May 2004

Babel Buster Network Gateways: Big Features. Small Price.
Control Solutions, Inc. - Minnesota

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Our Industry's Path to A Brighter Future

Thomas Hartman, P E
The Hartman Company

The Builconn Conference in Dallas last month was the first time I heard the term "coopertition" (a combination of cooperation and competition) used in reference to our industry. I hope its usage grows. Coopertition has been around the Silicon Valley crowd for some time now and it really is the basis for a lot of major developments in the computing and networking industries based there. The idea is this. Developing new products and services is an increasingly wide ranging and complicated task. Because of the complexity of technologies and the intricacies of implementing them, markets want packaged solutions that incorporate a variety of underlying advanced technologies together with effective implementation vehicles into an overall product package that renders the complexity more or less invisible so the user reaps the benefits without having to become expert in the technologies themselves. The PC you are using to view this article is (or is intended to be) an example. We benefit from the economical computing power without having to understand the details of how it is done. The process of introducing new product offerings in the computing/networking industry is further complicated by the fact that technologies are evolving so rapidly. Risk for a new product offering increases dramatically the longer it takes to bring it to the market because the market is changing so rapidly.

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In order to deal with technological complexity and rapid change, ventures in computing/networking industries often incorporate alliances or partnerships among companies that compete on many other products. This has for some time been called coopertition. Coopertition allows firms to work together on particular development efforts in order to speed up the process and capture value for certain of the technologies each has developed. The process permits such firms to participate in the benefits of wide ranging advanced technology solutions while keeping focused on their core technological development and/or manufacturing capabilities. In this way it's not hard to see that coopertition is really a new and important development to the way firms do business in this era of rapidly evolving technological advances and changing markets.

From a technological standpoint, the HVAC industry is an enormous opportunity for new approaches because advance in this industry has historically been lagging that of other industries. While computing, networking and other technologies have developed rapidly over the last few years, the HVAC industry has endured a period of relative stagnation. The HVAC industry is ready for a sprint forward to catch up technologically. Although advanced computing and networking control products have been available in this industry for some time, these powerful network enabled products are typically operated very much the same as the simple stand alone pneumatic control products they replaced decades ago. And although newer technologies such as variable speed drives are common, they are usually incorporated as add-on components and rarely integrated effectively into the overall operation of the system to which they are applied.

The phenomenon of stunted technology growth in our industry is largely the result of two factors. First, the HVAC industry is very fragmented with complicated processes and many different relatively small and independent entities required to complete building construction projects. It's considered all too easy for project managers to lose control of certain project aspects. As a result, a "keep it simple" and "don't rock the boat" mentality can easily overwhelm a longer life cycle view among management and design/contracting team leaders. This narrow approach has held the building construction process and level of technology in place and tends to preclude new approaches that are better equipped to support effective advanced technological solutions which could add value to the project.

The second factor holding back innovation in the HVAC industry is the disdain many in the industry have toward working together toward problem solving and developing more effective solutions. Owners, engineers, equipment manufacturers and contractors all have usually amassed enormous experience in their respective fields of work, but it is rare to see a team effectively build on this combined experience. Too often, the owner, operations, design, project supplier and construction teams work in relative isolation of one another and as a result, projects suffer from the disjointed nature implementing a design. Approaches that wish to incorporate new, more advanced technologies find success elusive because the lack of continuity makes it difficult to transfer adequate support for anything new from one project phase or entity to another.

Compounding this problem is the fact that garnering the complete level of expertise to apply newer technologies effectively usually requires manufacturers to work closely with other manufacturers against whom they generally compete, and engineers to work with other engineers. This is a very bitter pill indeed for many members of this industry to swallow!

Embracing the concept of coopertition can help resolve both of these impediments to technological progress. Coopertition is a process that can be employed to realign our industry to a more direct and straightforward approach to building construction. Working with potential competitors to get the very best from a project is, and should be seen as, nothing more than an essential part of ensuring the greatest possible value is provided for the client - and captured by the project team. Coopertition can be an important shift in the way this industry does business and, if we embrace the concept, it will lead to far better performance in the systems we build, as well as our firms' bottom lines!


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