InfoComm’s Cable Labeling for Audiovisual Systems (CLAS) Standard

On the surface, a standard to define how cables should be labeled in audiovisual systems might not sound like the most exciting thing in the world. Even to AV insiders. But when you assemble five of the most knowledgeable and enthusiastic AV experts, who between them have more than a century of experience and enough drive to power a cloud computing data center, you can bet something good is going to come from it.

Three of them — John Bailey, CTS®-D, CTS®-I, Vice President of Technology at Whitlock; Peter Swanson, Head of Sales and Marketing at AMX Australia; and Jason Brameld, Technical Director of Torpedo Factory Group in the U.K. — talked to us about the process of developing this important standard and how they moved it quickly through the system.

Who identified the need for this standard and how did it get off the ground?

Jason Brameld: The primary direction for standards development comes from the InfoComm Standards Steering Committee. Anyone can suggest a standard through the InfoComm website. InfoComm developed a scoring system for all the standards in the queue. This one was high enough up the list.

Peter Swanson: There are probably 40 or 50 topics of prospective standards. It becomes a case of balancing the triangle of the benefit the standards will deliver with the ease and the time to develop. There are six or seven under development at any one time.

What were the problems that led to the need for the standard?

Jason Brameld: There are many organizations out there that have not labeled cables either properly or at all. I’ve seen many systems with cables plugged in all over the place, with no labels; it makes it very difficult to maintain the system. Or if they're labeled, the labels are not legible or durable, so they might as well not be labeled at all. It's about giving customers of the AV industry the best chance of having their systems maintained.

Peter Swanson: I would describe this as one of the less glamorous standards. A standard about how to label cables sounds pretty humble. But it’s a problem faced every day around the world with people installing systems and people attempting to maintain them after the fact.

If someone gets to the back of an equipment rack, almost inevitably they’ll start pulling out cables; if cables aren’t labeled well or at all, getting them plugged back in to where they need to be can be challenging or impossible task.

The problem with cable labeling is there are many different methods and the default method is to write on the cable jacket with a Sharpie. But, the ink can get smudged and the writing might not be clear. Some people use printed labels with a comprehensive code that ties back to a register and a description. Some people put only a number, others use color coding. Some people change the numbers and don’t update their schedules. One of the things that hasn’t happened well in a number of cases is people haven’t had the discipline to make sure they check their final documentation against what is installed onsite.

This is about defining the quality of outcome. The expectation should be that you can tell what every cable is, what it's connected to, and what its function is. It's about ensuring serviceability and longevity of systems after the completion date.

Why was it important to take it as far as developing a standard?

Jason Brameld: Because it needs to have some credibility; it needs to be something people can hang a hat on and say we delivered this to a standard. There is stuff in the InfoComm materials that might only be accessible if you've done a specific class. It’s not really something that’s referenceable. It's more credible to say that InfoComm has published a standard for this and this is the standard we've built to.

What will the standard provide?

Peter Swanson: It provides a clear direction on how to establish a cable labeling scheme and what are the acceptable methods of applying that scheme to the cable itself. It's about having some information on a label that allows it to be interpreted and that is securely attached to the cable so that it survives for the anticipated lifespan of the system.

Who are you expecting will adopt this standard?

John Bailey: I would hope almost everyone within the pro-AV industry. Integrators as well as consultants and end users. There are some related industries, such as IT, that have already established similar standards based on their specific needs. But AV is different, and this standard is principally targeted toward AV and video collaboration projects.

Jason Brameld: We're hoping we'll get adoption primarily from the integration community; they're the ones that build the stuff and need to do it properly. We're hoping that consultants and the end-user community will latch onto it and require it. Standards give end users and consultants tools that they can put into their spec to make sure they get quality of system delivery.

What are its primary benefits to those people?

John Bailey: Consistency would be the number one benefit. Consistent, clear labeling of interconnected cables, which serve as the core of integrated systems, is very important. It is critical that cables are labeled in a consistent and methodical way, especially as large, more complex and facility-wide systems are commonplace today.

What do installers need to know about the labels themselves?

Jason Brameld: The standard defines the required qualities of the label, and those are primarily around legibility, durability and consistency. Because there is quite a lot of regional variation and different cable labeling within those bounds, we’re not prescriptive about one type or another.

Peter Swanson: We don't mandate any particular system; people can use all sorts of different tape labels. Even little plastic rings with letters and numbers you can slide onto a cable in sequence. There is no particular cable label model. It's about defining quality and outcomes. For example, the minimum text height we have proposed is 2.5 mm for the primary information and 2.1 mm for what we call secondary information. So 3 mm text is still going to be compliant. It always comes back to the terms of references. We're trying to achieve that if someone is trying to maintain system, they can work out what a label means by reading it.

Your first get-together was after InfoComm 2015 in June to write the first full draft of the standard. How were you able to put together the draft that fast?

Peter Swanson: We talk quickly! This is actually a relatively straightforward standard. There was not a lot of science we had to explore. With this standard, the most complicated part was visual acuity with regard to text on the label. We weren't trying to reinvent too many wheels; so if another standards body had defined visual acuity, we typically referenced that rather than do a whole investigation ourselves. After one or two conference calls in the 6- to 8-week run-up, when we went into the room we were literally writing the standard.

John Bailey: There were several months or so of pre-planning and we had several online preparatory meetings where we developed content. Then we brought the team together for two full days of face-to-face meeting, where we got the entire first draft done.

This is InfoComm’s first standard without the ANSI accreditation — why?

Jason Brameld: The primary driver was the fact that this kind of standard will be used by AV practitioners and is not something allied trades will refer to. If it's only required to be referred to within the AV industry then it's suitable as an InfoComm standard.

John Bailey: With a very lengthy list of standards the industry needs, we began thinking: what if we took the best practices of standards development and streamlined some of the rigor required by the third-party accreditation processes and simply branded certain standards as InfoComm standards? We realized we could bring them to the industry much faster. Even though this standard is not recognized by an international standards body, I believe it will get better traction and recognition because it's not tied to one country’s accreditation. It was very important to me that we were able to have international voices in this first one too. [See sidebar.]

Peter Swanson: It’s about speeding up the process, as the industry needs these standards now, not in 4 or 5 years time. We established that InfoComm can act as a standards body in its own right. We now have sufficient perceived authority in the market based on the standards already developed. We are recognized and have proven ourselves, and we're able to be more direct and straightforward.

When will the standard be complete and ready to use?

John Bailey: It should be ready in Q1, 2016. We have an open forum meeting scheduled for December for public feedback; and once we've cleared commentary from that and made any final revisions, we should be good to go.

Around the Table

The American:

John Bailey, CTS®-D, CTS-I
Vice President of Technology at Whitlock

"I've been involved in InfoComm standards development for eight years. At Whitlock, I've spent many years managing design engineering and technology operations, and developing similar standards within our company."

The Aussie:

Peter Swanson
Head of Sales and Marketing at AMX Australia

"I have a broad background as a consultant integrator and end-user representative, and am now working on behalf of a manufacturer. I tried to represent the person that will be using the standard. How can we make sure the intent is clear and practical to implement? I also brought my infamous pedantry for getting language and phrasing correct and clear."

The Brit:

Jason Brameld
Technical Director of Torpedo Factory Group in the U.K.

"I've worked both in consultancy, writing specification documents for systems, and in integration, doing detailed design and delivery of those systems. Consultancy requires good writing skills. I have a broad knowledge of the industry, of the technology field, and a lot of practical experience with the subject matter at hand."

Also on the team:
Brad Baldwin of Technical Innovation and Dr. Walter Black of VidCAD also contributed their expertise to the development of the InfoComm CLAS standard.