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issue: June 2007 APPLIANCE Magazine

Plastic Parts
An Operatic Performance


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Opera gives its fans great music, timeless stories, and unmatched spectacle. Figaro Systems of Santa Fe, New Mexico, U.S. gives them something new: access to the language.

Opera tends to suffer in translation, so works from Aida to Die Zauberflöte are typically presented in the language in which they were written. The enjoyment of these great works may be hampered for opera fans who do not understand those languages.

“It’s still beautiful to see and hear,” says Geoff Webb, vice president of design engineering of Figaro Systems, “but for all the viewer knows, they could be singing about potato chips.”

In the early 1970s, a handful of opera houses began offering supertitles—translations projected onto a screen above the stage. While some fans welcomed the real-time translations, others were incensed, claiming the titles were distracting. Some objected that only one or two language options were offered. Ironically, those in the best seats were in the worst position to read them—they had to crane their necks to read the titles positioned high above their heads.

Figaro addresses these concerns with its Simultext system, offering three-line readouts at each seat in the house. Individual screens are positioned to let users read up to 100 characters at a glance without losing track of action on the stage. The system lets each audience member choose from up to seven languages.

Seatback systems are equipped with an organic light-emitting diode (OLED) display that is designed to be clear and readable without being obtrusive. Characters appear to float against a black background and the display is engineered to have no ambient glow, so it won’t distract other audience members nearby. Other Figaro configurations have a Vacuum Fluorescent Display (VFD), with chip in glass and technology for a larger text field, therefore providing greater viewing range. Even larger text fields are offered by liquid-crystal display (LCD) technology.

For those who do not want to use the system at all, individual screens can be turned off by patrons. However, according to Webb, 95% of patrons use the system during performances.

Most installations are permanently wired into the backs of seats or the tops of parapets, but the company also makes wireless devices. These are mostly for use by the hearing impaired in venues that do not have permanently installed Simultext systems.

The system has been installed at some of the best-known venues in the world, including Teatro alla Scala in Milan, the Royal Opera House in London, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona, and the Wiener Staatsoper in Vienna, Austria. One challenge in working in such notable venues is the need to satisfy architects, company directors, historic preservationists, and even city officials who must approve the installation.

“To keep everyone happy, the appearance and installation of the system has to fit the venue,” Webb says. “Opera-goers and companies are very protective of their theaters, and integrating a piece of modern equipment with classical architecture isn’t always easy. We need models they can look at and hold in their hands, and that’s where
Protomold comes in.”

Plastic-parts supplier Protomold Inc. (Maple Plain, Minnesota, U.S.) is instrumental in developing prototypes to show Figaro’s prospective customers.

“We use Ashlar-Vellum’s cobalt 3-D CAD program to develop designs for a particular installation,” Webb explains. “Once we’ve got something that the client likes ‘on paper’ we have Protomold make prototypes we can hand around for approval and comment. That’s where we get feedback on the external appearance and a chance to check and make sure that all the wiring and components fit properly inside.”

Protomold CEO Brad Cleveland explains that the company has almost completely automated the process of supplying plastic parts. It starts when the user uploads a 3-D CAD model of the part they want molded, and a quote for the part is generated automatically. “We have also automated the process of designing a mold and generating tool paths for CNC mills,” Cleveland tells APPLIANCE magazine. “We cut aluminum molds, assemble the molds, put them on a press, and injection mold the parts. We can have the finished parts in a box and shipped out to a customer in as little as one business day.”

Webb of Figaro says that, because the prototypes are injection molded, they are exact representations of production parts made from the same resin. “That’s important, because our clients can be very detail-conscious. If we need changes, either for appearance or function, we can get new prototypes from Protomold without delay. Once we get approvals, we can go right into production.”

Webb explains that the part supplier’s aluminum tooling is ideal because it is good for a production run of thousands of pieces. At the same time, the turnaround is rapid and the entire process provides the company with affordable, high-quality parts.

Cleveland explains that the aluminum molds used by Protomold can wear more quickly and require longer cycle times than steel molds, so steel is the better option for mass producing hundreds of thousands of parts. “But an aluminum mold is ideal for a company such as Figaro, whose production might be hundreds or a few thousand of each part per year,” he adds.  Webb says he had no experience in mold design, and had to quickly learn concepts like material distribution and draft. He says the part supplier’s Web site and online design analysis were helpful tools.

 

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