Technology Trends: Perfecting The System

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By Brian Kraemer
Published in the September 2005 issue of Today’s Facility Manager

Managing a facility is an art. The needs of employees have to be balanced against the budget, and the lighting system has to be considered against the context of the furniture in the office. But finding a way to juggle all the competing needs of a building is the essence of the facility manager’s job. Fortunately, help is never far away. New software technologies are constantly improving, making this task a little easier from day to day—if a facility manager has enough foresight to consider how a building is going to change over its lifetime.

Some facility managers find the idea of adopting new technology daunting, and rightfully so. If there has never been a problem with how the lighting or security systems have been running, there is no reason to make a change. But this attitude is similar to doing advanced calculus with an abacus: the correct result may eventually be found, but there are faster and easier ways.

By concentrating on early integration into a building, software technology has the potential to reduce operation costs in a facility while freeing up more time for the management staff to concentrate on the most immediate concerns rather than problems that can wait.

Finding The Right Software

Software in a facility should be chosen and implemented because the product is going to help the facility in one way or another.

Dave de Sousa, vice president of the Ames Corporation, based in Portsmouth, NH, explains, “Software should aid in enabling the occupants of the building to produce more and better quality products and services in less time.”

In order to find a program that fulfills these requirements, some research into exactly what an application does and how it will affect the facility needs to be conducted.

John Johnson, senior vice president of Tulsa, OK-based TMA Systems, says, “The key to software adoption is references. If a vendor has excellent references from a similar industry, the facility manager will feel more secure in the company’s recommendations.”

By listening to what a software company has to say and comparing the sales pitch to real life results, facility managers can begin to feel more comfortable with the process of transitioning to software driven systems.

Filling In The Gaps

Preparing for new or retrofit construction creates new problems for a facility manager. It adds more paperwork to a desk that is inevitably covered in print outs and maintenance reports. Specially designed software can help to reduce the piles and create new, efficient databases to manage all that information.

“It is quite common that during a construction project some items will fall through the cracks,” says Doug Rawson, CEO of the Reno, NV-based Base Builders. “This may be due to a communication gap or possibly a lack of protocol. By taking advantage of existing software, the facility management department can start to implement protocol, check systems, and then begin to putty the cracks that things seem to fall through.”

These items that are missed may, at first, not seem important—it’s unlikely that a cooling tower or access control system will fail to be ordered and installed. But as the construction project continues, the little things may become more important and cause delays. If, for example, the proper motor for the cooling tower does not get ordered, the HVAC system will not run properly. This would result in delaying the building from being operational, which would cost the entire company money from lost days.

In addition to the minutiae, the entire scope of the project can be monitored and tracked by everyone participating in the build or retrofit.

“There are several key features that a good program will have that will come into play,” says Rawson. “The first thing to be considered is budgeting capabilities in helping define scope and funding needs. Of course, the tasks, milestones, and correspondence will play key roles as well, along with documenting, project programming, systems, materials, and building codes. A good piece of software will be able to track and include all of these details.”

But the scope of the software doesn’t have to end with data tracking and archiving past correspondences.

“Some systems can show life cycle cost information for similar pieces of equipment from different manufacturers. This can be valuable during the construction phase when submittals are provided by contractors,” says Stephen Schneider, director of product management for Meridian Systems based in Folsom, CA.

Including life cycle assessment and cradle to cradle comparisons from the outset of a construction project will, undoubtedly, be useful further into the life of a building. Because these comparisons and estimations are stored and kept on hand, facility management will not have to invest time and resources into a lengthy research project. Instead, the information is on hand and, after consulting the program, an informed decision can be made. [For more information, see “Managing Facility Information: From Cradle To Grave" by Tom Condon.]

Implementation

Taking advantage of new technologies is something that facility managers are willing to do, albeit reluctantly. Being the leader of the pack, or the first to try and take advantage of something new isn’t a hallmark of the profession. That doesn’t mean that things like software integration or biometrics aren’t making inroads. Instead, it is a matter of weighing the benefits against the drawbacks and figuring out the most successful way to integrate the old into the new.

“The typical facility manager is slower to adopt new technology. This is partly due to the fact that they are usually under a tight budget and must do significant analysis to justify IT investments,” says Schneider.

“Additionally, many facility managers still work within a paper intensive system and have not gained confidence or comfort with computer systems,” Schneider continues. “There is also some hesitation to implement these systems because it removes some autonomy from the way they are able to manage their facilities. Costs become readily accessible to executives as well as maintenance backlogs.”

But a balance needs to be found. Having a department shuffle papers and rely on outdated filing systems to plan HVAC maintenance is silly in this modern, technology driven era.

“New technology provides advantages in terms of managing costs, productivity, and customer satisfaction. In this competitive marketplace, companies with advanced technologies have a greater chance of succeeding,” says Schneider.

Putting It To Use

A software program can significantly ease the burden a facility manager bears in running the department; however, it typically is not a plug and play fix. Ordering and installing a new data management program will not mean that every piece of data will immediately be accounted for and ready to be used. Entering the information into the system and completing proper training will always be a very large factor to consider—someone will have to incorporate the data into the system and learn how to navigate it successfully.

This shouldn’t be daunting to a facility manager, though. As the software improves, the learning curve may still remain sharp, but short.

“The implementation is the most time intensive part of installation, because it takes time to transfer records to a database,” Johnson notes. “However, not everything has to be added at once—it can be done in stages and gives the users a chance to master the basic functions.”

Surfing The Facility

Once a program has been installed and integrated into the facility, using it is becoming an increasingly easier task. Most companies offer an easy, recognizable interface: a Web browser.

“Users typically access the system via an Internet browser and can manage all maintenance activities and asset management right there,” says Schneider.

“Companies are placing a high importance on the ability for any user to use the system easily,” Johnson adds. “At the forefront of development is the idea that no matter how technologically advanced a new feature may be, it is worthless if the end user finds it difficult to use.”

A facility manager can open a Web browser, log into the management software, and peruse the lighting or security system. These instant updates keep staff members aware of work orders and let them know where a problem exists. Instead of going down to the boiler room and manually checking every piece of equipment for a defect, the CMMS features of new software provide reminders for when a motor needs to be replaced. And since these functions are programmed in when a part is added or replaced, it can be forgotten about until the a reminder appears on the interface.

“System users, based on their roles, are continuously aware of what maintenance is needed at their organization,” says Johnson. “The importance of this is seen through the requesters feelings are properly and promptly being taken care of by facility management. Plus, from an economic standpoint, company assets are getting the proper attention to extend their useful life.”

De Sousa echoes these sentiments, adding “every dollar that is not paid to fix something which broke because of inadequate maintenance goes right to the bottom line. Every time a better management decision is made because of better information, the cash saved goes right back into the facility.”

A better management decision includes knowing when not to fix something because it isn’t broken. However, that does not mean that because an air conditioning unit is still managing to crank out just enough air to keep a building cool, it cannot stand to have maintenance work or to be replaced.

Just like old equipment, old systems of management need to be renovated from time to time. In this case, relying on old fashioned, paper intensive facility management can do more harm than good. In fact, many times the switch over to new technologies, while intimidating, can make a world of difference. Costs can be reduced, the building can be kept in better shape, and the productivity from the facility management department can multiply as well. It is a matter of finding a good vendor, gathering reliable information, and deciding to take the first step toward a more modern, technologically savvy building.

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