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As enterprise Internet of Things (IoT) deployments begin to gather momentum, Indi Sall, Technical Director – IT Services, NG Bailey, asks what impact this new age of interconnectivity will have on the well-established world of Building Management Systems (BMS).
There’s a short answer to this question: A lot. From a commercial perspective, IoT is neatly in tune with the one of the biggest priorities of today’s building managers (BMs). In a bid to reduce their reliance on individuals, BMs are looking to increase the amount of automation their BMS can provide.
In these terms, it’s easy to see how IoT ought to provide a huge impetus. A new generation of monitoring data collected from mass deployments of IoT sensors promises to deliver never-before-seen levels of visibility and control over a building’s devices, systems and facilities. This, in turn, should drastically increase opportunities to make efficiency gains through automation.
Let’s deal with the human element first. It’s widely acknowledged that in repetitive, automated and operational systems, people are usually the weak link. Compared to mechanical or digital alternatives, we are expensive, slow to respond and prone to error. A quick glance at the level automation embraced by the manufacturing industry should signal the kind of efficiency gains on offer for a building’s monitoring and maintenance. By taking people out of the equation, BMs can, in theory, reduce overheads and increase both the efficiency and the reliability of the overall system.
Where does IoT come in? In general terms, it’s about using fleets of IP-connected sensors to vastly increase the collection of actionable data that can be used to transform today’s BMS processes. The great promise of IoT-enabled automation is to enable a range of new proactive maintenance and ‘self-healing’ capabilities to be established, all of which can be performed without flesh and blood holding them back. Here, IoT’s hyper-connectivity to, say, the building’s HVAC systems, can enable automatic procedures to be parameterised so they not only trigger maintenance alerts when components are approaching end-of-life, but also order the replacement part online and book an engineer to perform the maintenance, all before the component fails.
This level of building maintenance automation (BAM) points to a new age of self-sufficiency in BMS, where human resources that once were devoted to reactive maintenance, problem diagnosis and incident response are instead redirected to tasks that offer far more strategic value. One such task is the analysis of the data and reports produced by an IoT-enabled BMS. Here, engineers can use the time previously taken up by routine system checks and stock orders to identify areas of system weakness. Once identified, tweaks and alterations can be made to deliver compound benefits; reducing energy consumption by deactivating lights, power sockets, heating and air conditioning when spaces are unoccupied, for example.
This isn’t to say that automation is a perfect solution, however. Taking people out of the picture presents a whole new set of challenges, particularly around how the systems are set up, integrated and parameterised. It’s easy to see how mistakes here could be costly; inadvertently triggering chains of automated events that could result in the needless purchase of goods and the misdirection of expensive engineering staff. Delivering both effective systems integration and enabling a high quality user experience to mitigate confusion are, therefore, pre-requisites for success.
These factors raise yet more questions. Are today’s BMS up to the IoT integration challenge? Currently, the market is dominated by a small number of big players whose systems hark back to the days before IoT became an enabling force. Typically, systems interoperability is one of the key problems that emerges when a market consolidates around a few big players. In a bid to keep hold of customers (and their revenues) APIs are deliberately closed to prevent a competitor from gaining a foothold. BMS is a mature market where major players have big a commercial interest in defending their borders, particularly from technologies which could, ultimately, dethrone them.
CAPEX is another key challenge. IoT sensors are not expensive, but their coordinated deployment at scale requires technical specialists and applications, both of which are. Only once this outlay has been committed and the integration with the existing BMS achieved can the much-vaunted automation process begin.
But hang on a minute. Couldn’t an IoT-based infrastructure, with all its new intelligence and systems sensitivity, just replace the whole BMS? In theory, yes it could. But the reality is that this remains a long way off. Despite the hype, IoT is still very immature. Standards for both hardware and software interoperability are yet to be established making a system sufficiently robust to replace a BMS simple unachievable at this stage. Sensors must collect data, which must then be aggregated, encrypted and transmitted to a management platform. Analytics and smart reporting tools are then needed to identify trends and actionable insights. System alterations then need to be appropriately monitored and their impact measured, all before concrete benefits can be realised. The IoT industry is moving quickly, but make no mistake: this is a very big job.
What does the future hold for the BMS industry? Well, beyond the medium term threat that IoT poses to BMS vendors, there could be some very big storms on the horizon. Like every major industrial sector, construction and building management is moving into the ‘Age of Data’ and this is an ocean ruled by leviathans. Data-centric organisations like Google and Apple are beating a path of disruption through all manner of markets, developing new digital propositions that leverage their powers of data collection and analysis for maximum commercial gain. Sectors like financial services, retail, transit, leisure and music have all been subject to this treatment. How long is it before Google moves into construction? With its awesome commercial power and massive R&D resources, imagine the speed with which it could develop and bring to market a data-centric IoT-enabled BMS. Scared? We should be.
With these thoughts in mind, it’s vital that the construction and facilities management industries embrace technological change and take IoT’s disruptive potential seriously. Not only could it be a key enabler of greater efficiency in BMS, it could also transform the market beyond recognition, and much sooner than you might think.
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