A focus on reducing expenditure and the search for greener ways to do business are helping to maintain activity in the control systems market. Ian McMurray finds out more.
During these difficult economic times, few companies aren't looking for ways to reduce their outgoings and eliminate those expenditures that are 'nice to have', but not essential. It would be easy to think that the AV industry might be affected more than most in such a cull: after all, audiovisual technology is hardly crucial to the typical business's operations.
But it's equally easy to lose sight of the fact that investment in AV technology can actually save money. Videoconferencing is a prime example of an industry that's benefiting from companies spending their meetings budget more wisely. The fact that videoconferencing is 'greener' than the alternatives is, of course, a significant advantage.
It seems that the market for control systems is benefiting from those same characteristics. "The commercial market has become focused on ROI," says Simon Edgley, MD of control systems company alljoinedup. "Yes, some projects may be on hold, but many are also being re-evaluated with a view to investing in energy-saving technology. Companies are looking at ways of reducing costs that they never gave a second thought to when times were good. They're happy to invest, so long as they believe that there is a tangible return."
That point is echoed by many in the industry. While some point out that the market is flat and, in some cases, installers are struggling, the general view is that customers are looking more than ever for value for money. "We've seen a lot of interest in cost-effective alternatives to traditional control solutions which tend to be closed-architecture and, consequently, rather expensive," notes control systems software developer Stardraw's marketing director, Rob Robinson.
"Success in this market is about focus," says Mikaël Fauconnier of automation company VITY Technology. "Our focus is on the mid- to high-end market, where our competitive pricing has allowed us to increase our market share in the past
"It's a challenging time for all of us," adds Crestron UK's commercial sales manager, Jamie Blakemore. "However, our broad portfolio of products allows us to adapt easily to the change in the marketplace. For example, where a user may not have the budget for a touch panel, we now have a range of push-button panels that can be a cost-effective alternative."
But what are the 'hot' markets for control systems? The public sector is mentioned by many commentators - and education is seen to be especially vibrant. Another application showing signs of growth - counter-intuitively, perhaps, given that travel budgets are among those being hit hardest - is the hotel market.
In education, it seems as if the control systems opportunity may be a natural outflow of the extensive investment of the past several years in audiovisual equipment.
"The education market was where we started," says Tue Andersen, chief executive at control systems company Neets, "and it continues to be a key segment. We've seen AV systems become increasingly sophisticated - and the need for many users to become comfortable with them very quickly has led to a demand for easy-to-use control systems."
"Higher education is one of our strongest and biggest growth areas," adds Blakemore. "With the addition of the MPC to our range, we have a seen an increase in education users."
It's not just about simplicity, though. "It used to be that classroom lighting needed to be as bright as possible for chalk- or whiteboards," notes Paul Wafer, a director at dimming technology company Rako Controls. "But now, with projection screens and smartboard displays, it's the opposite. A control system allows the space to be multifunctional and provide greater focus on the subject."
There are other reasons why education is becoming fertile ground for the control systems industry. "Schools could benefit greatly from control systems to help them reduce the amount of heat lost that could be stored or redistributed," says Edgley. "We are looking to develop business in that area."
According to Control4 MD Tony Leedham, the drivers when it comes to hotels are a mix of competitive advantage and the need to reduce costs. "Hotels have always wanted room control, but they have not seen the costs as recoverable. That's changing," he says. "Hotels are looking to enhance the guest experience - but they're also seeing cost savings and operational benefits. Control4 has invested in software and integration tools that allow room control to fully integrate with hotel systems, and this gives the hotel operator advantages in areas such as energy saving, occupancy statistics and maintenance data."
As Carsten Steinecker, COMM-TEC co-managing director points out, deploying the benefits of control systems to guest rooms is a relatively new phenomenon: the hospitality business has long relied on control systems in its meeting rooms for similar reasons to those that are driving the education market.
It's in the hospitality area, though, that the worlds of commercial control systems and consumer control systems converge, with hotel room systems offering similar facilities to those that can be found in the home. How alike are the two markets? "They're still very different in their implementation, delivery and client needs," says Blakemore, noting, however, similarities such as the growing requirement to deliver HD content in both the living room and the boardroom.
On the other hand, companies such as Rako and Control4 began life focusing on the residential market, but are now becoming more active in the commercial market - indicating that perhaps the two have a great deal in common. "The main difference is in the user interface," notes Leedham.
Steinecker agrees. "However," he says, "from a technical point of view, the two-way communication that is required in commercial applications is closer to the state of the art than the unidirectional control commonly seen in residential installations."
The differences between one installation and another - whether residential or commercial - raises the issue of off-the-shelf and open systems on the one hand, and proprietary or bespoke systems on the other. Which are better?
Robinson is clear: "History tells us that open systems always prevail over closed ones. I would argue that there is nothing that a bespoke system can do that cannot be similarly achieved using standard, off-the-shelf hardware that costs far less than a bespoke system."
Andersen disagrees: "Off-the-shelf solutions may work for the consumer market - where wireless tends to prevail - but in the 'professional' segment, where systems are usually wired, they're not nearly as relevant." Edgley is on the same page: "There are some wireless solutions that are good value for money - but a fully integrated building is a completely different prospect." He goes on to say, however, that he sees the balance shifting in favour of open systems.
Wafer, on the other hand, doesn't. "I see bespoke systems staying put for a long time," he says. "Technologies that encompass all systems onto one bus are often complicated and costly." Andersen agrees: "We've seen demand for bespoke systems rising year on year, and the growth in applications such as building management will see that continue."
"Custom-designed solutions are increasingly beneficial as the range and number of technologies that people want to control increases," says Pete Baker, vice president, sales and marketing for RTI.
And what about the role of IP in control systems? "Ethernet-based systems are inherently over-complicated for the task of controlling lighting, heating and other environmental systems," says Wafer. "However, it is essential that these systems have a way of integrating with IP-based building-wide control systems for a neat and fast way of bridging the two control elements. It is much wiser to let a lighting control system handle the lighting, a heating control system handle the heating and so on - and then bridge each of these subsystems into a global front end."
It is, of course, the solution that is important - not the underlying technology. COMM-TEC's Steinecker sees this clearly. "Before the recession, it's possible to say that end users were more interested in brand names and image," he says. "Now, the questions are all about 'when will I break even on this investment?' or 'what is the cost of ownership of this solution?' That's very positive for the future of commercial control systems. By the end of the economic downturn, the AV market will have arrived at a more rational, more mature place - and that has to be good for everyone."