Convergence: the critical controls conundrum

Thomas Keel is a Professor at the School of Building Construction at Georgia Institute of Technology. He is a respected and influential individual within the building control sector, having extensively experienced the industry from both an academic and corporate setting.

In this special guest blog, Thomas Keel, Professor at the School of Building Construction at Georgia Institute of Technology, discusses convergence and its impact on engineers and product manufacturers in the controls industry.

To understand the power of convergence, we must first define and determine what convergence truly is. Imagine random strands of unconnected twisted wire. Convergence happens when all those strands of wire are fused together to become one.

Regarding intelligent buildings, smart cities, and the Internet of Things (IoT), the goal of convergence is to have devices that are intended to work perfectly when first connected, without reconfiguration, adjustment, or by the addition of an intermediary device, sometimes referred to as a gateway.

We live in interesting times, for in a way, society and culture push against convergence. Industry is not monolithic; it does not stand apart from the society in which it operates. Industry is part of a multidimensional entity that lives in a sociocultural-political environment that celebrates diversity and individualism. In this environment convergence and integration are almost anathema.

With the advent of direct digital control (DDC) each manufacturer developed their own protocol to monitor and control the myriad of devices that make up what is known as the building-controls industry. Therefore, each building was branded by which controls manufacturer won the contract to install the building’s control system.

What was lacking was open interconnectivity/integration between disparate systems. This anchored each building to a specific product manufacturer and unless the building owner was prepared to entirely change out systems, they had to continue purchasing additional equipment, software, and firmware from the manufacturer of the originally installed system. Personally, I was involved in one of those wholesale system changeovers whereupon the initial phase took three years and continued being an ongoing ordeal as new interconnectivity/integration problems were discovered.

Understanding this dilemma, building owners began demanding “plug-and-play” interconnectivity, forcing controls manufacturers to begin working together. In other words, they demanded interoperability. Now, it is reported that many control device manufacturers are collaborating to pre-integrate their systems, although hard verification is not easily available.

This has opened up an entirely new industry known as systems integration with a new class of industry professionals known as system integrators. System integrators, act as a bridge, connecting disparate systems by locating or manufacturing gateways that translate signals from one device to another language of the device to which it is connected. System integrators and system integration can reduce the risk of system malfunctions but are not the solution; integration and integrators are merely temporary, yet necessary, Band-Aids/plasters.

The real solution is found in universal standards and protocols. What if every computer manufacturer had their own set of peripheral requirements forcing the consumer to purchase all of their peripheral devices from the manufacture of their computer?

Leading and influential figures from the controls industry profess to the importance of convergence and the interoperability of standards, with Jim Brandt Vice President of Product Management at saying: “the proliferation of standards means that no single standard has yet become the one and only standard. Only time will tell which standard(s) will emerge. Until then, openness to different standards is the order of the day. Given the varied landscape, there are a few approaches to get some value from the available standards and avoid possible incompatibility between different parts of the infrastructure.”

The search for standards of interoperability, interconnection, and integration within the global building controls industry is vital for its future. Those working within this sector need to have a full understanding of the terminology of the intelligent building/smart cities industry and successfully transverse the minefield of convergence, integration, interconnectivity, and interoperability with deft skill so as to emerge on the other side with a fully functioning system while working towards the day of total industry-wide convergence.

Leave a Reply