Interview -July 2001
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Ken SInclair, Gerry Hull & Steve Tom

Gerry Hull
Steve Tom
For over 20 years Gerry Hull has been President/CEO of Automated Logic Corporation, Kennesaw, GA, a company which develops and manufactures electronic hardware/software control systems for buildings.  He holds a bachelors degree in mechanical engineering from Vanderbilt University and received his MBA from Emory University.

Steve Tom, PE, PhD, is the director of technical information at Automated Logic Corporation, Kennesaw, GA. He coordinates the marketing and technical information programs at ALC, and works with the company's R&D engineers to improve the usability of new products.

Our September Issue will deal with Industry Restructuring. Is it happening?

[an error occurred while processing this directive]Sinclair - Browser based presentation of all industry information appears to be the now trend. Do you have any concerns?

Hull - Tom: My only concern is that some vendors seem to be treating this as a "new gadget" to be tacked onto their existing building automation systems, and customers who use these may be disillusioned with the entire concept as a result. There's really nothing new about the idea of pulling selected data points out of a system and pasting them into a hand-crafted web page. Some of our customers have been doing that with our older systems for years. What's revolutionary is the idea of developing a system based on web browsers from the ground up, a system where the browser is the operator workstation. This puts a whole new spin on things. Instead of offering up bits and pieces of information for a custom web page, a manufacturer needs to put all the information and control actions on the web, and they need to automatically generate the web pages. Some of the tools needed to do this right are really cutting edge. When we started development of our browser based system, the technology didn't yet exist to do everything we needed, but we gambled on the idea that the technology would be there by the time we needed it. Fortunately, we were right.

Sinclair - As our industry rapidly migrates towards Information Technology type presentation and procedures are there concerns that we may lose our industry identity?

Hull - Tom: I'm not concerned. Our identity may change, but it's been doing that for years. When I started in this industry, our identity was largely that of pneumatic pipefitters. I loved those pneumatic controls. They were rugged, rugged, and, uh, rugged. You could build complex control systems out of pneumatics, once we even built a pneumatic computer that played tic-tac-toe for a trade show, but the result was a plumber's nightmare. Very few complex pneumatic systems operated correctly for more than a year or two. Over the years our identity has changed from pipefitters to DDC experts - the folks who build custom networks of proprietary electronic "black boxes." In the years to come our identity will become that of system integrators, people who integrate building automation systems into an office network which includes the World Wide Web. Our identity will be different, but it won't be lost. We'll still be the people they call when it gets too hot in the boss's conference room.

Sinclair - Online eDucation and eLearning are growing. Are they enough to keep our industry in touch?

Hull - Tom: I'd go so far as to say they're necessary to keep our industry in touch. Certainly they're more than we've ever had before. Our industry has always been short on education. There are a few technical schools that teach HVAC Controls, but not many. When you look at the educational opportunities available for HVAC design engineers, they're even scarcer. The vast majority of engineers who enter our field have had some general electronics and thermodynamics classes, but have had almost no training on HVAC. They learn on the job, hopefully under the tutelage of an experienced engineer, with an occasional opportunity to attend a one or two week continuing education course. These mentors and short courses won't go away, but soon there will be a vast array of options for learning over the Internet which will greatly increase the opportunities for learning about our industry.

Sinclair - Is our industry positioned to accept daily convergence opportunities?  By convergence I was thinking about the convergence of technologies and procedures used by other industries.

Hull - Tom: I think as a whole we are. The move from standalone DDC networks to an integrated building network using technologies "borrowed" from the IT industry isn't nearly as dramatic as was the move from pneumatics to DDC. Like any change, there will be some who embrace it and take a leading role in making it happen and there will be some who don't quite get it. Like it or not, convergence happens and whether or not you're positioned for it makes very little difference. Was the computer industry positioned to accept convergence in the mid 1980's? Some were, and they recognized that what customers really wanted was a computer based upon an industry standard, so their computer could talk to their co-workers and could run the same applications. These companies embraced the standard, and used the convergence of industry talent to build upon the standard and build better and better computers. They're the leaders of the computer industry today. Some played "follow the leader," trying to clone popular products but not take advantage of the convergence. A few of these are still around, but not in a leading role. A few manufacturers refused to admit that convergence was occurring and steadfastly maintained that their "standard" was better until they either found themselves in a niche market or went bankrupt.

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