Smart technology can transform your business – the experts have their say

Ian McMurray finds out how the combination of sensors and abundant connectivity are transforming our working lives
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According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, an average of 30% of the energy used in commercial buildings is wasted. Pic courtesy Intel

Can you adjust the temperature your refrigerator is running at from your car? Are you able to turn off the lounge lights simply by saying “Alexa: turn off the lounge lights?” If someone’s at your door but you’re on holiday – can you tell them you’re not at home? Do your rooms know if someone’s in them? If the answers to those questions are “yes” – it seems you’ve embraced the Internet of Things (IoT). You’ve taken at least a few steps towards having a smart home.

But what about where you work? How smart is that building? If the IoT can be transformative to your home in terms of convenience, productivity, security, lower cost of ownership and increased environmental friendliness – think how those benefits would be multiplied in a building that’s home to not just a few people – but perhaps hundreds or thousands.

“Imagine if every asset of your building – such as fans, doors, furniture, coffee machines, windows and AV equipment – contained a tiny embedded sensor that gathers simple data to determine the actual behaviour of those assets,” says Stijn Ooms, technology director at Crestron. “Envisage a system in your building that could capture this data and send real-time notifications, detailed analytics and summary reports. Imagine being able to analyse the collected data to adjust performance and signal intervention when needed – a system that provides the ability to assess structural improvements, make educated predictions, optimise operations and manage your building – and all building related processes – in a truly sustainable way.”

“A future proof system is one that understands the performance of a building, its assets and its users and improves its usage in order to create a more sustainable, energy saving, pleasant and satisfying coexistence,” he continues. “A system that empowers users to make real-time decisions and educated predictions about the ongoing performance and health of a building.”

If that sounds like a utopian vision of life in an office in the future – it’s really not. Smart buildings – perhaps not quite as smart yet as the ones Ooms describes – are very much with us and continues to grow at pace. Some forecasts suggest its value will be worth more than $31.7 billion by 2022.

Leaps and bounds

“The smart buildings market has come on in leaps and bounds in the past decade,” believes Mike Brooman of master systems integrator Vanti. “Increasing numbers of organisations are understanding the benefits of occupying a space that uses technology to improve their users’ experience, and property developers and investors are similarly beginning to appreciate the added value that smart buildings represent. Now the concept of smart buildings has become more mainstream, more tenants are demanding integrated technology, which is forcing the market to move forward, as asset owners and operators know they must innovate if they wish to stay competitive.”

“Digital transformation is redefining business across all industries, increasingly enabled by the Internet of Things,” adds Rob Sheppard of the Internet of Things Group at Intel . “A foundation of IT infrastructure, data and analytics offers customers new insights, helps direct decision making, and creates new opportunities to use core assets in different ways. This extends to the intelligent buildings space, where we see leading edge companies looking at how buildings, and the information they generate, can add business value in the greater context of the enterprise and other systems within it.”

Technology drivers

The technology drivers behind this transformation are straightforward. The development of a broadening range of intelligent sensors of all types, capable of gathering and transmitting copious quantities of data, together with ubiquitous connectivity are creating knowledge, understanding – and actionable information about what’s going on within a building.

That ubiquitous connectivity is, of course, a key enabler – but in the world of smart buildings, it too is developing, so says Simon Ward, director of sales, UK and Ireland at Distech Controls.

“Currently, a lot of the elements that we use to operate a commercial building work in isolation from each other, inhibiting their potential,” he explains. “The challenge to date has been communication, since these devices do not easily ‘talk’ to each other. Disparate systems for HVAC, lighting, sunblinds and security have traditionally used many different proprietary communication protocols that have made the process of delivering a truly integrated Building Management System (BMS) tedious, challenging and costly. However, this is starting to change.”

“Communication between devices is becoming easier, with more products operating via IP.”

Neil Bilton, head of key accounts at Panasonic UK, picks up the story.

New solutions

“New wireless interface solutions are being introduced to the industry that enable direct serial communication between building management systems and room controllers,” he says. “This integration allows building owners and managers to view all of their core building systems - including HVAC equipment, lighting, security, power and electrical distribution – any time and anywhere via a single interface and delivers actionable insights to reduce energy consumption and drive savings.”

“ABB products are based on proven KNX technology, the world’s first open standard for the control of all types of intelligent buildings, from homes through to commercial and public buildings,” notes Oliver Iltisberger, managing director of the industrial digitalisation company’s building products business. “ABB’s KNX products offer the complete spectrum of applications for buildings - from lighting and blind control to the heating, ventilation, energy management, security and surveillance.” [See inset]

Saving money was traditionally the focus and justification for developing smart buildings. Now, we’re seeing the horizon broaden.

“Many metrics can be impacted by smart buildings,” explains Sean Wargo, senior director, market intelligence at AVIXA, the trade association representing the professional audiovisual and information communications industries worldwide. “Not just cost savings, but employee productivity, employee or guest satisfaction, repeat visitors are all possibilities. Ultimately, these are just individual ways of measuring the improved experience that comes from a well-executed smart building.”

Making sense of data

At the heart of smart buildings is making sense of data – huge amounts of it, which is why it’s called Big Data. Today, that’s, in effect, a ‘manual’ process: someone, somewhere looks at it and takes appropriate action.

“Big data is key to understanding how smart buildings are performing,” says Iltisberger. “What we’ve done is to take that big data and turn it into easy to use, bite-size intelligence for facilities and building managers. So, they can easily see from their app if there’s been a security breach, if the heating system isn’t working in a specific meeting room or if the lights have been left on, before it becomes a major issue.”

That’s about to change, though – big time.

“The next generation of smart buildings - what we think of as intelligent buildings – will use technologies such as AI and machine learning to think for themselves,” says Brooman. “The next decade should see technology advancing to the stage where intelligent buildings can truly look after themselves – self-optimising, self-regulating, offering personalised experiences, and engaging in predictive maintenance so that as much value is derived from the space as possible.”

Intrinsically linked

She’s not alone in her view.

“Big data, machine learning and AI are intrinsically linked,” notes Wargo. “The data part is the raw material generated by a smart building. With the plethora of connected technologies, the system as a whole is generating massive amounts of data as users interact with the building. This is where AI and machine learning come into play. AI helps us to make sense of all the data by revealing patterns in usage that can feedback into improved designs and implementations. It also helps users to interact with the system by responding to demands in a smart way, increasingly through voice interfaces. Machine learning is then the automated response to the patterns revealed in the data.”

Historically, smart buildings have focused on saving energy, reducing costs and minimising carbon footprint – as Iltisberger points out.

“Smarter buildings enable commercial and industrial operators to improve energy efficiency to save both costs and meet the stringent standards enforced by international legislation,” he says. “Indeed, smarter buildings in which all functionality is automated, all systems are connected and can be remotely monitored, have the power to not only reduce energy consumption and associated costs by up to 50 percent - they can also make us safer, make our lives easier and enhance the enjoyment of the end user.”

“But,” he goes on, “increasingly, people expect tailored, individual solutions - and smarter buildings fulfil this need, enabling spaces to respond to the requirements of different occupants in different areas of the building. More importantly, we know that happy employees deliver far higher levels of engagement and productivity. That’s why the working environment is so important to how people feel.”

Growing focus

And there’s the shift that’s becoming increasingly apparent. All the reasons why smart buildings have become a phenomenon are still valid and a key justification for making the investment – but, increasingly, they’re being supplemented by a growing focus on creating buildings that make employees’ lives easier and more comfortable – and thus more productive.

“There’s often a temptation to reduce the benefits of smart buildings to very tangible, quantitative data, which tends to be provided by things like space efficiency, reduction in CO2 emissions or energy usage and the cost savings as a result of this,” notes Brooman. “Our approach always starts with the people who’ll be using the space - how will it benefit them and help them to achieve what they’re trying to achieve? We look at the user experience of the various different residents, visitors, and occupants and map this out so we can understand where technology can reduce friction and help them.”

“This can result in something as simple as an access card that, when they enter the building, calls the lift for them and knows which floor they want to go to, but could also allow them to open a locker or book a hot desk,” he continues. “We make meeting rooms and audiovisual systems easy to use so time isn’t wasted setting them up during a meeting, and we use technology to create more flexible spaces - so if someone needs to concentrate, they can simply move to a quieter zone that will give them the ability to focus. Creating environments that support people and help them get stuff done also has a significant impact on their personal well-being, which results in less absenteeism as well as greater productivity.”

Individual needs

According to Mary Ann de Lares Norris, VP EMEA at Oblong Industries, one of the defining elements in a smart building is to approach its physical structure, not from an organisational hierarchy point of view, but from the point of view of the specific needs of individuals working in it.

“The kinds of work the modern workplace needs to support ranges from individual, contemplative work to group teaming to immersive client pitch spaces. Change is happening at all levels of organisations: traditional boardrooms are being replaced by smarter, more flexible workspaces and employees previously housed in individual cubicles are now ‘hoteling’ either in their office or, increasingly, offsite. This new generation of employees need the right tools in which to engage with essential information, in a newly energised way, to enable them to get work done better and faster.”

The AV industry has seen the impact of this with the rise of the huddle room – and the development of a new generation of solutions – such as Oblong’s Mezzanine 200 Series - designed for these less formal, ad hoc spaces.

Implicit in Blagburn’s earlier remarks, however, are user frustration with getting meeting rooms to work as they should – even though they’re far more intuitive than they’ve ever been. She has an ally in Intel’s Shephard.

“How much time is lost every year trying to get connected to room projectors – finding the right dongle, fixing screen resolutions and so on?” he asks. “Intel Unite has enabled over 4,000 conference rooms globally with an estimated saving of more than 50,000 productivity hours annualy.”

It’s not just the performance of the equipment itself, either.

Automation

“Smart buildings have the ability to take over tasks and routines so that users no longer need to worry about them,” says Ooms. “Not only are ideal temperature, lighting intensity and colour all controlled by the buildings themselves – a truly smart building can also book rooms that are working properly and/or have all assets needed for a specific activity.”

There is, then, new thinking about what a commercial building can be, and how it can be integral to a company’s success.

“Big data, automated analytics, pervasive wireless sensing, cloud services are together radically changing the quality of information that can be collected, processed and analysed in real time to enable better services provision,” summarises Ward.

“This is combining with an increased priority being given to space utilisation and employee well-being, which is re-shaping the way building automation systems are designed and deployed. The building management system is being incorporated into a more holistic way of thinking about the building operation, which has different priorities than before.”

Intel’s Sheppard sees a similar picture.

Joining the dots

“The secret to creating a smart building is to join the dots between the different systems that run a building,” he believes. “Being able to correlate data between systems is the key to delivering operational insights and business benefits. The more interconnected the systems in a building are - security, energy, lighting, HVAC, elevators, conference rooms and so on - the more efficiently the building can be operated, and the more comfortable and productive the inhabitants will be.”

“Making that a reality for both new builds and as a retrofit into existing buildings needs to happen if we’re to move to a future state where buildings can more effectively automate operations by self-predicting, self-managing and adapting to users specific needs,” he concludes.

It becomes clear that, while the original thinking behind smart buildings was very much oriented towards making them more energy-efficient – both saving money and reducing their carbon profile – that thinking has evolved. Energy-efficiency is no less important today – but security and surveillance are now an integral part of what smart building technology encompasses. Big Data is enabling substantially superior predictive maintenance – reducing not only cost, but also inconvenience.

Buildings adapt

But: increasingly, smart buildings are smart because they are adapting to how people want to work. Yes: everyone wants a comfortable working environment in terms of lighting, heating and air conditioning – but they also want the building to eliminate stress from their working lives. They want meeting rooms and audiovisual equipment that ‘just work’. They want spaces that reflect how they want to work. Ideally, they want buildings that recognise them as individuals, and adapt accordingly. The justification for investing in these ‘softer’ outcomes is increased efficiency, increased productivity – and, in a competitive market, improved employee retention.

It may sound far-fetched – a building that appears to its users as almost sentient - but it’s almost certainly coming to an office or conference room near you sooner than you might think. 

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