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Article - September 2001
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Technology Support: A Critical Issue In Industry Restructuring

Thomas Hartman, P.E.
Contributing Editor

How these issues are best resolved are determinations that will be made by those who most successfully navigate the uncharted sea of industry restructuring.

There has been a great deal of discussion over the last several years about restructuring in the HVAC industry. Various industry participants have different ideas about what is meant by the term as it applies to our industry, but most agree that its focus is the controls segment of our industry and that it is already taking place.

Control Solutions, Inc To much of the business community industry "restructuring" is seen as the result of applying more enlightened business practices that improve flexibility and competition. However, missing in this business analysis is the consideration that much of the industry restructuring over the last several decades has been driven by the development and application of new technologies. Most of these driving technologies are digital network based technologies that permit better and more flexible scheduling, interconnection of resources, and new "bundling" of products and services such that it makes economic sense to operate the industry somewhat differently than has been practiced in the past. These new technologies have facilitated restructuring in transportation, energy, and communication industries, and they are now being applied to some elements of the building industry.

As restructuring evolves in this industry, we should be concerned with how the technologies that are driving restructuring will be supported. Here, I offer a preliminary discussion of this issue. My discussion is intended to bring potential problems to the light of day for consideration by those who will effect and be affected by our industry's restructuring. How these issues are best resolved are determinations that will be made by those who most successfully navigate the uncharted sea of industry restructuring.

What is Driving Industry Restructuring?

The primary driving force for restructuring in this industry is a desire to open and integrate building control and information networks into mainstream communication networks and systems. Increasingly, owner demand is forcing our industry to use standard integrated building communication networks for building automation so that information employed for building operation and control can also be easily managed, collected and processed for other uses necessary in the operation of modern buildings. This demand is forcing our industry to adopt new communication standards and integrate the products of many diverse manufacturers onto integrated building networks.

Integrated, open building control networks aren't just a neat concept, they are a necessity to successfully operate modern high-performance buildings. The scope of building operations is continually expanding and becoming more complex. The days of considering every building as a separate entity with an independent operations staffs disconnected from the financial part of the business are ending. As well are the days in which the HVAC controls were the only (or at least the most complicated) digital control system involved in building operation. The complexity of digital systems within buildings and the need for integration are now increasing at a ferocious pace.

Modern buildings of all sizes have an IP network over which some information from the HVAC system is required for building business operations. As more information is employed for business and regulatory requirements, owners are increasingly viewing the HVAC system simply as another network application rather than a system distinct from their overall building network. This growing viewpoint has encouraged owners to favor controls firms that can integrate their equipment into standard networks, and controls contractors that offer a much broader base of equipment and support than just HVAC. This change in the controls business from single product branch offices or dealerships to "systems integrators" that offer a wider variety of products and services is what most observers understand to be the current restructuring that is taking place in the industry today.

Promises of Open Networks Are Largely Unfulfilled

Reliable Controls Unfortunately, the process of restructuring described above does not appear to be yielding the effective results desired in many applications. The problem seems to be that the issues of integration and connectivity has distracted focus from system function. Many of the problems of systems integration may be blamed on the fact that this type of integration is relatively new in our industry. Unforeseen problems develop in the integrated networks that take time and effort to resolve. Such problems are understandable. Many of these new networks never do realize their owners' desires for integration and function. It certainly seems that the connectivity problems have so distracted system integrators that function and network performance issues are often entirely neglected with the result that many of these new networks operate only at a rudimentary level with very little benefit when compared to the older proprietary networks they replace.

Performance Problems of Open Networks:

While many of the problems now being experienced in the implementation of integrated, open networks can be attributed to "growing pains," others are developing that are less like to be solved without specific action. Among the most serious of these is that fact that the network is often made from components of many manufacturers. When the desired integration does not occur, who will solve the problem? Although it is essential to give one contractor overall responsibility and accountability for the operation of the network, that process can break down when products fail to inter operate as expected. Finger pointing can take over the process and resolving such situations in a hierarchical construction contractual environment may take a lot of time, a resource in scarce supply in most construction projects.

Another serious problem is that of function. A primary driver of integrated networks is to achieve a level of function that would not be possible with independent systems or networks. However, the integration effort often results in a very low level of integration of some systems that can severely limit the function of the integrated network.

Technology Support For Open Networks

Controls contractors who are reinventing themselves as system integrators have all they can do to keep up with the products they represent. It is unlikely they will soon develop the kind of network expertise necessary to quickly resolve network and functional problems being encountered. Owners' reliance on system integrators to assure network performance will likely lead to the same uneven results experienced by owners who have relied on controls contractors for their HVAC system performance. Many such systems will, as they do now, generally fail to meet expected performance capabilities.

It is clear the advanced network technologies that are entering building operations require special support to ensure their success. The term of this support needs to encompass the entire project span so that it is available during design and continues to be readily available throughout the construction and startup project stages in order to quickly resolve integration and functional problems that inevitably develop when such networks are implemented. This "Network Technology" expert may be seen as a consultant or a contractor, but there is little question that there is a growing need for such expertise during the design, construction and startup stages of modern buildings.

Additional information on concepts and technologies discussed in this article is available at www.hartmanco.com. Comments and questions about the article may be addressed to Mr. Hartman at tomh@hartmanco.com.


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