A matter of IoT
The Internet of Things; it’s one of the defining points of the current generation, but what can it mean for the facility management industry and should FMs climb aboard or jump ship? By TIFFANY PACZEK.
We’ve entered an age where the world is far smaller than it has ever been before. Not geographically, obviously, but in the sense of the space between us as humans. Technology and the innovations within it are connecting us in ways that, 20 years ago, regular folks wouldn’t have even dreamed of. The lives we live today would seem something out of a science fiction novel. But technology continues to progress at an unfathomable rate, bringing with it new ventures and bestowing abilities faster than we can get comfortable with them. As communications between us change, become more efficient and allow for interactions unique to our generation, technology also changes the world around us – specifically, the spaces in which we live out our lives. Our homes and workplaces are becoming increasingly connected and innovative, whether that’s by speaking to us, by listening to our desires and accommodating them or by turning our offices and buildings into interactive, responsive entities, they’re no longer the voiceless boxes they once were.
And, as buildings change, so too does the way in which they are managed. The Internet of Things (IoT) is bringing fundamental change to the facility management industry. It is proving to be the new frontier – and FMs need to be brave enough to dive into this uncharted territory in order to embrace the future and the new chapter of FM.
FM AND IoT
Many industries in the modern world utilise IoT by some means and in its various forms. Indeed, most of us now use it in our everyday lives, even if we’re not necessarily aware of it. It’s almost become second nature to many of us. IoT can be specifically defined and understood as the interconnection of computing devices embedded in everyday objects, enabling them to send and receive data via the internet. This phenomenon, which is unique to our time and is only widening its reach, is moving into the facility management sphere and changing the way we interact with buildings and the way their components interact with each other. According to job management software company simPRO, those who work in the FM and building management industries – Australia’s army of tradespeople who monitor, maintain and fix the billions of dollars worth of equipment that keep offices, factories and retail locations functioning – have become the ‘new frontline’ in IoT’s advance. Although in today’s fast-moving and ceaselessly progressing technological climate IoT is no longer at the vanguard of technical development, it has become a herald of this epoch, facilitating unique connections with the latest job management and service technology, and irrevocably changing the way building management and trade service facilities and professionals operate.
simPRO says that, in order to remain relevant and keep up with the rapidly changing world in which they perform, these industries must embrace the next phase of business evolution. Through IoT, an immense online network has been created that allows previously unrelated technology to combine forces and speak to each other – and this creates new functions and generates new levels of convenience for facility managers. simPRO director Curtis Thomson says that IoT projects have moved well beyond initial trials and proof of concepts and are being actively rolled out by leading service companies and manufacturers.
Trade service companies are eager to engage with IoT as, when their systems are all connected and communicating, they have the potential to improve service delivery, cut costs and deliver improved customer experience.
“Think about IoT in terms of field service applications,” Thomson says. “Say, for example, you have an accelerometer fitted to the cooling tower on top of a building that could take vibration readings, log them to your database and alert you when the vibrations fall out of a range. Or you have sensors in the fire detection or sprinkler systems all constantly monitoring and reporting back the current state of the equipment they are tasked to keep an eye on.
“Then, when an event occurs that falls outside of a tolerable range for that piece of equipment, a notification is raised, a job is created to investigate or an alert is sent to your customer.
“How could this impact your SLAs (service level agreements), or your costs, for that matter?” Thomson asks. “What will your customers think about this – your ability to log, report and respond to potential defects before they even can tell something is wrong, and in between maintenance cycles?”
It’s benefits such as this that are encouraging many companies determined to add IoT to their repertoire.
WHAT IoT BRINGS TO THE FM TABLE
The field of FM is wide and many of its pockets can and will benefit from the use of IoT. Jonathan Eastgate, chief technology officer for simPRO Group across Australia, New Zealand, the UK and the US, says something he sees a lot of is “questioning around machine learning to pre-emptively predict when a piece of equipment might either fail or require servicing”. For an FM provider, he says, that’s a value-add service they can offer to clients.
“It’s also potentially another, newer business model,” he points out. Assuming that, without the predictions and monitoring IoT offers, FMs would utilise a model based on “some sort of monthly recurring service charge” for their sites. IoT offers a method of monitoring facilities that’s pre-emptive rather than reactive, improving the level of service to the client. “We tend to use the phrase, ‘IoT is designed to make businesses work smarter, not harder’,” Eastgate says. “I think that’s really starting to resonate with people in the FM space, because, at the moment, there is a lot of manual visiting of sites, doing inspections etc.
“A lot of this can be replaced with IoT. For example, if you don’t have to go out and take a sensor reading every month because you’ve got access to the reading already – in fact, you’ve actually got access to the sensor reading from five- minute intervals for the last 30 days – then not only are you reducing the amount of work you have to do, but you’re also getting much more information.”
Now, one could be forgiven for thinking that with all this technology and automatic reporting, IoT is reducing the need for actual humans and their presence in a job. This isn’t the case, says Eastgate; IoT isn’t taking staff jobs.
“We [at simPRO] actually believe it’s the opposite. We think that you move from having what traditional service staff would look like in an FM business to upskilling them. They become more technical. Because you’re providing a much higher level of service once you’ve implement IoT, there is potentially a lot more work for service and maintenance because you’re being proactive, not just reactive.”
ALL IT’S CRACKED UP TO BE?
As with anything new and innovative in this world, IoT is not without its uphill battles. A particular challenge it’s faced with is helping users accept and understand IoT, in all its forms and uses. Many people are inherently averse to change, and so getting them comfortable with IoT and all they can do with it can prove a struggle. And IoT is much more than just temperature and humidity sensors; there’s a multitude of things that can be done with it within the FM space. For example, Eastgate says that simPRO has a range of up to 40 different sensors in its portfolio and it’s involved with some interesting projects. One such project is in the UK, where it has sensors on a canister in a drain recording the fluid flow and is using the data to monitor and reduce fat build-up in drains.
“Not only can we monitor the amount of fluid flowing out of this particular device, but we can also monitor when the pump turns on and off, and then we can provide to local water authorities, for example, auditable logs around all of that data and how it works,” Eastgate explains.
“If they were to say, for example, ‘We don’t think that this unit has been working correctly for the last month because there’s been a fat build-up somewhere else in town’, then we can show them an auditable log that proves that the pump actually ran every 16 minutes and pumped 25 millilitres of the solution into the drain.”
And this is just one of the many things that IoT can do for the FM industry. It’s thinking outside the box, particularly outside of traditional facility management. And that, Eastgate says, is what excites him – “the ability to get knowledge and control of other factors in facilities that were previously unavailable or even thought impossible before; it’s a big opportunity”.
With so much connectivity within IoT and with privacy being such a talking point of late, one may wonder if security and privacy is as big an issue for FM as it seems to be in other IoT spheres. Not particularly, according to Eastgate.
“IoT has been developed in a time where security is of first and foremost importance, so it’s very easy to lock down IoT devices and networks to stop [security breaches] because it was designed and built with that in mind,” he says.
“The great thing about IoT is there’s no personally identifiable information being transmitted around any of these devices. Is there any reason that anyone would want access to that data? Probably not. There’s not anything worthwhile around knowing the temperature of air- conditioning in a room, for example.
“The other thing is that information is being used in a way that it’s potentially not even identifiable to the site if that data was exposed, so I think the security concerns are pretty low.”
He also says that part of this depends on the method of IoT implementation. “Look at old-school building management systems,” he says. “There’s a lot of additional information in a BMS that’s being transmitted to other systems. I think BMS data would be more at risk at that level than IoT data, as it can be a two-wave transmission. The BMS can not only send data out for reporting purposes, but you can also use it to control certain aspects of the building – I think that would be more of a high-risk scenario.
“In IoT, a traditional installation is purely sending out sensor data from the building, not actually providing any control over it, so it’s then built around people response and not firing data directly into the systems. With that in mind, I think IoT is particularly secure,” he says.
BEHOLD THE FUTURE
Despite the copious benefits, it seems that the uptake of IoT within the FM industry has been lagging somewhat. “There’s a lot of talk around IoT at the moment, but there isn’t a particularly strong adoption of it just yet,” says Eastgate.
And holding back is something he warns against. The FM industry needs to embrace IoT and all its offerings with open arms, in order to remain relevant in both the changing world and in the eyes of consumers. Eastgate likens IoT’s push into the building management sphere
to phenomena like Uber or streaming video. Taxi companies and video stores saw businesses like these coming, he says, and by ignoring them they ended up suffering, or getting wiped out by them.
“If those companies had actually embraced the [new] business model that was being exposed, it would probably be a very different scenario now. If taxi companies had looked at the way Uber and Lyft were starting to operate that style of service, then it probably wouldn’t have had such a big impact.
“Similarly in the FM space, I think there’s room for disruption there,” Eastgate says. “I mean, if FM providers don’t roll out this technology and then a company like Uber decides to roll out some sort of package that building owners, for example, could install in facilities, then that’s the potential for disruption.”
As Eastgate urges FMs to embrace the uptake of IoT, he’s noticed the attitude beginning to change. “[There is] a lot of setting the stage around how IoT is going to develop over the next couple of years,” he says.
“IoT’s interesting because talk around it has probably been in the marketplace for three or four years now. It’s only now that we’re starting to see some pretty good development in the way of hardware and software that people are realising can be adopted.
“That’s going to make it easier for these FM providers to actually start implementing it. Whereas beforehand, when it’s bleeding edge-type technology, it’s very difficult for them to justify the price to invest in those proof of concepts.
“Now I think we’re over that major hurdle and people are starting to understand that they can actually adopt this technology out of the box and install it,” Eastgate says. And there’s a competitive advantage too, he points out. “Where there are FM providers who aren’t [utilising IoT], then this is an opportunity to grab on to, to use it, and to go in and win contracts as well.”
He advocates for FMs to assess their business models and make changes or additions to embrace the advances within the industry. Specifically, what will change is that reactive service levels in buildings will reduce while pre-emptive maintenance will increase.
“I think proactive maintenance will go up because people will address things before they become an issue,” he says. “You’re always going to have reactive maintenance. Something will happen, and something will blow up or break. This will always be the case with any piece of equipment, but I think in a lot of cases, having access to data around the behaviour of that particular piece of infrastructure beforehand would catch a lot of that.”
It’s undeniable that IoT will play a fundamental role in FM and the future of the industry. Change is already on the doorstep. As Eastgate says, “It’s going to be an interesting time, isn’t it?”
Ten years from now, Eastgate predicts, “It would be an absolute expectation that almost every building will have some form of IoT in it. That’s going to scale up very quickly.
“What I think you will see is the level of service in buildings, and the way the building operates in general, will be a lot more simplified. You’ll have a lot less reactive maintenance, because with all of these systems and with the adoption of machine learning as well, people are going to be able to predict when, for example, an air-conditioning pump is going to start failing.”
And, as Eastgate says, while reactive maintenance will always be a necessity, the proactive response will mean less panic when things do go wrong, and IoT will be making inroads – as long as FMs get on board. ●
This article leads into FM’s technology month coming soon, where we’ll discuss all things tech and delve deeper into key innovations and areas. Look out for technology month on www.fmmedia.com.au.
This article also appears in the October/November issue of Facility Management magazine.
Lead image: 123RFs Yulia Koltyrina © 123RF