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Article - March 2000
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Why Standards Matter
And Why It's Taking Our Industry So Long to Implement Them

Terry Hoffmann is global products manager for Systems Products at Johnson Controls, Inc in Milwaukee, Wis.


The strategic importance of standards - and the appropriate implementation of standards in all aspects of our lives - cannot be ignored. For example, standardization in the telecommunications industry is what allows us to use telephones seamlessly and universally anywhere in the world. If it weren't for standardization in the electronics and entertainment industries, we could not buy a music CD in Brazil that plays on a portable CD player manufactured in Japan that was purchased in the United States.

Yet standardization is one of the most problematic issues facing the controls industry as we enter the 21st century.

Why has it taken the building controls industry so long to develop standards for building automation and control systems? And now that we have several leading standards, why is it taking so long for everyone to successfully implement one or more of them? Will we need to borrow additional standards from other industries to help our industry succeed? What standards currently available to our industry will emerge as the most useful? Will these be sufficient or are other developments imperative for long-term success?

A response to these questions requires a scientific approach based on an understanding of technology. And while the description of the problem is relatively simple, the answers may require a degree of clairvoyance. Let's stick with defining the problem and setting a foundation for whatever may happen.

contemporary Why Standards Are So Important in Managing Facilities
The rate of technological change in the past 25 years exceeds any other period in history. And the rate of change continues to accelerate. It is estimated that 90 percent of all the engineers and scientists who ever lived are alive today. But if our industry is to attract, retain and cultivate our share of the best and brightest, it's in our best interest to free ourselves from the old proprietary solutions that had to be "reinvented" each time that a technological breakthrough occurred.

Standards will eliminate time-consuming education and retraining currently required when engineers transfer into our industry from other industries or wish to transfer to better positions in different countries or companies. If global standards can be adopted, they will facilitate the best use of human resources from around the world.

In addition, we all benefit if the controls industry rides the leading edge of the technology wave. If all the players in an industry adopt the same standards, there should be better overall performance. Technical resources that gravitate from one company to another are capable of strong contributions from the first day on the job.

Finally, in order to maximize the speed of technical innovation there must be a cross-pollination of the best practices and solutions between industries. This allows a corporation to focus its efforts on core competencies while "borrowing" the best ideas that exist outside of its own industry.

Controls companies don't have to spend resources on communications or manufacturing technology if there are well-defined standards in these areas. The resulting acceleration in new product delivery provides a foundation for continuous improvement in applications that rely on them.

Standards for data communications and computers will be key drivers of the change if the controls business is to successfully transition from an industrial economy to a technology-based network economy.

Why is Our Industry Late?
That all depends on how you define late. HVAC controls manufacturers have a long history of standards development and compliance. The American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) has developed a long list of standards for occupant comfort and indoor air quality. But these standards are fundamentally different than those referred to in the introduction of this article.

ASHRAE standards typically define what the systems are to deliver, but not how they should do it. Fire alarm and security standards developed by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) and American Society for Industrial Security (ASIS) are similar in this regard. Perhaps the success of the players in these industries delivering the specified results actually impeded the development of standards that define how delivery must be accomplished. Also, note that all three of the referenced standards making bodies are inherently national or regional as compared to global associations.

One more possible barrier is the fact that buyers of these systems were slow to adopt electronic solutions, relying instead on electric, mechanical or even pneumatic devices to deliver the specified functions. When these purchasers finally did adopt electronic and digital technologies, they took delivery of proprietary solutions because there were no standards in existence.

In the early 1990s, several manufacturers opened their systems to allow other manufacturers to develop products that would interoperate with their systems. It was thought that the technology of one or more of these companies might emerge as an industry standard. But confusion about standards, worry about "proprietary" systems, and the number and size of market participants has prevented this from happening so far.

The result has been a long journey, as we sought to define and implement an industry-sponsored solution and some began the ponderous adoption of an existing one.

Which Industry Standards have the Greatest Impact Today?
The BACnet network communication protocol and the LonMark communication/interoperability standards get the most column inches and advertising ink in the trade press today.

BACnetTM has attracted a strong following of engineers and end users who have embraced it as a means to ensure vendor independence on large projects. BACnet also provides the ability to integrate islands of automation on a campus or at other facilities where central control of a group of noncontiguous buildings is required. This standard has a well-defined set of objects for HVAC and a complete set of services for a typical automation application. Additional objects for monitoring additional functions are being developed now.

The greatest obstacle facing widespread implementation of BACnet technology is the resistance to its use at the field bus or device level because of differences in vendor implementation. This is partly caused by the variety of implementation options and partly caused by the length of time (more than a decade) the standard has taken to evolve.

The LonTalk® protocol, using the LonMark® interoperability standards, has been gaining momentum on the field bus level, while fighting to gain recognition as an alternative to BACnet at the management or supervisory levels. There are perceived technical limitations when trying to apply this control network architecture to high-level systems integration problems. This is an area to monitor closely.

The total number of devices that are LonMark compliant is still shy of user expectations, but there is hope that as additional standards for interoperability among devices are developed the number of products will increase appropriately. All of the major HVAC controls manufacturers have LonMark solutions in their product line.

The sleeper among standards that may shape our industry is being developed by the CEN 247 committee in Europe. The CEN247 standard for building networking may provide an answer regarding what can be implemented well without some of the problems described above. The standard will specify a suite of acceptable protocols at each of three levels of the building network. Included are BACnet, LonTalk, Profibus, FND, Batibus, EIB and Foundation Fieldbus.

The great thing about this kind of standard is that it allows for choice on the part of users, manufacturers and specifiers as well as encouraging promoters of most of the protocol choices currently available. There is no hiding behind exclusivity or the influence of a single organization. It is not an "all-for-one-and-one-for-all solution," but it does offer the ability to pick one from each category that best suits the needs of your project.

The fact that it is developing as a pan-European standard ensures that all manufacturers will develop a compliant solution if they want to be a force in the global market.

Which Standards are Important and Why?
This question is easy because multiple industries appear to be borrowing the same technologies for the same ends. In terms of computers and operating systems, it seems that Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates and his band from Redmond, Washington, have done the job better than any other manufacturer. Industrial control systems, fire alarm systems, security and card access systems, building automation systems, lighting control systems - and most importantly the back and front office systems in most industries - have gravitated to platforms that depend on Microsoft Windows® 98 or Microsoft Windows NT®
running on an Intel®- or AMD-based processor.

Those who are still running on other operating systems, primarily Unix®, are offering "Wintel" alternatives to stay competitive. The benefits of doing so should become obvious as we look at the other standards that are having impact in factories and commercial buildings. (See "Toolbox Terminology" nearby).

What Does this Mean to You?
The first thing to recognize is that several emerging standards may have a place in the building controls industry. Standards are not like ducks; monogamy isn't necessarily a virtue. When designing, specifying or purchasing a system, suggested guidelines are:

1. Determine the needs of the facility.
2. Select the equipment which best satisfies the needs.
3. Select the system which best integrates all the equipment.

Avoid selecting a single communication standard first and then trying to force fit a project into it.

Look for a system that has the capability to incorporate more than one popular standard. Verify that the system is compatible with BACnet and LonMark as well as with ActiveX, OPC, ODBC and the Internet standards such as IP. Don't settle for a system with a very limited solution, but look for systems that can protect your investment through the use of multiple communication and data standards.

Finally, because the speed of change is so rapid, and because clairvoyance is in short supply, the ability to predict which standards will be most important a few years down the road is difficult. It's important to select a supplier with a good track record for systems continuity and technical innovation.

Look at the offerings the controls manufacturer presents to the market during a three- to five-year period. Has the product shown continuous, incremental improvement? Or, has there been a shifting from one standard or technology platform to another, leaving past customers to deal with obsolescent hardware and software?

The use of standards in building automation is a major advancement for our industry. Take advantage of the expanded capabilities resulting from more open choices. And protect your investment by selecting systems that accommodate several of these new standards, rather than placing a bet that one standard may ultimately rule over all others.

"Toolbox" Terminology

Embedding Tool
ActiveX
is a Microsoft developed standard that allows users to insert one program inside of another. It provides a simple, economical way for automation system developers to borrow the technology they need in order to deliver benefits to the system operators. ActiveX can allow a video to run inside of a user interface or a Web browser to be imbedded in a spreadsheet. Power is limited only to the size and number of components that the computer can handle. With computer capabilities doubling every 18 months it is a safe bet that more and bigger ActiveX components will be developed.

Applications Transfer Tool
When data from one application has to be transferred to another there is no better solution than Open Database Connectivity (ODBC). Hundreds of data intensive applications have adopted this standard as the method of importing and exporting historical data. There are other methods of ensuring data compatibility but they are mostly proprietary, such as when a system demands that all applications use an Oracle-compliant database.

Data Exchange Tool
When process data needs to be exchanged between real time applications the answer is usually OLE for Process Control (OPC). This standard, created and maintained by the OPC Foundation (www.opcfoundtion.org), was developed by manufactures of industrial process control equipment to provide interoperability. It has been quickly adopted by the building automation and control fraternity because of its ease of use and standardized interface. OPC servers are available for almost all process controls and many BAS systems. BACnet and LonWorks OPC servers are available and most graphic user interfaces (GUIs) include an OPC client.

Link to the Future Tool
The Internet Protocol (IP)
is the most obvious of all standards having an impact on building controls. If you don't have access to information via a company intranet or from the outside via the Internet, you're living in the past. BACnet, LonTalk, Profibus - whatever protocol you choose and whatever applications you run on them must all be capable of communicating on an IP compatible network. There is no other standard that has as great an impact on the way people communicate and the way businesses operate.


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