Article - February 2004
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Controls Hardware Erosion

The concept of networking to the video screen with browser-based menus seems to be a natural evolution for all these products. 

Ken Sinclair,

As published

February issue

Evolving communication standards coupled with the rapid migration to web-based control by all control hardware manufacturers is eroding away pieces of the hardware's traditional functionality and transferring it to software.

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Acceptance of IT standards dilutes system uniqueness while bringing newly found power to products. Hardware becomes simpler and develops sameness. The companies that turn complex devices into simple commodities are now looking at how they can build the new breed of controls cheaper, or make as part of their existing device infrastructure.

The hardware complexities of our industry are disappearing. With the hardware reduced to its simplest form the traditional complexities, features, characteristics and uniqueness that was our industry is extracted, and then enhanced and emulated in software. The existing control capabilities are increased several times with the new functionality that can be created in software easier and at a lower cost than hardware. Globalization and industry crossover of the marketing of these software applications increases the volume allowing the costs to drop even further.

Consider the computer industry and this real example. I just replaced my three-year-old laptop for less than its original cost. The new Laptop notebook has a six times speed increase, more memory, bigger hard drive, DVD player, CD burner, bigger screen and a free all in one printer, scanner, copier, camera card reader, etc. How did this giant leap in functionality and drop in cost happen in just over three years? Laptops have become commodities. It becomes evident that the commodity is not important it is what we do with the commodity. I think we would have a hard time arguing that our control systems are more complex than a PC notebook.

While traveling in China and Australia I was fascinated by the remote devices that controlled the air conditioning. The fascinating part was the highly evolved capability of the remote controlled devices. The remote included a temperature sensor that could be placed anywhere you were, with adjustable set point, heat, cool and Auto control, as well as fan speed control, louver direction control, and even breeze simulation. The air conditioning control had been commoditized to become part of the air conditioning product much the way the control by a remote of a TV is done. I like this example because the fact that industry standards for remotes do not exist has the TV, audio, DVD, surround sound systems industries in shambles. How many remotes does it take to allow you to control your home systems? It is hard to argue about the control functionality they achieve for almost no cost by making controls an integrated commodity. I am sure that the next stage of evolution for these products including the air conditioning control will include machine-to-IP network connections utilizing web-based presentation for easy interface.

[an error occurred while processing this directive]The concept of networking to the video screen with browser-based menus seems to be a natural evolution for all these products. Such functionality as shutting down air conditioning when room is not occupied from an IT based booking system, and turning on the networked digital signage type video screen with a welcoming message when the occupant first enters the room would be possible. Video would also present the necessary instructions to operate all necessary systems as well as function as a TV. Once web methods are accepted control of systems by software commands using XML standards like those now being developed by will greatly increase functionality and ease of use.

oBIX (Open Building Information Xchange) is a focused effort by industry leaders and associations working toward creating a standard XML and Web Services guideline to facilitate the exchange of information.

There is an amazing focus by non-control companies on Machine To Machine (M2M) interfaces. These interfaces are about enabling device to IT and IT to device information flow. This market is estimated to grow to $100 billion by 2010. As a connecting industry we had better be prepared.

My message to the industry is that hardware is melting down, but what made us famous was not the hardware itself but how we were able to weave it into useful systems for our clients. Nothing has changed except we are now able to do more for less cost and provide a better overall interface with our clients' enterprise, choosing the correct commodity components with the correct software and functionality. Understanding this will grow our businesses far beyond our present hardware models leaving us only limited by our imaginations.

Are we ready to make this significant industry transition from being hardware suppliers to software developers and system integrators?

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