Going digital
Published:  03 April, 2014
Building & Engineering Services Association, B&ES, BIM, David Frise

The last decade saw a transformation in building engineering, but growing digitalisation will make the next one even more dramatic, says David Frise of the Building & Engineering Services Association.

The role of the building-services engineer has evolved rapidly in the past decade, and today’s industry looks very different from the one that went into recession six years ago. However, as we emerge from the darkest economic days, the pace of change is likely to be even more dramatic and the big challenge for engineers will be to remain relevant.

The ‘Internet of things’ and its thousands of intelligent devices are already transforming many building engineering systems with familiar names like Google, Apple, Amazon and Dyson now taking a close interest in our marketplace. The successful building-services companies of the future will be those who understand how they can continue to add value as many ‘traditional’ M&E activities migrate online.

It is already possible to link millions of devices to the web — including building thermostats. This greatly improves access, control and the cost of upgrading and maintaining systems, which are all things we have been striving to do better for years. The digitalisation of our industry puts meaningful progress on improving building performance within our grasp.

Critical

The medical profession has already embraced this connectivity by hooking up heart monitors and other life-critical systems to the web. They are moving rapidly towards a situation where the ‘physical’ doctor could be replaced by a cloud-based one, with access to unprecedented amounts of medical data and, therefore, far-better placed to deliver an accurate diagnosis of a patient’s condition.

If it is likely to be good enough for doctors, how much more so for engineers? Once the IT has the engineering data it needs, does it need the engineer?

iPod pioneer Tony Fadell was amazed to discover that he could not control the temperature of his new home and, therefore, his carbon footprint, from his mobile — so he invented his own thermostat. This led to the foundation of Nest Labs, which was recently sold to Google for a considerable sum of money.

His invention uses tiny sensors to monitor and learn about patterns of energy consumption in the home or office; it then shuts down systems that are not needed and starts them up again when they are without the need for human interference. This kind of development not only opens up huge operational possibilities, it also dramatically cuts the cost of providing sophisticated control functions.

3D printing is another development having a galvanising impact on our industry by revolutionising product development. The speed and ease of prototyping plus the low-cost production of one-off replacement components will continue to improve the efficiency of our manufacturing sector.

Design sketches can quickly be converted into physical prototypes for testing and visualisation and ‘4D’ printing is providing the added dimension of pipework systems that can self-repair. These could have huge implications for how we set up planned maintenance programmes in the future.

The speed and flexibility of web-based activities means we can continue to look for better solutions. We don’t have to wait for further technical breakthroughs. The availability of information and the connection to the product in use means we can be constantly tweaking to produce improvements.

Self-learning control systems, like those produced by Nest Labs, mean air-conditioning systems will automatically adjust to their occupants’ behaviour patterns, but far from making traditional engineering skills obsolete they will require even more expert commissioning to make them work properly. It is the marriage of mechanical engineering and tech intelligence that delivers the user interface and provides the real added value to the end user.

Building-services engineers will also have to be focused on the integration of the control systems with the installed technologies. For example, they will be needed to ensure the air-conditioning system works well in tandem with phase-change materials used in the fabric of the building that make it more responsive to changing outside temperatures. The availability of easily accessible performance data means engineers will be able to monitor and adjust systems to ensure they work to their optimum.

Influence

This ability to influence systems in operation has long been the Holy Grail of building engineering and offers the prospect of finally closing the yawning performance gap that leaves our industry regularly embarrassed. Detailed knowledge about the conditions and forewarning about possible problems will allow the engineers to respond in a more proactive way.

It is in many ways a brave new world in that access to information is easier, but it is not radically different in engineering terms. Many of these things have been possible and, indeed, practised for years. The truly significant differences are in making information understandable. Building Information Modelling (BIM) is part of this digitalisation process because it is a tool, which requires better organisation of information to be successful. It can also help engineers interact with the digital environment and analyse the information more effectively.

The nature of digital connectivity means progress from this point forward will be extremely rapid. Building-engineering-services firms, therefore, will have to move fast to keep up and ensure they are developing the right skill sets.

This is not really the future – the next decade of building-engineering systems is already with us.

David Frise is head of sustainability at the Building & Engineering Services Association (B&ES).




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