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More awareness required to create truly ‘smart’ facilities

Facilities Management

03/11/21 | Rebecca Drewett

Greater understanding is needed to raise uptake of technology to improve the running of facilities and estates, industry experts agree. FSI's Jon Clark joins the PFM panel of industry experts to discuss.

There has been considerable discussion over the expanding list of technological options available to improve the running of facilities and many in the FM sector are now regarding these as essential.

However, industry experts have responded to PFM’s request for comment within this feature to state that more effort is required to gain higher levels of acceptance throughout our industry.

Our first response comes from Atalian Servest Hard Services managing director Steve Wallbanks, who says that in a world driven by return on investment (ROI), businesses are often reluctant to invest in projects that require a little more patience.

“Technologies such as the Internet of Things (IoT), automation, artificial intelligence (AI) and building information modelling (BIM) are all spoken about as cutting-edge trends in smart buildings, but their uptake remains relatively lacklustre,” he continues. “Smart buildings and intelligent HVAC technologies can offer significant benefits.

“For example, the World Green Building Council Study found that improving ventilation and indoor air quality can enhance productivity by 8-11%. Equally, improving lighting can enhance productivity by 23%. The Albany Business Review stated that buildings that enable smart technologies can reduce costs by an average of 15%. Developments like motion-sensitive lighting or better HVAC management through a sensor-controlled system are key to driving down energy consumption – beneficial for both corporate pockets and the environment."

Mr Wallbanks says IoT also creates a host of data points that can deliver quantifiable and tangible insights, which in turn inform actionable improvements. While there are initiatives from the UK government to encourage the optimisation and smart enhancement of buildings, there is a lack of grants in the right areas to truly propel investment forward.

“At a grassroots level, however, companies can consider their approaches to smart building and HVAC technologies. Many dismiss the idea based on the assumption that action will require significant investment and while it’s true that a smart building strategy and the associated investments can be expensive, it can also start small, be cost-effective and focus on incremental improvement,” says Mr Wallbanks.

Further comment is provided by FSI sales manager Jon Clark: “With technology evolving at lightning speed and with the creation of buildings that are becoming smarter and more automated than ever before, the question is are we really making use of smart technology to make our facilities more efficient?”

He further explains that since the introduction of the IoT and AI, the convergence of the digital and physical worlds has never been greater, with the ability to harness data from both buildings and the assets that reside within them. From the automation of cleaning regimes, to understanding asset performance and network weaknesses, the technology has never been stronger or more available, Mr Clark continues.

“So, what is stopping us? In many cases the concept of adopting and implementing a CAFM/IWMS solution can feel complicated, even insurmountable. However, rapid technology changes from vendors and trends have made the shift toward a more flexible approach easier to enable a scaled solution.” The market also must define good use cases for how technology can assist in streamlining current manual processes. Sometimes the best solutions are the simplest in their make-up but return the largest savings. In the early days cost was also a major factor both from individual sensors through to how you gather and orchestrate data with meaningful outputs, but that has changed.

“The market has grown exponentially and with that the cost has reduced and the market leaders within the CAFM/IWMS market have solutions than can not only collate the huge datasets being produced by estates, but also harness, interpret and help to enable technology to improve how facilities operations are run and managed,” Mr Clark concludes.

Further thoughts on this topic come from HPS Group M&E Services business director Adam Phillips: “Smart buildings are no longer the preserve of premium corporate office stock or super prime apartment developments. More and more we are seeing build to rent (BTR) and purpose built student accommodation (PBSA) providers implementing robotics, automation and AI platforms to enhance the residents’ experience.”

This can include fitting virtual assistance devices to interact with conversational AI platforms that contact the concierge, book exercise classes or even report faults such as a lack of heating, air conditioning or water leaks, he continues. Through a series of application programme interfaces (APIs) these can be linked with field service management platforms to issue work orders for engineer attendance and can be vital in speeding up engineer attendance and fault rectification, reducing collateral damage from a system fault.

“We are also seeing further interactions with building mechanical and electrical systems such as the installation of solenoid valves that isolate water systems within an apartment if there is no movement detected for 24 hours. When you consider the extensive damage that can occur from even a minor water leak if an apartment is vacant for a week, these low-cost interventions can prove themselves invaluable in no time.

“The key with AI is to have clarity on what you are looking to achieve, or which real world problems you are keen to solve. All too often with the ‘art of the possible’ associated with smart buildings, much like with our smart phones and their almost infinite number of apps available, it is easy to lose track of what you are actually looking to achieve and be blinded by the latest marketing pitch,” says Mr Phillips.

Chubb Fire & Security technology and solutions director Andrew Hunter says: “During the COVID-19 pandemic, technology has been the means by which we communicate, individually, nationally and internationally. Exchanging data for many purposes including medical research to start the resistance to the disease.“

Technologies have provided society with the ways, and means, of remaining in contact with families and friends, as well as colleagues, he continues. “This trend is likely to continue and accelerate in the coming years, as we learn to trust the technologies around us. Many of these technologies are not new, they are simply repurposed to a new use.”

Within facial recognition and detection video analytics for instance, there had to be a reversal of the existing rules, as no data measurements below the nose could be interpreted due to face masks. Accordingly, a mask wearing detection algorithm was quickly and effectively rolled out.

“It is interesting to observe the public queuing patiently outside grocery stores entering only when the traffic light turns green, so that social distancing practices can be observed. Or filling their car with fuel at an automated petrol station, to avoid having to enter the kiosk to pay. “Both are achieved using simple rules or algorithms, which may previously have been viewed with caution and mistrust, but now are welcomed as essential in the efforts to stay safe.“

The signposts to the future and technology are being accepted much more readily as an enabler to creating safer, healthier and smarter buildings are already clearly visible,” Mr Hunter concludes.

Johnson Controls Digital Solutions director Jamie Cameron, says: “During the pandemic we saw that smart technologies helped buildings to stay open and help organisations continue business as usual – in our research, 87% said it would’ve been harder without them, while 99% said they saw the value of smart technologies.”

Despite the perceived importance, there is still a lack of investment although it is not only in the short-term that technology is helping businesses, he continues. However, most organisations’ longer-term targets, namely ESG and sustainability, will similarly rely on smart technologies to make them a reality.

Alongside budget constraints (64%) and a lack of staff (37%), one of the biggest roadblocks for implementing smart technology in buildings is getting senior leaders onboard (42%).

“Thus, the problem many businesses are having today is finding what they need to justify the investment in smart buildings. This means we are seeing organisations incur excess OpEx costs to maintain sites, and operate from buildings that are not sustainable – just 35% believe their buildings are.

“It isn’t that senior leaders are reticent to invest – it’s that they don’t have the user cases or the extra budgets to make it happen immediately. But if their buildings are costing more than they should, and not meeting sustainability goals and energy efficiency regulations, is now the time to make the necessary improvements?

“We can’t expect decision-makers to come up with the solutions themselves, especially when battling budgets and boardroom decisions. This is where the expertise and advice of smart technology experts become essential.

“Understanding how technology can optimise energy usage, improve the occupant experience, and make operational savings will be critical to proving smart technology’s worth to the rest of the organisation. Smart buildings will play a part in both the immediate and future success of UK organisations – so proving their worth is the first major step to seeing this success,” says Mr Cameron.