NIHR become one of the first clients to commission an exhibition stand built using our aluminium profile system, so new it doesn’t yet have a name. As it enters full production, we’re buzzing about the possibilities.
Practice makes perfect
As ever with exhibition stand hardware systems that we develop, prototype and manufacture in-house, there is a transitional period between the product becoming ‘finished’ and an official launch. We understand this is known as a soft launch in most industries.
Throughout this fuzzy no man’s land of almost finished product development, we put a huge effort into supplying our clients with an exhibition stand indistinguishable from the finished article we would supply a couple of years down the line. By then, manufacturing will be optimised, tolerances known, design and install processes refined. But we don’t want to supply a beta product or experience.
So the trick at this stage is to over-resource, over-plan, over-design, over-think everything. This may sound over the top, but it mitigates for any teething troubles that unexpectedly crop up during a stand build. And they invariably do.
Yet without these early builds, the system can’t be proofed in the way we require. They confirm in a very practical way all the things we already know about the hardware and inform future refinements and development. The clients using our aluminium profile system now are getting something new, exciting and different. At the same time, they are grounding us in the learnings we need to make this a world-beater in the future.
We do not intend to list all the features and benefits of the new system here – that can wait for our official launch campaign – but suffice to say this is a very flexible modular exhibition system. The CADs we created for this job should give a strong impression of the possibilities. With the aluminium framework, we can create an almost inexhaustible array of 3D structures. And as each new structure or combination of framework is conceived, it can be added to our CAD software’s library to use as a template for quick retrieval in future designs.
In the case of NIHR’s stand, the basic structure was a symmetrical double-tower, joined centrally by a cross-beam, with corner worktop/storage units in each corner of the stand space. Each of the towers had cutouts in the graphic panels to allow large TV monitors to play looped videos. Lighting was handled by 4 large spot down-lighters affixed to the top beam and further electrics were required for a laptop / VR system combination.
With four installers on-site, we were able to attempt the installation in the build window of one day. The speed with which the aluminium profile system can be constructed is actually one of its chief benefits. It allows complex custom build stands to be installed from start to finish in much shorter windows, opening possibilities for larger or more complex bespoke stands on such an occasion. A traditional custom build might take two or three days to construct.
Since this was a custom build project, there were inevitably bespoke elements such as a couple of worktops and the ramped entrances at two of the corners, allowing easy access even for wheelchair users onto the raised flooring. Whilst raised flooring is a bit of a bind to install, it does hide the electrics and other cabling nicely out of sight, a key part of the professional finish of the overall stand.
Manchester Central as an exhibition hall provides a glorious architectural backdrop to any event, and this was no exception. The old railway station may lack a little in natural light, but its impressive Victorian brickwork and arched roof more than compensate.
As usual, the on-site electricians were needed to bring the live cables up through the floor, but on this occasion they were available immediately when called upon, avoiding the delay that can commonly happen at this point. Props to the Manchester Central staff for this efficiency.
Once the flooring stage was in place, we laid the carpet with its protective covering retained for the duration of the build. This is a fairly simple way of keeping the carpet pristine, but one with which not all installers seem to be familiar. Aluminium edging was cut to size and screwed into place, again offering a professional finish. These simple touches can make all the difference.
Building the aluminium profile system framework
The new system is an absolute breeze to put together, using evenly spaced holes to accept sturdy nuts and bolts. It’s a bit like a huge version of Meccano, which is quite an apt description since it hints at the myriad possibilities for resultant structures, but also the ease and speed with which it can be built.
Transport and storage of the aluminium struts is also incredibly easy because aluminium is so lightweight and, once deconstructed, they take up very little space. If the build window is tight (and if there is room in the van), sections or part-sections can be pre-constructed in advance back at the warehouse. We exploited this technique for some of the sections on this occasion.
The framework is a joy to build, and the exhibition stand can go from nothing to a finished structure in next to no time. The strength and the stability of the framework is exceptional, especially when walls or sections are interconnected at 90 degrees as they were in this case. When incorporating heavy media units like larger television monitors, this stability gives the profile system a real edge over some of its alternatives.
The cross-beam tied together the two main sections adding yet more stability, although it was clear that this was not really necessary from a strength or stability point of view. What it did for this stand was partly aesthetic, but also practical, allowing cabling to run hidden inside the beam from one side of the stand to the other. This is not just useful; it can also yield a good cost saving by limiting the number of required electrical points for the whole stand to one.
Any kind of ceiling or beam structure also extends the lighting options for the stand. On this occasion, we used four bright spotlights at the four corners of the beam, but it would be easy enough to conceive of down-lighters positioned anywhere along the beam or even inside it. In fact, the strength of this system lends itself nicely to suspended objects. Imagination is the only limiting factor.
Skinning the skeleton
The simplest and quickest way to cover the aluminium profile system is with graphic boards. Rounded Edge Studio is able to produce large format print on all sorts of different substrates. But for the skin of a framework like this, we chose 5mm foam PVC boards. At this thickness they retain a good rigidity, which is key to avoiding bending or warping that might diminish the seamless effect of a continuous printed image that crosses over multiple panels.
There are several ways in which the boards could be affixed to the framework, including adhesive tape and hook-and-eye strips. But at Rounded Edge, we have a long and fruitful history of mastering the use of magnetic attachments in our seamless banner systems like Curve, Twist and Link2. So during product development, we could instantly see the benefits of using magnets for this aluminium system too.
Having prepared the aluminium struts with magnetic strips and applied steel tape around the edges of each of the printed boards, the process of positioning and adjusting the boards onto the framework was a piece of cake. Of course, graphics would not align correctly if the framework was not square and true, so the tolerances in manufacture have to be spot on. And a level base is essential, so adjustments to the framework’s footing are necessary if the floor is uneven. On this occasion, the floor was good.
So the graphic panels can be placed and repositioned easily, although the magnets are strong enough to prevent accidental movement; considerable force is required to slide the panels across them. But pulling the panels away is easy enough. This means the break-down of the stand is as easy as the construction, panels can be re-used at several exhibitions and new single panels can be printed and swapped in without needing to reprint the entire area. That opens the possibility of more cost-efficient personalisation options.
For NIHR at this show, the ability to pull panels away was exploited for storage. We drilled a finger hole into each of the panels under the corner worktops, meaning those cavities could be used for their literature handouts and also to house the connectors for a laptop, destined to run an interactive VR demonstration.
The two TV monitors were placed behind panels with apertures just large enough for their screens. This is a bit of an old trick, but one that still looks highly effective; the screens appear to be an integral part of the wall in which they are housed, and any manual controls for the unit are hidden from visitors to the stand.
Finally, the cross-beam was skinned with its own graphic panels, meaning no part of the aluminium framework remained visible. The shell was complete.
Not quite clockwork
Very few exhibition builds go entirely without a hitch. For example, we spent almost as much time in Manchester on the carpet as we did on building the aluminium framework. This was due in part to our knives being blunt, a bit of a schoolboy error.
Another problem was caused by the other build teams spreading out into all the corridors and walkways between the stand spaces. That meant we had to go a very long way around to get from our van to our stand space. This wouldn’t have been a huge issue, except we had forgotten to pump up the pneumatic tyres on our trolley, so pushing it fully loaded was like some kind of rugby scrummage training. It’s a good job Victor is a strong lad – he took on this unenviable task with only a couple of grumbles.
Profiling the future
Overall, this build (and the design stages that preceded it) constituted another highly successful outing for our new aluminium profile system. As we head towards its full launch, it’s hugely gratifying for the whole team involved with conceiving, designing and developing the system to see those ideas come to fruition. We’re quietly confident that this will be a game-changer in the exhibition industry.
Hopefully, we’ll have a name for it soon – watch this space – and for more information, please don’t hesitate to drop us a line. We’re putting together some marketing material and building samples for our showroom. We’ve already conceived many of the exhibiting problems for which this system provides an elegant solution, but we’re really excited about the solutions yet to be imagined.
We’ll leave you with images of the finished stand and the usual suspects who installed it:
Theo from NIHR was impressed with both our product and service offering, as well as the speed with which we turned things around. Please follow the testimonial link below to see what he had to say about working with Rounded Edge Studio.
Post author & installs team
National clinical research funder
Exhibition and conference centre in the former Manchester Central railway station
Bespoke modular exhibition products and services
Visualise your stand with our 3D CAD drawings
At-show hardware installation and breakdown
Managed storage and distribution