Babel Buster Network Gateways: Big Features. Small Price.
The world of Building Automation has been abuzz with activities over the past few years. As we start 2006 there is a great deal of justified optimism for almost everyone in this industry as well as those the industry serves. Let’s explore why this is, and how this good news will affect us.
Most of the major acquisitions in the building space are now behind us. The remaining ones that are predicted will be few and mostly small or very large, but will not change the makeup of the future players, expect in one area, the entry of IT players, but it will be some time before we see much of this.
There are now three (maybe four) major “tier 1” building systems companies, a handful of smaller “tier 2” players (who are also large companies), and a bunch of smaller companies with niche offerings or serving niche markets.
This is very good news to an industry that can do with a little bit of stability in order to grow.
Firstly, system vendors are now technologically agnostic, they will supply proprietary technology (when they can), LonWorks and/or BACnet where specified or deemed appropriate, and increasingly IP products and solutions (as soon as they have it). Those promoting one specific technology (other than IP) are learning it’s now a tough sell, but having said that, both LonWorks and BACnet still have time for significant contributions, (how much time is debatable).
Secondly, most vendors are now supplying all or most of the main components of building systems; security, life safety, environment (HVAC), lighting, electrical, energy management and increasingly IT components and services. Some vendors are also offering increasing amounts of mechanical and peripheral products either from acquired businesses, or through partnerships and strategic relationships.
Both these trends make a lot of sense for vendors since they can now supply anything the building owners need and want, all from a one stop shop – soup to nuts as they say.
And for owners who are best served by a single (and large) supplier, this is great news, they can hand their problem to someone who is unlikely to drop the ball (since they are big enough not to want to be sued!).
It seems that the role of contractors (electrical, temperature, security and mechanical) is becoming clear. Their role is to install, commission and some times maintain specific parts of the increasingly complex building system, in accordance to the specifications and needs of the building owner and integrator or General Contractor. Contractors supply specific discipline(s) in which they can focus their attention.
It is increasingly accepted that contractors need not concern themselves with the bigger picture integration, business or enterprise needs of the building, I suspect that this will be a relief to many contractors who have for some time just wanted to focus on what they do well, and not be dragged into areas where they are uncomfortable.
Regardless what happens with convergence, all of the components of a building will be required, in fact they will have more value in the future, and those focusing on their strengths will find good business, growth and prosperity.
Not a long time back, the discipline of integration was more often mixed with the discipline of the one or more of the systems being integrated. Increasingly there is a realization that this is not the case. Integration is a specific discipline of its own, one that is becoming more important with the increasing role of IP technologies and IT players.
The scope of what can be integrated is increasing, we’re not just talking about HVAC with security anymore, integration is a “many to many” activity, requiring a good understanding of the business needs of the owner, the technologies involved and the capability of each sub-system being integrated.
Those who believe in this view will find great opportunities in the next few years; this is one of the most important roles in the future of the integrated and intelligent building.
Integrators should take a leaf from IT Integrators, firms like EDS and many of the consulting groups (Accenture, Capgemini, etc.) as well as IT vendors (IBM, HP, Dell and Microsoft) have created multi billion dollar businesses out of the discipline of integrating.
The future looks very bright here.
Consultants, nay, Specialty Consultants
The role of the consultant has been a difficult one in this transition. The challenge is that the term “consultant” has been over emphasized, and in my view the use of the word “consultant” on its own should be banished from the building world.
Consultants are consulted because of a need for some specific knowledge, be it mechanical, temperature, security, IT or business. They are not generalists. If we focus on thinking of consultants in their specific areas of expertise, this becomes a very rosy picture. We will still need mechanical consultants, electrical consultants, integration consultants, IT consultants and so on. We just don’t need people claiming they are consultants that can solve all of the issues in buildings.
By re-casting consultants in this manner, we can re-invigorate the role of the consultant in the future of buildings. For those with the specialist knowledge, being a consultant, if you qualify it with a specific area, will be a rewarding profession and business. Just go into any hospital and look at the consultants that make a very good living in specializing in very narrow areas of expertise.
The Big Picture
We now know that what is happening in buildings, the convergence of IT and buildings is not an isolated case of the impact of IT to our lives. Almost all corners of our society are being dramatically changed by IT, and many of these convergences have some impact to buildings.
The smart electric Grid initiative GridWise involves the application of IT to make the grid smart, and guess what, all buildings (with only a very small isolated exceptions) are connected to the electric Grid. The world of M2M (Machine-to-Machine), the connectivity of smart every day devices has a great deal in common with the smart building. Our homes and even our bodies are now converging with the application of technology, much of which is not a million miles away from the technology we use to make smart buildings.
If you can take some time to consider the ramifications of the wider convergence issues, the future of buildings and all those involved in buildings is very bright. Remember, humans spend a significant amount of their time in buildings, humans will demand smart buildings as everything else around them becomes smart.
From the explosion of all kinds of wireless to creation of middle ware around XML and Web Services and new ways to transmit and work with electrical power for devices, the early 21st century will undoubtedly be known for the creation of many new technologies that have wide ranging impact to our lives, and most certainly to building systems.
But in many ways, we have only just begun to see the real impact and to truly exploit the technology that we have, let alone consider new technologies that will come over the next few years. While it is often difficult to see how some technologies can play in building systems, there will surely be people out there creating new technologies and exploring ways to use them in different applications, including buildings.
Some of the exciting new things on the horizon include POE (Power over Ethernet), PLC (Power Line Carrier) as well as longer term things such as smaller, bigger and flexible displays, Nano technologies, fuel cells and bio tech.
The convergence of buildings and the rest of the IT world will ensure that many of these yet-to-be-developed technologies will have a place in building systems. How exactly? If I knew, it would be so valuable that I would certainly not write it here!
Is this a great time to be alive or what!
While there has been a significant amount of innovation in the building space in the past few years, it has mainly been in infrastructure. The frustrating thing about this is that until there is a common infrastructure that all buildings can adopt, there is only a small opportunity for the really interesting types of innovation – applications, to be broadly adopted.
If you consider eBay, Email, IM and Google are hugely successful innovations, you will have to accept that without a pervasive Internet reaching all corners of the world, none of those innovations could have been created.
We now have a common infrastructure for buildings, it’s the same stuff as the Internet, and it’s based on the pervasive IP.
Innovation is not only about technology, products or techniques. The really meaningful innovations will involve creating new ideas and products that create new ways to solve problems and new and fundamentally different business models. eBay is a bunch of software that has changed and created a lot of businesses worldwide.
There has never been a better time for innovative thinkers to play in the building space.
For IT players who obviously breathe IP, the next few years will bring significant opportunities to participate in what some analysts calculate to be a $25b a year industry.
Past observations by IT players of the “systems” that have previously gone into buildings, have quickly brought a realization that it was not a business to be in. This is no longer the case as the industry adopts IT disciplines and IP technologies.
IT players big and small will find significant opportunities in the evolving convergence of buildings and IT, in particular if they partner with building players that have in-depth knowledge of the complex issues within the many disciplines involved in buildings.
This is great news to both IT players as well as for players in the industry to partner with IT companies.
The times when I have talked with building owners in the past, I have always detected an element of frustration. With proprietary systems, the frustration was with being locked into a vendor that may abuse them in the future. While the vision of open systems offered by LonWorks, BACnet and the many other initiatives were sound at an intellectual level, the risk of choosing the “8-Track player”, and the added cost (perceived or real) of these initiatives kept many building owners from jumping in with full vigor.
The Internet has proved over and over again that it is usable by anyone (even our grandmothers) and is delivering real and tangible value to everyone it touches. As we choose the Internet based IP protocol as the de-facto industry network, and once our industry can deliver it well, owners will not see risk attached to it and will adopt it widely.
Building owners will expect – and they will get – the ease of use of their building systems, as they do today buying airline tickets, online banking or accessing news or weather online. Vendors and integrators not providing that level of ease and experience will simply go out of business, the simple Darwin principle applies here.
The next few years will be wonderful for building owners, as they realize the one and only true open system is here to help them with their problems. Owners will have the ability to replace their supplier should they not perform, just as easily as I can choose not to buy a familiar PC brand next time I need a laptop, should they not perform as well or better than their competition. What power!
In 2006 BuilConn will be highlighting and evolving many of the above opportunities around the world.
Happy New Year from all at BuilConn.
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