Introducing the master systems integrator

Today’s management office for building controls looks more like a computer data centre than a facility manager’s basement closet. This is the control room at Wembley Stadium. (Photo: Honeywell Building Solutions)
Ron Bernstein foresees the future of building controls being driven by the evolution of the master systems integrator.Today’s open-systems marketplace for building controls is forcing the buildings industry to rapidly change how business is being done. Manufacturers are embracing the concept of open systems at a staggering rate, and the benefits are being realised daily. The advantages of a single infrastructure reach into almost every aspect of a facility — including reduced up-front construction costs, lower life-cycle costs, improved system management, enhanced back-office reporting, better service, and proactive maintenance. Master systems integrator In the building-controls market, an evolution is taking place. Industry-wide standards are being adopted from industry best practices and a new breed of controls contractors, the master systems integrator (MSI), is emerging. So what is driving these changes? Arguably, the widest sweeping change in the building controls market has been the definition and promotion of an open standard device-level protocol for communication. Much like PCs talk to each other over Ethernet using IP as a standard, device-level manufacturers are building devices with internal communications to allow their products to talk with other products from other manufacturers without the need for custom design, re-engineering, or closed tool-sets. LonWorks and the LonTalk protocol are examples of a technology, which started as a good idea and over the past few years has emerged as the most widely deployed open building-control system technology in the world today with nearly 100 million installed devices. Facility managers are no longer dependent on the manufacturers of primary control products as the sole source of bidders on their projects. New products, which are more cost effective, offer better performance and more features, will take the place of those of the traditional suppliers. As the market opens, competition will follow, and innovation will become paramount.

In the same way as computers have evolved from proprietary solutions into open systems, so control systems are evolving into open systems that are made to work by the master systems integrator.

Through all of these changes, who do we rely on to make all this technology work for us? Welcome the master systems integrator — the one who for years has been installing our closed systems hardware. Independent systems integrators are evolving into a greater source of knowledge and experience. They are taking on the role of advisor and technology partner. No longer are these companies limited by the supply chains for closed systems. They now have the option to buy products from dozens of manufacturers and create the portfolio of products that meet their customers’ requirements. Much like the evolution of the computer industry of the past several decades in which we used to have our hardware, software and supplier tied together as a proprietary solution to now where we have unbundled the hardware from the software and the software from the supplier. Products are now available from hundreds of sources, competition has increased, prices have dropped, and productivity and capability have gone through the roof. The same is now happening in the controls market. New products, new integrators and a new class of educated end-users are driving the market in the same direction — more choices, better control, more competition and the need for better education. A new specification process A key element of the responsibility of master systems integrators is the need to integrate the facility into the enterprise. This requires a more IT-centric approach to integration. The MSI now has to have on staff technically savvy engineers who understand and can efficiently design and architect a fully integrated IT/facility solution. They must know all of the current security, Ethernet, router etc. standards and be able to cost effectively deploy working systems that can adapt, scale, and change over time. Owners are thinking more out of the box, where the box is a single building. They are thinking about campuses, multiple building projects and geographically diverse collections of facilities — all connected to one common management console with one common user interface. The new systems management office looks more like a computer data centre than a facility manager’s basement closet. Defining the responsibilities So how does the MSI work with the mechanical/controls contractor, and what are their individual responsibilities? What we are seeing in the market is the formation of a 2-tier specification coming out of the engineering community. One specification is for the specific building controls for a project. The other is for the integration of that building into the master plan or the enterprise. The controls specification defines the working requirements of the facility with all of the related control sequences — what we typically see today on a single building project. The second specification — sometimes referred to the FMSI or facility master system integration specification defines how each building is connected to a common graphical user interface, how the higher level monitoring and control are to be performed and what the user interface standards are to look like. We are also seeing the role of the MSI increasing to include monitoring the submittals and as-built engineering documents to ensure they are meeting the scope of the specification. The MSI then becomes an ‘on-par’ contractor to a mechanical or electrical contractor and has over-reaching responsibility to integrate all the various sub-systems in a facility — independent of which subcontractor is responsible for the installation and controls. One primary reason for the separation of these two specifications is to encourage fair competitive bidding on both the initial installation and the longer-term service contracts. Some projects are requiring that the bidders on the controls cannot bid on the MSI and vice-versa. This helps reduce the sole-source, proprietary lock when the hardware, software, integration, and service are all tied together and only one bidder is selected for everything. The result is often that the owner is locked in to a proprietary system — something which savvy owners are recognising as a major part of their ongoing costs, for which they are desperately trying to develop more options and choices. Splitting the specification into two pieces allows for multiple bidders to bid on separate buildings on a multi-building campus, and also offers a common graphical interface design and implementation for the entire campus/enterprise. The MSI contracts are often for several years, with the option to bid out to others after a period of time. By following standard IT architectures and specifying non-proprietary open architectures, the options increase and costs are more easily managed. As more companies adopt an open protocol, more products and more innovation will enable greater use of the core infrastructure. Who would have thought just 15 years ago that the Internet would be what it is today? No one could have predicted such a thing with certainty. However, we are on the verge of a similar transition. Today we have separate vendors for hardware, operating systems, and software applications. We even hire out the integration of the computer system to local integrators. The computer market has achieved the vast adoption through this flexibility, and the controls market is fast approaching this same concept. Ron Bernstein is executive director with LonMark International.
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