August 2010

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When Does Building Automation Become Industrial Automation?
However tempting or logical it might seem to use industrial automation in complex building projects, it usually leads to problems (generally due to the technical and business practices “gaps”) that are greater than the benefits.

Paul Ehrlich & Ira Goldschmidt
Building Intelligence Group

As published

August Issue - Column

There generally appears to be a clear division between the building and industrial automation markets, but not always…. Sure the applications, products, design techniques, business models of the players involved, etc. are typically very different. In particular, industrial automation involves applications that are often one-of-a-kind, with an importance placed on the handling of most contingencies and minimizing “downtime”, and integration with various systems and other controls. Hmm…that sounds like many of our data center, laboratory, hospital, etc. projects (or where many seem to be headed when you throw in LEED, net-zero energy, etc.).

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So the question is should building automation products/design/installation still be used when a project appears to have become as complicated as that for an industrial automation project? First some background – the following is a quick comparison of some the important attributes concerning building and industrial automation (from the point of view of a building automation person):


Building Automation

Industrial Automation

Products/System Cost

Very price sensitive often to the detriment of the building

Expensive but loss of “product” dictates this

Product Fault-Immunity

Not much built-in beyond retention of controller memory

Lots of built-in features to deal with power and other controller/
system failures

Design & Installation Approach

Typically a lower priority issue vs. many other design/construction disciplines

Typically a top priority given that it is the “heart” of the plant

Ease of Programming and Operator Interface

Designed for ease of use vs. ultimate flexibility

Designed for flexibility over ease of use

Other than perhaps the last issue above it seems that some of our more-complex projects might benefit from an industrial automation “treatment”. Unfortunately, use of an industrial automation approach (i.e., products, contractor, etc.) in a commercial project is a bit like fitting a square peg into a round hole. There is unfortunately huge project management (i.e., the project’s contractor hierarchy) and business practices gaps between how industrial automation is normally executed vs. that for building automation. Additionally, industrial automation contractors do not seem to have sufficient knowledge/experience with commercial applications (which is made only worse on more complex projects).

[an error occurred while processing this directive] Experience with some real-life projects has led use to ponder this dilemma many times over the years and we have always concluded the following:

  1. However tempting or logical it might seem to use industrial automation in complex building projects, it usually leads to problems (generally due to the technical and business practices “gaps”) that are greater than the benefits.

  2. The better approach is for all involved in a project to help ensure that the building automation portion is treated with the level of respect commensurate with that required of the project.

This brings us back to a theme that we are constantly revisiting – the importance of educating clients, architects, engineers, general/mechanical contractors, etc. about the attention that building automation design/construction deserves in a building project, especially for one that is complex (i.e., striving for very low energy usage, extensive integration, etc.). Therefore the solution to successful modern complex building automation projects continues to be the same old story (only more so)!

About the Authors

Paul and IraPaul and Ira first worked together on a series of ASHRAE projects including the BACnet committee and Guideline 13 – Specifying DDC Controls. The formation of Building Intelligence Group provided them the ability to work together professionally providing assistance to owners with the planning, design and development of Intelligent Building Systems. Building Intelligence Group provides services for clients worldwide including leading Universities, Corporations, and Developers. More information can be found at  We also invite you to contact us directly at or


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