Manufacturers Face the Inevitable - King Canute Syndrome

King Canute holding back the tide of integration

In nautical circles King Canute has always been regarded as a bit off-beam. Everyone knew the tide couldn't be stopped, no matter what you did. Stick a dam in here, pop a sea-wall in there and you might slow it up a bit. But stop the tide! No way.

What a pity that the building controls industry still suffers from King Canute Syndrome where integration is concerned. There has been a lot of hot air talked about integration of intelligent building systems. Theorising from systems manufacturers; unfulfilled promises from integration specialists; and a steady supply of 'vapourware' - products that either don't exist or can't deliver.

In spite of this, end users continue to express a surprisingly healthy interest in the whole matter. They not only need integration, but they are increasingly vocal about it.

Integration between intelligent systems is often required to improve buiIding performance or to improve building management, but what exactly do we mean by integration?

Part of the control process

In the beginning, there were independent intelligent systems. They operated in unique ways, with completely separate installation, engineering and commissioning techniques. With different display systems and remote access facilities, these systems stood alone and looked after themselves. In terms of structure though, all these systems were essentially similar, with computer-based monitoring and control devices, PC-based displays and a communications network. Logically enough, given the proliferation in the use of intelligent building systems, end users and systems installers have become keen to simplify installation, reduce costs and, potentially, improve performance by linking systems together.

Put simply, integration involves taking a value from one intelligent system (e.g. a chiller control system) and passing it to another (e.g. an environmental control system). It requires a form of 'binding' or linkage of values between the systems and as few intermediate steps as possible.

Integration is part of the control loop, not part of the management function.

Integration is not achieved simply by running several independent software packages on a single PC, even if they exist in a Windows operating system and even though some software packages perform integration services as a background task. You cannot integrate your services just by running a universal display system.

Getting values from many systems on a graphic gets you many values on a graphic - not integration. So why bother?

Sometimes there is a great deal of common sense in not integrating systems. Building users and specifiers need to establish the difference between critical requirements and useful wants. Often these are completely mixed up. There is always a trade-off between what is technically possible and what is commercially viable. Practically any integration problem can be solved, at a price, but all integration should be appropriate to the scale of the project, the depth of customers' pockets - and the length of their arms!

There is little point in suggesting full-blown integration systems for an end user who only needs to get the current outside air temperature on the packaged air conditioning into the boiler control system. The best solution is to install a secondary sensor.

The earliest method of integration employed the centralised gateway, a single device that was programmed to receive/send data from/to various systems. The gateway approach has in general been superceded generally because of it's almost universal expense - either the platform used for the geateway was inherently costly, or the cost-of-use was deliberately loaded to limit it's application.

A common networking standard is the dream of many a consultant, specifier and end user, and it must be said the dream has considerable merit. A single network runs through the building supporting hvac, fire, security and lighting systems. There are no specialist software packages and device duplication is zero. Information is always sent to the right place at the right time because every system understands how to talk to every other.

Almost 20 years ago, committees of leading manufacturers were assembled to agree a common technical approach to building networks. It was said that if they backed a common standard, the rest of the market would surely follow. Organisations like ASHRAE in the US talked to the big stateside manufacturers, while BSI in the UK worked with CEN on behalf of the European suppliers. And now, all this time later, where exactly are we?

Paddle

It would appear that we are not only up a creek without a paddle, someone has actually mislaid the canoe. ASHRAE has thrown its hand in with the BACnet standard and CEN is still thinking. There are few signs to suggest that the common standards solution will ever attract any more than a percentage of technologies. Why is this, when it appears to offer everything the end user could want?

It is because, at the end of the day, business is competitive. Manufacturers want to gain market share, hang onto features they believe are valuable or necessary, or at least retain control of their own technology (and who can blame them?)

If an intelligent temperature sensor is the same, connects the same and works the same regardless of manufacturer,why bother to replace it with the same one? Why not just find the cheapest and fit that instead? Markets driven this way tend to be dominated by the lowest cost providers, the emphasis becomes price rather than quality.

System manufacturers have positioned themselves around the standards issue in several ways. A few have applied a 'belt and braces' approach, implementing a standard across all their products. Many - especially the smaller companies - have had absolutely nothing to do with the whole thing, deciding to cross the bridge when (or if) they get to it. The big names in the industry, however, continue to steer standardisation sub-groups and minute committee progress.

Within the last few years, a number of independent integration standards have been developed, their creators realising that commercial opportunism could drive the wheel of innovation more effectively than a committee that only meets once or twice a year. The difference between this and the common standards approach is that the route to integration is independent. By remaining results-oriented rather than standards-oriented, these organisations have started the shift from theory to practice, a move which has relentlessly gathered momentum over the last few years as more and more integration products have become available.

Expensive

Some of these products use software-only solutions based on standard PCs, often combining integration with graphical displays. The main value of these products lies in their ability to integrate supervisory data. As integration machines though, they are relatively expensive.

Other suppliers in this arena provide solution based on a combination of hardware and software components. Some prefer to define a standard and leave everyone else to put it into practice. The MODBUS protocol is a classic, long-established example, used by many in the industrial, environmental and chiller control markets. Others outline a standard hardware and software implementation and ask manufacturers to 'club' together. Echelon, EIB and CAN fall into this category, and each has it's own success story to tell, as well as having it's own list of limitations.

It is rapidly becoming clear that, as end user requirements for integrated services continue to grow, manufacturers are having to nail their colours to the mast and make their direction apparent. Integration has finally become a sales issue - end users are committed to it, product suppliers are getting their act together, and installers are getting to grips with the new technology. The last remaining hurdle appears to be some of the manufacturers themselves, but will they succeed in slowing down the inevitable? Only time - and the experience of King Canute - will tell.


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