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|Analytics Creates Transparency
Is That Good for Your Business?
CEO & President,
Even a cursory glance of the recent 2017 AHR Expo will affirm that information technology is creeping into every corner of the HVAC, Controls and BAS industries. Another validation of co-founder of Netscape and VC in Silicon Valley Marc Andreessen, who said that “software is eating the world.”
It has been an interesting journey for the Cimetrics team and me. We started around Industrial Automation in the 80’s, worked on BACnet and control network standards in the 90’s, evolving into TCP/IP based networks and the Internet in the 00’s, and now cloud computing, bots, and big data.
The culmination of all of this is a discipline we know as analytics, or as per Wikipedia, “the discovery, interpretation, and communication of meaningful patterns in data.” In many ways, analytics is the key that this industry has been waiting for, to unlock the true business value from the technologies we have developed.
Are we there yet? Maybe!
As I see it, analytics removes many of the complexities that we build into buildings. When implemented well, an analytics-powered building system allows owners and operators to focus on their needs; which is to provide occupants what they need.
You see, analytics makes the invisible visible, and the visible invisible. Yes, that’s an oxymoron; the point being that there is so much data that is continuously being generated in building systems that it’s hard to know what is important at any given time. Good analytics automatically weeds out what is important from this sea of information. In other words, analytics creates transparency by eliminating stuff that doesn’t matter, so that we humans can concentrate on what matters to the occupants of the building.
This trend is typical of how “software eats the world.” Uber creates transparency on your transportation needs from initial ride request all the way to payment, compare that with the unknowns of hailing a taxi. Yelp is another good example, it adds transparency to restaurants, so you can walk into a restaurant for the first time in a far corner of the world, assured that you would have a great meal. Other examples include Angie’s List, TripAdvisor, CRM systems and so on. Transparency creates a powerful message from a service provider, saying “we're good, responsible and accountable for our work.”
Transparency it seems is a great liberator!
A natural and logical way forward for our industry is to see how analytics brings value to building owners and operators, after all, they are our customers. The scope of value-creating features of analytics for owners is growing: energy management, FDD (Fault Detection and Diagnostics) and continuous commissioning were a few early areas enabled by analytics. More recently, we are crossing into corporate functions such as compliance, forensics, vendor and asset lifecycle management.
On the horizon are more valuable areas for enterprises: targeting occupants to be more efficient, productive, cognitively alert and deliver the best for the enterprises which employ them. We are on the cusp of an industry transformation focusing on making occupants happy and content in their use of buildings, enabling building owners to see more value in what we do. Great, well done us!
But what’s on my mind today is how analytics affects us as an industry.
In order to understand how analytics will impact us, we have to look at the major stakeholder categories that make up our industry, since the relevance of analytics is different to each. I’m looking at equipment vendors, control/system vendors, control contractors/integrators, consultants and service/maintenance firms.
Firstly, equipment vendors are most concerned that their equipment works well. Increasingly they add smarts at the unitary level, to perform local analytics. And of course, they communicate using BACnet with the building system as a participant of that complex engineered system. But beyond this, their ability to participate at the building level analytics is limited. Analytics at this level only look at issues of that piece of equipment in isolation. Most problems with building mechanical systems have little to do with the equipment, but the problems are principally the interaction of people with the system. For instance, poor specification, programming or maintenance—problems that cannot be resolved in the context of a single piece of equipment. At Cimetrics, we’ve been working with many equipment vendors, providing our BACnet software stack and expertise, we know these issues well.
Control systems have the responsibility to orchestrate how a mechanical building system works in real-time. Control systems historically have been designed to control a specific piece of equipment or system with a narrow focus on a few parameters such as temperature. A broader view of value with the input of more data, some of it previously considered external to the BAS (such as weather, energy cost or variable labor cost), can have a great effect on the value to the building owner. In many cases, today, control systems are sourced from the equipment vendors, a combination that makes sense to reduce the effort of design and installation. Again, Cimetrics has been working with many control vendors over our 28 years, so we understand these trends.
There is in recent years, a new category of software vendors who focus on providing tools to facilitate analytics, including collecting, normalizing, storing (in the cloud) and analyzing control systems using varying methodologies such as AI, machine learning, and expert systems. Some systems are open sourced, providing flexibility for qualified integrators to do what they want, others provide a more automated approach that vastly reduces the effort by integrators. We saw this trend early, the rationale of creating our Analytika platform.
For most control contractors and system integrators, analytics is a challenge. The reason is that these companies are tasked with, and have developed the skills and discipline to make the complex real-time systems to work, often in difficult dynamics of a building construction project. While the jury is still out, we don’t see that these firms are in the best position to provide and deliver the full value of analytics. Our view is that analytics should be seen as another component to integrate into this complex endeavor. Firms delving into analytics also face a decision as to what type of analytics platform to use; equipment/control vendor supplied, homemade, open sourced or a third party specialized analytics system such as our Analytika service. A full discussion of these options is needed but beyond the scope of this article.
The emergence of data and IT-centric consulting companies is to us the final argument of “software eating the BAS world” hypothesis. Unlike most control contractors and integrators, these firms offer a tech-savvy and business-centric view of buildings. These firms come from backgrounds that are not typically buildings related; some do come from the traditional engineering consultant background, while others from IT consulting angle, and increasingly we see smart young startups bringing a welcomed fresh perspective on our relationship with buildings. Of course, these firms have limited knowledge of how buildings actually work or the ability to interface with existing building systems. These companies may be catalysts to bring analytics to bear.
So, where’s the beef?
In my view, the most important aspect of our industry today is the service and maintenance of these complex engineered systems when powered by analytics. From a business perspective, I’m reminded that automotive dealerships make very little money on selling cars; they sell cars so they can maintain them, which is a very lucrative business. Here, service also improves our relationship with the car brand and dealership.
We all know how complex a building system can be, with a lot of mechanical moving parts that wear out or otherwise cease to perform as intended. Control strategies are often either incorrectly implemented or fail to deal with unanticipated conditions, and of course, the addressing the changing needs of the building owner and occupants over time. We are talking here about engineered systems; no two buildings are the same, so no cookie-cutter maintenance strategies can typically be applied.
There are two ways that transparency needs to be understood in the context of maintenance. First is transparency of the system, the second is the transparency of the service. Combined these provide building owners with a powerful tool to ensure their facilities continue to work for them.
As previously asserted, analytics makes the invisible visible. A well-implemented analytics tool for buildings will continually monitor all aspects of the system in near real-time: the behavior of mechanical systems, the control strategies, the effectiveness of any integration, the performance of the user-directed actions, the quality of the environment for occupants, and impact to critical business functions. A well-implemented analytics solution will do all of that and more and will flag issues identified for possible human action.
Are we there yet?
The last part of this puzzle is what happens when an issue is identified; this is the point when a service provider has an opportunity to shine. My assertion is that if the system is designed to be transparent, then the performance of the service must be conducted in a similarly open and transparent manner. The building owner/operator will become accustomed to transparency; anything less will be sub-par!
What does service transparency look like? Firstly, the service work must maximize the analytics system in the building, to identify and verify the issue, then used as a tool to resolve the issue where possible and to show that the issue is being resolved, and when it is resolved. Since analytics is the way the building owner/operator looks at his building, the resolution of any issue must be made with the same perspective.
Transparency is important for a service business, as it goes to the core of their relationship with their customer, the building owner/operator. This is less to do with technology, more on what it enables. Analytics enables a service provider to make their actions transparent, it empowers the service provider to communicate their confidence in, and progress of their work. Many businesses thought leaders have espoused to the power of transparency to improve collaboration, relationship, effectiveness and success of businesses that adopt it.
If the service provider is good at what they do, the use of analytics enabled transparency creates a great deal of goodwill with their customer. We all know that business is primarily about relationships, what better way to be in good standing with your customer than to make sure that you are looking after their most urgent needs with no stress or anxiety on their part.
And oh, less stress for you and more profit for your business as a bonus.
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