The Facility Technologist: Riding (And Surviving) The Wave

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By Tom Condon, RPA, FMA
Published in the January 2007 issue of Today’s Facility Manager

A wave of change is upon us, and facility professionals should be ready to ride it. This is because the fundamental makeup of facility technologies is in the midst of a major transformation—an evolution from building systems based on embedded electronics to computer-based facility technologies.

Traditionally, facility systems, such as access control, fire alarm, and security have been single purpose, component-based approaches that perform only one function. These are plug and play systems that come out of the box and perform their intended jobs.

Now that the computer revolution is here, these technologies are migrating to computer platforms. This transition offers much more flexibility and power; however, it also presents a new set of challenges.

First, it is helpful to consider the history of facility technologies. The first wave—what could be called the foundation wave-occurred during the Industrial Revolution. In the late 1700s and into the 1800s, new technologies were introduced to modern buildings of the day. The first important innovations were centralized heating systems that used forced air and steam, a major improvement over the fireplaces that had previously been the main heating method. Later, the elevator arrived and sparked the age of the skyscraper. Then, air conditioning made facilities comfortable year-round.

The second wave began in the late 1800s and early 1900s and was characterized by the use of electricity not only as a power source but also as a way to carry information and control facility components. This enabled the advancement of modern facility systems, such as alarms, intercoms, video surveillance, and HVAC controls. These were based on fairly simple components, such as resistors, transistors, and, later, simple microprocessors running simple programs. These were embedded systems—purpose-designed for a single task. The systems were plugged in, connected, configured, and powered. They were good at what they did, inexpensive to produce, and offered functionalities far beyond what anyone had dreamed of during the first wave.

The third wave began in the late 20th century with the advent of inexpensive, widespread computing power. Suddenly, computers offered almost limitless flexibility, able to perform almost any task by changing the programs they ran. Facility systems that had been using simple microprocessors started to migrate to a new architecture, with the “head end” or “control panel” evolving from embedded electronic components to a computer program.

Today, the standard architecture in a state of the art facility is a computer control system operating remote actuating or sensing components. For example, in an access control system, a software program sends and receives signals to and from non-intelligent field components (i.e. door releases and sensors). The software program interprets all the signals and decides what is normal, what an alarm is, and when to lock or unlock doors.

The transition to the third wave has been uneven. For instance, building automation systems have been using computer controls since the 1980s, while others, such as video surveillance, fire alarms, and elevator management, have been slightly slower to adopt computers for their control systems.

Still, in many ways facilities are firmly in the third wave. The most current systems can be operated with a computer Graphical User Interface (GUI). Facility systems can now be accessed from these computer interfaces so users can view and control conditions from their desktops.

This represents a huge change from the way these systems have traditionally functioned. During the second wave, facility professionals would check the status of systems by looking at a control panel. This could mean walking across the room, down the hall, or up to the elevator penthouse, which could also mean delays in assessing and reacting to an incident. Now with the availability of a GUI, all of this information can be viewed right on the computer desktop, making it easier to access.

An example of a third wave facility is a recent project of mine–the new security command center for a large midwestern convention center in Chicago. This state of the art command center monitors fire alarm, access control, video surveillance, elevator management, and other facility systems all from computer interfaces. Any officer in the command center can view and operate facility conditions from computer desktops.

Even video, traditionally a strictly analog system, is delivered to the desktop in an interface that allows the user to pan, tilt, and zoom. Officers can view both older analog and new digital cameras in a single interface and can even review up to 30 days of digitally recorded video from every camera.

The third wave nature of the systems used in that large midwestern convention center also allows a level of interaction that was impossible during the second wave. When an alarm is triggered, a map of the facility in the command center shows the location of the alarm, and the feed from the video camera nearest the alarm appears on a large video wall. This allows officers to identify the location of the alarm, and the video shows what is happening at that exact instant. This level of integration was extraordinarily difficult previously, but it is much easier to accomplish today, since computer systems can communicate better than older embedded versions.

The benefits of the third wave are substantial. Systems are more flexible than ever; changing the way a system operates can be as easy as adjusting a software setting. Upgrading can be as simple as loading a new version of software. And systems are easier to interconnect when they are software based, meaning they can work together to do more than one could alone.

Nevertheless, the challenges of the third wave are significant. First, computers require much more infrastructure and attention than embedded systems. While many older systems can function in less than ideal conditions, such as fluctuating temperatures and dirty locations, these things can destroy sensitive computer components. Computer systems must be housed in environmentally controlled spaces with significant cooling and air quality requirements. The functionality at that large midwestern convention center is possible only because there is a data center that is almost half the size of the main control room with dedicated HVAC and conditioned, redundant power.

Another drawback of third wave technology is that computers require maintenance that embedded systems do not. Operating systems need patches, software programs need upgrades, and databases need maintenance. These tasks require skills that may be beyond the realm of the facility manager’s expertise.

And finally, the biggest Achilles’ heel of computing: reliability. It is simply an irrefutable fact that computers are still in their infancy and are not as reliable as users would like them to be. In mission critical environments, it is standard practice to have at least two servers for each critical system running in parallel, so that when one fails, the other can instantly take its place. While embedded systems can also fail, their simplicity means they can achieve uptime statistics difficult for computers to achieve because of their complexity and fragility.{{articleBox}}

As with virtually any advance, facility managers must learn new skills to perform their jobs in this environment. For facility managers to be conversant in third wave technologies, it is prudent to have at least a basic understanding of networks and data centers.

To learn about networks, Networking for Dummies from the “Dummies” book series provides an excellent base. For data centers, Enterprise Data Center Design and Methodology from Sun Microsystems can educate readers on requirements for building out a data center.

Also, as part of its Facility Management Administrator certification, BOMI International offers a relevant technology course.

Staying on the cutting edge may seem like a lot of work, but building owners are demanding that facility managers be technology savvy, and this trend will continue. I recently reviewed facility management job listings on three prominent Web sites and found 74% of the listings desired computer skills. Like any other new technology development, the third wave of facility technologies will be a struggle for some. But, with a little preparation, smart facility managers will be able to ride and survive to achieve career success.

Condon, a Facility Technologist and former facility manager, is one of the contributing authors for BOMI Institute’s revised Technologies in Facility Management textbook. He works for System Development Integration, a Chicago, IL-based firm committed to improving the performance, quality, and reliability of client business through technology.

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