Unleashing the power of networks: Pulling building control into the era of integration

The world's economy has fundamentally changed. If you doubt that, go back to a day in September 1998 when an innocuous item in the newspapers declared Microsoft Corp. had become the most valuable U.S. company.

By Jay S Bayne, PhD June 1, 1999

The world’s economy has fundamentally changed. If you doubt that, go back to a day in September 1998 when an innocuous item in the newspapers declared Microsoft Corp. had become the most valuable U.S. company. It was a clear sign that networked information and intelligence now drive the creation of wealth.

Microsoft is challenging for top billing against such firms as General Motors, DuPont, and other venerable companies producing vehicles, paper, plastics, and building control devices. As the United States once moved from the agrarian age to industrialism, Wired magazine wrote recently, today it is involved in a new revolution — one that is rooted in networked information: How to create it, move it, and manage it.

This changed economic reality has profound implications for everyone. In fact, the networking of information offers some special new opportunities for those concerned with operating buildings efficiently and providing comfortable, safe, productive workplaces. Following are some observations, imperatives, and predictions about the network economy, future of intelligent building systems, and intelligence in general.

No company is an island

Proprietary technology…inside information… not invented here…these are hallmarks of an industrial economy. In that world, value comes from scarcity, from a product or technology that is the only game in town. Companies seldom cooperate. The end effect is to create islands.

The network economy finds value in plenitude, especially of information. Its overriding purpose is to facilitate connections. The marketplace will not tolerate the cost and inconvenience of competing, closed technologies.

Companies cooperate to create uniform communication standards around which new products emerge, businesses expand, and industries develop. Such cooperation has led to the plug-and-play simplicity of computer hardware and software. It is producing similar connectivity in devices for process control and building automation.

The network economy also leads to competitive companies joining their expertise and resources to expand markets or create new opportunities. Cooperation is the pathway to growth. Companies that choose to remain islands do so at their peril.

Seize the unknown

In a network economy, wealth comes not from perfecting the known, but from imperfectly seizing the unknown. Few would argue that Microsoft Windows 3.1 was perfect, yet its benefits to the company and to legions of computer users were profound.

The key attributes for identifying and cultivating the unknown are agility and speed. The cycle of “find, nurture, and embed” is accelerating. No company can invent everything itself. Few can innovate fast enough on internal resources alone. Instead, they keep pace by incorporating others’ products and technologies, including competitors’, into their own offerings. Such cooperation, fostered by a network economy, fuels innovation and accelerates its pace. As a result, the very best gets better and cheaper every year.

Crumbling the barriers

Businesses once shuddered at the costs of networking buildings. Today, buildings can be networked for little more than the cost of the internet connection, which is negligible compared to the value delivered.

Economist and author George Gilder predicts communications costs will continue to fall. His widely quoted Gilder’s Law says that costs will halve and speed will double every 18 mo for the next 25 yr. Meanwhile, the internet and intranets make distance technically irrelevant. The speed of communication across the internet is accelerating. A corollary to Gilder’s Law says total network bandwidth will triple every year. That rate is faster than the growth in processing speed, which merely quadruples every 30 mo.

Within companies it is now possible to network between buildings and across geography vertically and horizontally through all departments and levels of authority. Financial policies can be mapped onto production and control processes with far fewer errors and delays than ever before. Barriers to networked communications today are social and political, not technical or economic. No sound reasons remain for failing to harness their power.

Sharing essential data

Without a doubt, networked communication demands components that talk to one another, compatible software applications, and field devices that share data with enterprise-level information systems. But the language of communications matters far less than the content. The debate over protocol standards for building automation is important, although it will be resolved in due time. Whether an existing protocol becomes the standard or a new one emerges matters little.

In 5 or 10 yr, the protocol issue may be nothing more than a memory. What endures will be the network and its power to carry out a user’s vision of building performance. System integration is the wiring together not of devices, but of strategies for reducing energy use, protecting indoor air quality, and maximizing employee comfort and productivity.

Creating value from knowledge

A decade ago, HVAC systems consisted of integrating boilers, chillers, pumps, fans, valves, piping, and ductwork. Today, HVAC systems are components of facility management systems affecting environmental control, energy management, maintenance management, and more. Time and innovation will make these systems even more integrated and powerful.

The value of building systems is not in devices themselves but in the networks that tie them together and in the intelligence that directs them. Devices and control practices will change. Value lies in having the capacity to change and in deciding to do so in support of defined operating strategies.

If networked software lets a multiplant company gather energy use data and make adjustments that reduce total corporate energy spending 2%, value is added. If networked software helps a plant refine environmental control practices that lead to documented worker productivity gains, that adds value. Software is the critical tool that helps acquire knowledge and implement strategy. Today, software contributes 30% of the installed value of a building automation system. By 2010, it will contribute 75%.

Seamless enterprise, integrated networks

Multiple network infrastructures can restrict the power of a unified control strategy. Many plants today operate as many as six separate networks: voice, video, data, fire protection, security, and facility automation. Multiple networks are accidents of evolution. They grew up side by side at different times with different technologies. Their continued existence has more to do with convenience, culture, and inertia than with technology.

The network technology most often deployed in new buildings came from the telecommunications and computer industries. It uses high-speed switched Ethernets to unify voice, video, and data communications. A unified structure minimizes space, installation labor, and maintenance. Most of all, it allows single-point administration.

While technically available through- out the building, the network includes all necessary access controls to provide data security and govern who uses which functions and when. Once the network is in place, it helps seamlessly integrate broad and seemingly disparate building functions.

Integrated networks make building efficiencies easily achievable. Once buildings are networked using Ethernet networks compliant with Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) standards, it is not difficult to connect buildings on an industrial campus and campuses around the globe using the internet and intranets.

Building control today largely regulates devices that adjust parameters through feedback loops. As software advances, it is not unreasonable to imagine feedback loops reaching to higher levels of the organization to directly control the financials of a building with minimal human intervention. Sophisticated software could use historical trends to adjust building condition setpoints for weather, time of year, and other variables.

Controlling the future

Control components help today. Control architecture will help tomorrow. A network economy is bringing control innovations to market at an increasing pace. There are more opportunities than ever for building owners to embed new technologies into their control schemes.

At the same time, however, owners should be wary of adopting control components in isolation. To do so is to risk letting today’s technology constrain long-term control capabilities. It is important to choose components that fit a controls architecture built on clearly defined and enduring controls strategies. Forward-thinking strategies must prescribe unified infrastructures with full connectivity for sharing information among devices, within buildings, and throughout organizations. Components that are not internet or intranet-enabled will create islands in a world that thrives on networks.

The ability to use automation as a strategic tool is fundamental. Working with building controls companies, plants can develop long-term strategies that enhance indoor environments and reduce building operating costs. Working with quality suppliers, they can devise integrated control systems that take advantage of the full power of networks.

Jay Bayne is responsible for the design and development of his company’s control systems products, administration of its global development centers, and management of strategic technology alliances. Jay has previously held positions with Elsag Bailey Process Automation Group and Asea Brown Boveri and was a professor of computer engineering at California Polytechnic State University. He holds a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering and master’s and doctoral degrees in electrical engineering and computer science from the University of California at Santa Barbara. He is a member of many industrial organizations, including IEEE, ISA, and ASHRAE.

This article was adapted from a presentation made at the Air-Conditioning, Heating, and Refrigeration Expo held in Chicago in January 1999.