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Smart buildings: interoperability and open connectivity

The ultimate smart building – or, perhaps more correctly, intelligent building – will be one that is capable of self-management of all its systems. Ian McMurray finds out whether they yet exist – or when they will

A key indicator of progress is perhaps to look at jobs that are now commonplace that didn’t exist 30 years ago. Offshore wind farm engineer, for example. SEO specialist. Drone operator. Web developer. Blogger. (Is that even a job?)

You can add to that list corporate social responsibility manager. He or she is the person responsible for ensuring that a company’s moral practices are sound. That can mean responsible sourcing of raw materials. It can mean ethical manufacturing. And it can mean minimising a company’s environmental footprint. That, in turn, means reducing energy consumption – which means minimising the use of power in systems such as heating, lighting and cooling.

That need – driven, perhaps, as much by its bottom line impact as by a desire to save the planet – gave rise firstly to what were called building automation systems (BAS) and then to intelligent/smart buildings that used a range of sensors to measure key parameters and adjust the relevant systems in response.

Rapid growth
It’s an industry that, unsurprisingly, has not only grown but grown rapidly – and continues to do so. MarketsAndMarkets, for example, believes it will grow sixfold from $5.71bn in 2016 to $31.74bn by 2022. That’s a CAGR in excess of 33%.

Alwyn Howie, head of enterprise solutions at Siemens, has slightly different figures – but they’re no less compelling. “The smart buildings market is growing at quite an aggressive rate,” he believes. “Globally, the market is growing from $18bn to an estimated $34bn by 2023 – based on several industry reports. Europe equates to 24% of the market, with the UK, Spain, Germany and France the key growth regions.”

Also seeing growth is Danish company UbiqiSense. “We deliver sensors to smart buildings, and it appears there is a healthy appetite within our customer base to make investments in making buildings smarter,” notes Christian Bjerrum-Niese, who is head of sales and business development. “Since our sensor products are enabling whole new means of extracting information about building usage, we are seeing only a low degree of competition and also limited disruption. It is the confidence in working with a new technology that is limiting this greenfield market, and we expect to see continued, rapid market expansion in the coming years.”

No less enthused is Simon Ward, who is director of sales, UK and Ireland at Distech Controls. “The market for smart commercial buildings is definitely growing and people are becoming more interested in what the technology can offer,” he says. “But: there is still a question mark over what smart buildings actually means. The aspect of having connected systems is understood – but taking that a step further into IoT, that’s where we find there is more learning to be done. However, we are seeing more end users enquire about smart buildings as they are beginning to understand the benefits of the technology for them and their buildings. It’s about justifying what the technology can provide – its ROI, in basic terms.”

Ward implicitly raises an interesting point. For many, the terms ‘smart buildings’ and ‘intelligent buildings’ are interchangeable – but master systems integrator Vanti believes a distinction needs to be made, describing a continuum from smart buildings to intelligent buildings – with the latter leveraging technologies such as machine learning to become capable of self-optimisation.

“There is a broad consensus that interoperability and connectivity standards are key if we are to capitalise on the potential for smart buildings globally”

Vanti CEO Mike Brooman, however, neatly summarises where the smart buildings market is. “We’re no longer being asked ‘What is it?’” he smiles. “Now, the question is ‘How do I get one?’”

In 2019, then, what is the state of the market in terms of that continuum? Are we even close to truly intelligent buildings? A vital building block in the creation of a truly intelligent building is the integration of all the systems within it – something which has, traditionally, been hard to achieve in an industry that has seen a plethora of not-necessarily-compatible communications protocols – such as BACnet, KNX and Modbus establish themselves.

“There is a broad consensus that interoperability and connectivity standards are key if we are to capitalise on the potential for smart buildings globally,” acknowledges Oliver Iltisberger, managing director of ABB’s smart buildings business. “As smarter solutions continue to develop, we believe that interoperability will remain key, with a strong focus on ensuring that different products and solutions can operate together in harmony. The ideal solution would be that all products can be easily combined regardless of which brand or business they are developed by.”

Plethora of protocols
“There are, and will continue to be, a plethora of systems integration protocols,” explains Brooman. “In terms of providing best of breed technology to end users, integrators and their chosen building technology platforms will need to support as many of these as necessary to create the in-building experience. It is highly unlikely one protocol will ‘rule them all’ in the short to mid-term.”

That doesn’t sound promising. Bjerrum-Niese, however, sees some signs of a transition. “Our customers most commonly request BACnet interoperability, and KNX to a lesser extent. We see no demand for Modbus at all,” he says. “But: we’re also seeing new demand for interoperability with the wireless bearer protocols being used in IoT – WiFi, Bluetooth, LoRaWAN, Sigfox and NB-IOT.

“We’re repeatedly hearing from customers and industry commentators that there is a continued demand to break the incumbents’ proprietary communication protocols by means of adoption of open standards,” he goes on. “Customers have witnessed in other industries how open, standardised interfaces are breaking monopolies, increasing competition and boosting innovation and there is an expectation that the market for smart buildings may equally benefit from open interface standards.”

Open connectivity
Howie has a similar experience. “I wouldn’t say a new standard is emerging, but more of a drive to increase the ease of connectivity/interoperability,” he notes. “Most tier one hardware manufacturers are adopting an open connectivity policy.”

“Years ago, this was a big challenge,” he continues. “The IT industry is still at the forefront of driving the standards – and especially the importance of cyber protection. As more and more ‘edge’ devices connect to smart buildings, including employees’ BYOD options, ensuring cyber protection to the corporation and individual is key.”