The New World of Appliances
Protocols like BACnet have become the lingua-franca of the appliance world.
The rise of society’s newfound desire to be constantly connected, coupled with an increased awareness on energy consumption and cost, has given new urgency to building and home management systems. No longer content for industrial appliances to operate independently, protocols like BACnet have become the lingua-franca of the appliance world. Now that the HVAC and dishwasher can talk, world peace can’t be far behind.
However, this has left control system designers faced with a dilemma. Do I embrace BMS protocols (or specifically BACnet?), and if so, how strongly? The world of industrial protocols is complicated and ever-changing. New elements, objects and parameters require diligence in remaining ‘up to version.’ Compliance and interoperability are foreign concepts to previously isolated gear.
And we don’t need to get into the security implications of a device, or any device, which can be reached via IP and/or the internet. This is a topic for another day.
Yet far from slowing down, embedding a BACnet stack, and weaving the protocol into the very circuitry of the HVAC unit (or any other industrial equipment) is crucial for the long-term viability of the manufacturer.
From HVAC to vHVAC
A common position from our customer’s designing either embedded or external BMS protocol support is the assumption and implication of a demarcation point. The BMS protocol extends to the edge of the equipment but can’t and won’t be let into the inner working of the control system.
This ‘stand-off’ approach is less intrusive, less costly and delivers a faster time to market. It may also hinder the performance and capabilities that the sales and marketing teams are likely to be asking for shortly.
Integrating a BACnet protocol deep into the logic and control functions of the HVAC unit, as well as the analog and electrical systems, enables full and complete monitoring of all the individual elements.
With the ability to monitor the inner workings of a unit in the field at the level of a unit on the work-bench, consider additional sensors or monitor points. Measure air flow at the vent, or air temp. Read specific voltage levels for key wiring points.
Without the tools to measure the results, it makes no sense to add additional control and monitoring elements. But with a monitoring protocol woven into the control fabric, it’s now possible to ‘view’ a unit in the field via a BMS protocol at the same level as a unit in the lab.
Envision a 3D rendering of a unit in the field, operating under load, returning real-time operational data to technicians or support teams.
Congratulations—you’ve just built your first virtual HVAC (vHVAC).
Get thee to the Cloud!
Weaving a standardized protocol like BACnet throughout an industrial system, like an HVAC, enables a fundamental shift in monitoring, maintaining and managing field-installed equipment. Support, service and managing down-time is initially the largest cost savings/driver. Monitoring equipment and alarming on faults—sometimes before the customer knows there is a problem—is a competitive advantage.
Arming technicians with detailed insight into the nature of the failure for remote diagnostic/repair, or ensuring the field service tech has the appropriate parts on-board before leaving, demonstrates a commitment to customer service and reducing downtime.
These are your babies – care for them
Yet here’s one of the cruel ironies of building, home or industrial systems management: the operational data about your device, the equipment that you’ve built and sold, often ends up solely in the hands of your customers or their designees (facilities managers, floor managers, home owners).
And ironically, when there’s a problem with your equipment, these are often the least qualified people to repair it or restore functionality.
Manufacturers need to insist on cloud-based access to the operational data of their field deployed devices. But rather than simply forwarding data to a local BMS, also send the same packets into a manufacturer’s specific device management cloud. Collecting operational data on your devices is crucial.
Beyond the obvious service implications, manufacturers and system designers ultimately know their products better than anyone. Thus, much of the value in the data collected by a local building management system is lost to the untrained generalists.
On the other hand, detailed operational data in the hands of the technicians and engineering who support and design the equipment every day is invaluable. Reams of ‘big data’ about field installed equipment running in shops, homes and buildings worldwide, opens the door to exploring powerful data-driven queries on how the equipment performs in real world scenarios.
Imagine a world where you could: compare performance of makes and models of units; track the success (or failure) of specific components; and evaluate lifecycles based on geography, weather patterns, or even which technician installed the products.
It can take time to capture the data needed to see small trends in a big market. But consider an old Chinese proverb that says, “The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago. The second best time is now.”
Big data = big money
Maybe not ‘big’ money, but the more information available about the performance and operation of field equipment, the more opportunity to create new service and support products with a real understanding of the risk exposure.
Cloud based data gives manufacturers unprecedented insight into the way their customers use their products. It’s possible to collect data on the duty cycles of specific units, in specific locations (an HVAC unit which runs 24x7—and it’s not located in the desert southwest). Or the manufacturer can compare use across models.
Then use this information to create service plans based on time of usage (e.g. 1,000 hours of use), or air volume delivered perhaps with a rider for temp (e.g. more air at a lower temp means more load on the system).
People don’t buy a shovel because they want a stick with a metal blade, they buy a shovel because they want a hole. The same can be said for HVAC systems—the buyer wants cold air, or more likely a temperate indoor environment.
Yet buying an HVAC unit, or any type of industrial equipment, puts the purchaser or site manager in the service business: the service of providing cold air. Plus, it’s likely a role they did not want.
As individuals, we’re faced with the option of buying “as a Service” all the time. CD and DVD sales have collapsed in the face of Spotify and Netflix which deliver music and entertainment as a service.
Traditionally, industrial equipment has been sold as capital equipment. Leasing is simply buying over time with better tax incentives. But HVAC manufacturers with fully connected equipment can turn the model upside down by offering a managed HVAC as a Service product.
Take advantage of real-time operational data as well as deep insight into the performance and functionality of the units on site. This information is the foundation for delivering a new and potentially disruptive managed service:
- Proactively monitor functionality – is airflow good, is temp appropriate, are components inside the unit operating within range?
- Use the data to monitor and pro-actively maintain elements like the blower or coolant.
- Schedule service and maintenance calls before there’s a problem, or before there’s downtime.
Basically remove the headache of managing a ‘cold air service’ from an over-worked, underpaid facilities manager, and put your company in a position to sell this as a new service.
Note that a HVACaaS offer doesn’t need to be implemented by the manufacturer. The central element to the service offer is access to deep functional and operational data from units in the field. With that data, it’s possible for the manufacturer to sell the service direct and contract the physical maintenance, or more likely, white-label the service to their field partners, providing them an additional product to sell beyond just the capital equipment.
There is a saying that “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.” Many control system engineers have been asked or required to add a BMS protocol like BACnet to their systems. Often the requirement is minimal and short-sighted.
Rather than as a necessary evil to be held at bay, re-imagine the role of BACnet and what doors it can open. Chose partners who have a long-term vision and can bring embedded and cloud capabilities.
The world is shifting to the fourth industrial revolution. Are you shifting with it?