March 2019

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Beyond BAS – The Anatomy of Disruption

Our industry will be opened to a wide variety of new players who will bring with them faster innovation. This will be a good thing.
Brad White

Brad White
P.Eng, MASc
SES Consulting Inc.

Contributing Editor

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I believe we are about to see an industry go through a period of profound disruption in the coming years. It’s easy to imagine that, in 10 or 20 years’ time, this industry that has been around for decades could be a shadow of its former self. This is all the more interesting as this industry is arguably at its height today, and plays a key role in the lives of nearly everyone. The reasons I see for this coming shift are familiar: technological innovation, changing customer tastes, significant environmental impacts that are no longer acceptable. 

No, I’m not talking about the building automation industry, but rather the meat industry. I recently listened to this great episode of Freakonomics Radio on the Future of Meat. I was particularly captivated by the story of the Impossible Burger.  Its creator is on a mission to reduce the enormous environmental impact of meat production by creating alternatives derived from plants. This isn’t your usual veggie burger, but rather a scientifically engineered product to replicate the flavour, texture, and nutritional profile of meat, but made from plants. Their not-so-secret ingredient is a plant-derived blood analog produced from genetically engineered yeast. Regretfully, the Impossible Burger is not yet available in Canada, so I have no firsthand experience to related. But by all measures, they seem to be succeeding at this mission. How many burgers do you know that get launched at CES, and have financial backing from the likes of Google and Bill Gates? They aren’t the only game in town either. Last year, A&W Canada started selling the rival Beyond Meat Burger and promptly sold out nationwide in a matter of weeks.

Why do I think that new food technologies, like the Impossible and Beyond Meat burgers can potentially disrupt well-established industries like livestock, which is worth about $50 Billion/year in the US alone? Here are just a few reasons:

Impossible food has their sights set on plant-based steak next.

If you’ve made it this far, you might be wondering why, in a magazine dedicated to building automation, have I spent half an article talking about the food industry? Besides the fact that I think this is a fascinating snapshot of a very traditional industry about to undergo major disruption, I think there are parallels to the disruption that I see on the horizon for the automation industry.

My glimpse into this future disruption in the BAS market occurred last month at the AHR Expo, through a combination of seeing what new products were on the floor, talking with other attendees and vendors, and from participation in education sessions with a number of brilliant and passionate individuals.

From all of that, it was clear to me that the future is Open. Open systems are the Impossible Burger of the BAS world, poised to disrupt the traditional BAS market. I’m pretty loose in my definition of “open,” including true open source, but also open protocols and software with open APIs — the key feature of open being the ability to integrate seamlessly and share data across platforms and systems. There are hardware devices, like BASpi and DINGO and software “projects” like Sedona, Haystack, and Volttron already entering the market. The endgame is a world where BAS hardware and software are no longer inseparable, such as is envisioned by Project Sandstar.  These initiatives move us away from the proprietary and closely coupled hardware and software that is offered by every manufacturer today, to a model more like the IT industry where users are free to choose a combination of best in class hardware and software that best meets their needs. Your Excel spreadsheet will open just as well on a Lenovo as a Toshiba, without having to redo all the cell formulas when you move it. This is definitely not true of DDC programs today, which have to be re-coded from scratch for every make of controller.

There is a new generation of integrators and entrepreneurs clamouring for this kind of change in the industry and, like the creators of the Impossible Burger, on a mission to see it happen.  But while the promise might be there, the disruption isn’t yet. In reflecting on what’s going on in the meat industry (and what has happened in the past in other “disrupted” industries), we can look at some parallels and examine some of the factors that it might take for “open systems” to truly disrupt the BAS industry status quo:

Quality – Even though a system may be open, it still has to work and work well. This may be the biggest hurdle to overcome. Incumbent manufacturers have the advantage of testing all of the components together and having predictable system configurations. Open systems will be much more unpredictable with a wider variety and selection of components, with no way to fully test every arrangement. Overcoming this hurdle will be achieved by relying on things like robust and widely adopted standards and well designed and documented APIs.

Cost – This one is obvious, even with the potential benefits we’ve discussed, few folks will make the leap to Open Systems if costs aren’t at least comparable to conventional systems. Preferably they would be even less expensive. This certainly seems possible as Open Systems are largely based on low-cost hardware (like the Raspberry Pi) and can make use of free open source software.

Serviceability – An open BAS will have a lot more options and flexibility when it comes to service and maintenance. No longer beholden to a single manufacturer, it will be possible to swap out controllers and other hardware with different makes and models, copy the code over and keep on going. For systems using open source software, there is the further advantage that it belongs to no single company, but is available for free for all to use. This means no more having to pay ongoing fees to keep your software up to date and secure, or worrying that a valuable component will be discontinued, forcing you to upgrade. This also means always being in a position to consider the best in class hardware or software to meet your particular application. This should lead to much faster innovation as the barriers to upgrading are drastically lowered. Imagine, for example, being able to adopt a new scheduling application that has some advanced features you like without having to change anything else about your BAS. This flip side of this potentially has to deal with multiple vendors and service providers for the different components, but in many cases, these could likely be handled by a single integrator.

Adoption – The current crop of successful plant-based burgers would be nothing without the restaurants and grocery stores signing up to sell them. The success of open BAS hardware and software will similarly depend on early adopter integrators and contractors willing to start installing this stuff. This adoption obviously depends very much on the ability to meet the criteria above.

Of course, the BAS industry is not the meat industry. The established players are also technology companies with the capacity to innovate and develop. New challengers and startups will no doubt arise who embrace openness from the start. Some of these will be successful, others will not be, and some of the existing industry giants will adapt their products and business models and carry on. Our industry will be opened to a wide variety of new players who will bring with them faster innovation. This will be a good thing.  


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