Data over devices

Karl Walker

A new way of working – and a new attitude towards integration – is required if we are really serious about delivering smart buildings, says Karl Walker

If you look at what’s typically found in a building you will have OEM plant equipment (boilers, air handlers, ventilation systems, etc), area control (HVAC controllers, room controllers), supervisory/management control (BEMS or higher level decision making), cloud platforms (off-premises control and monitoring) and ‘smart’ sensors.

Each of these component parts will invariably contain a controller which, no doubt, will do a decent job of controlling that piece of equipment or its local environment. You might see this equipment labelled as “smart” or be described as “IoT”. In reality, this usually means that the manufacturer will have provided a communication interface along with an app (could be cloud-based or a wireless connection to a mobile device) that allows a user to monitor the operational status of that device and, perhaps, receive fault notifications.

Whilst this data might be useful in isolation (e.g. warning of an impending pump failure), it does not benefit the wider system unless someone is able to interpret what they are seeing and calculate the potential knock-on effects. Is it really “smart” to have 1001 different apps for each component? You can use the analogy of the “smart home” which is a complete misnomer; control of lights from the Philips Hue app, control of the heating from the Nest app, the smart fridge telling you when you’ve run out of milk, smart plugs controlled by numerous other apps, with Google Home or Amazon Alexa attempting to connect everything. It’s rarely straightforward to set up and generally only the enthusiastic tinkerer might get some of the components working together using something like IFTT (if this, then that) programming or a custom installation integrator will be employed for higher-end properties (which usually focus on just AV and lighting control). Now scale that up to a commercial building with thousands of devices!

Smart devices can only work as part of a smart system – and, therefore, deliver a smart building – when someone is given the overall responsibility to integrate them holistically or use a single, common platform for control. If you read any M&E specification, it may mandate the use of smart devices that have the ability to connect to others, but it is unlikely that the required functionality of their interoperability will be defined. Furthermore, the specification will likely separate HVAC functions from others (lighting, metering, shading, etc.)

A smart building should have two main functions; to control the environment to ensure optimal occupier comfort and to minimise the use of energy, with minimal human intervention (we haven’t even really reached that stage yet!). The next step is to ensure the ultimate user experience by delivering buildings that guide visitors to their destinations, ensure that the environmental conditions are optimised for the activity upon arrival and to create a healthier and more enjoyable workplace.

All of this requires much better collection and interpretation of data. Occupier comfort can only be assured if everything is working correctly. Using data from these smart devices and equipment, as well as human behaviour and movements – and not just in isolation, but considered holistically - valuable insights can be gained into how buildings need to work for their occupiers.

Advances in Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning will only help to accelerate more efficient and trouble-free operations, aiding such tasks as predictive maintenance and CAFM systems, but this needs data. Unleash the data!

Karl Walker is Market Development Manager at Beckhoff

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