and technology. Just look around the kitchen and count the number of motors today!
Window coverings motors took off with the introduction of tube motors in the early 1960s. Traversing motors for residential use appeared in the United States in the early '80s. In the early '90s we saw a number of fabricators offering advanced systems such as Bautex (BTX) and Silent Gliss along with some hybrids for all kinds of lift and tilt functions. We are a good 10 years into this development. The basic formative years are behind us.
KEEPING PACE WITH TECHNOLOGY
Of course, motorization will create new markets and new significant earnings potential. But is now the right time for the average window coverings specialist to get into it? Some of the major producers of window fashions products are taking the first steps by adding battery-powered automation to some of their existing products. That helps to broaden and prepare the window coverings market for the new technology.
The main challenge, however, will be to keep pace with the parallel track of information and communication technology, and to develop the right products to follow it. The staggering speed of e-commerce, Internet communication and the need for in-home networks and controls offers great potential. More than 20 million U.S. homes have two or more computers. These are candidates for home networks, be it by means of the regular AC power lines, radio or infrared (IR) signals, telephone lines or, as in the new homes, by so-called structured wiring.
As technology in the home increases, we will want to take advantage of it and use it to control more functions. It is only logical that window coverings will be part of this course. It starts with the larger and more costly window coverings in the upper-end and spreads to a broader market. Once there are more systems in place to control the draperies and blinds, it will become much easier for the home owner to decide to automate. All major electronic and communications giants are working on home network, communication and automation products. Awaiting us will be a wide choice of control equipment for all kinds of functions in the homes such as light, air safety, etc.
Window coverings will definitely be automated as well. For that to occur, however, window coverings products will have to go well beyond the limitations of the current battery system.
Today's products, such as the BTX Motordrape[TM], are the forerunners of the type of products we will see: extremely easy to install, fully self-standing with built-in IR control and, at the same time, fully plug-and-play with the ability to instantly hook it up to control by the current home network systems. The consumer can use it as it is or connect to his network at any time. Price points are important—for instance, systems retailing for under $500 appeal to broad markets. Simultaneously it offers significant new margins to a broad range of dealers.
Motorization for tilt and lift systems at this point is either in the battery-operated, lower-end products with limited power or at higher price points in the powerful systems. Wood blinds and larger shades usually require the more powerful AC systems. Motors equipped with the electronics to be network-ready are very advanced and more costly. Elero is one of the few companies that offers a sophisticated high-capacity lift/tilt motor with digital motor interface. So far their use has been primarily restricted to upper-end commercial applications.
The broad market, however, is rapidly moving into a greater acceptance of motorization. The underlying conditions are favorable for significant growth as consumer demand rises and architects and designers start planning ahead for automation.
It is important for the window coverings industry in its entirety to recognize the challenge and defend our position against other technological advances such as shaded glass. We must be prepared to move our products into the next phase of technology. In this stage of the market development, it is important for the window coverings specialist to develop the expertise now and to position his business properly. The simplest way to do that is to align himself with a specialist technology company that will help guide him to successful participation in what will be one of the biggest growth markets for the industry.
Jon Vrielink is president of BTX Window Automation, Inc., (800) 422-8839; www.btxinc.com; BTX Motorization Supply, (800) 651-2599; and Elero USA, Inc., (800) 752-8677; www.elero.com, Dallas, TX.