Buildings with brains

Posted on 4 Feb 2013

Investing in building management technology is a smart choice, finds Tom Moore.

“The measure of intelligence is the ability to change,” said Albert Einstein. With energy prices a major problem for manufacturers and energy usage a problem for the world, it seems that changing the way we make things would be an intelligent option.

Simon Parsons, practice leader at IBM Smarter Buildings, explains that better building management can cut a surprising amount of energy, even for high energy business like manufacturers.

People forget that IT companies like IBM, with its foundations in hardware, are manufacturers themselves so are in a unique position to excel in using data to cut costs inside a factory. But even IBM has been surprised by the scope of possible savings through building management, admits Mr Parsons.

Simon Parsons, Practice Leader, IBM Smarter Buildings
Simon Parsons, Practice Leader, IBM Smarter Buildings

“The way that factories are operated goes out of kilter… You typically find a 10 per cent to 20 per cent drift each year” – Simon Parsons, Practice Leader, IBM Smarter Buildings

Its site in Rochester, Massachusetts, which is the size of a small town and combines offices, software labs and manufacturing, predicted that a new analytical package would only be able to achieve 0.5% worth of energy savings.

The site had eaten up all the clichéd low hanging fruit and replaced inefficient machines with the energy-friendly. But on top of these efficiencies, the site has achieved an incremental 16% saving against the baseline energy reduction every year since introducing a building monitoring system that looks at improving factories and offices like six sigma does for production lines.

A tortoise is only as strong as its shell

Parsons says that IBM’s “people on site were sceptical,” but that changed when the energy bills started coming in. Parsons is now leading IBM’s Smarter Buildings project around the UK, selling his magic formula to manufacturers and even the Ministry of Defence, one of the UK’s biggest land owners.

Its system oversees heating, cooling, lighting and insulation to optimise the performance of a building to cut energy bills and extend the life of equipment within it.

“The reason that equipment uses more energy than it needs to is because something is wrong with the set up, it’s either on at the wrong time or set to the wrong speed,” says Parsons.

“Over time,” he explains. “The way that factories are operated goes out of kilter because things change on the ground. The facility is used in a different way so you typically find a 10 per cent to 20 per cent drift each year.”

Parsons continues: “Systems and programming don’t always keep up with changes. Equipment firing up at the wrong time is now a ‘fire moment’, and one which needs to be put out so that costs don’t escalate while you’re not looking.” More and more manufacturers will fit the equivalent of fire alarms so that sudden rises in energy use are detected and corrected he asserts.

Simon Parsons, practice leader at IBM Smarter Buildings describes smart building management trends in the manufacturing sector

We’re seeing a number of trends in building design and construction of facilities used by a range of industries, with manufacturing operations set to become increasingly ‘smart’ over the coming years.

There is a demand for more granular information and reporting on topics such as energy, water and waste. Drivers are both internal, for example as energy costs rise inexorably, and external, such as regulatory carbon reporting. Organisations thus have more and more data available on how their facilities are operated and performing. The more forward-thinking are making a virtue of this necessity by actively seeking ways to exploit it.

At one level, this can mean monitoring energy use on a real-time basis. This offers the possibility of identifying operational anomalies – which can lead to excessive energy use and avoidable maintenance activities – on the basis of leading indicators, rather than at the end of a month or quarter when unexpectedly high costs have already been incurred.

Such techniques are increasingly being used either for buildings or the equipment being operated within them, but rarely considering both as a single entity with complex internal interactions. Detailed and consistent asset management data across a portfolio of manufacturing facilities can provide valuable insights into the root causes of operational performance levels.

This mass of data offers the ability to apply predictive analytic techniques around such factors as operational efficiency, maintenance team productivity, energy use, critical equipment failure and thus operational downtime.

These insights can in turn contribute to a more holistic approach to planning a new manufacturing facility. Product Lifecycle Management (PLM) has been around for years – the equivalent for buildings is Building Information Modelling (BIM). In the world of construction, an increasing amount of operational modelling takes place during the design stage. BIM techniques offer a virtual, as maintained, record of the building configuration, including detailed performance and maintenance specifications. This raises the prospect of more active management of the whole building and the production equipment within it as PLM and BIM techniques merge within a manufacturing environment.

A key part of such holistic asset management will be an information strategy for the manufacturing plant, planning what information will be required, to what end, how it will be captured and exploited for both immediate and future needs and looking forward to the future across the whole life-cycle of the building.

So, there you have it – a number of emerging trends for “smarter buildings” in manufacturing. It will be interesting to see how many of these become accepted as the normal way to operate over the coming years!

Get some backbone

Carbon emissions from buildings, such as those from air conditioning and lighting, account for 45% of the UK’s carbon footprint, burning a hole in both pockets and the ozone layer. IBM found that, by closely monitoring high energy-consuming equipment, a reduction of nearly 50% in the associated maintenance hours was achieved, once the pre-existing problems – detected by IBM’s algorithms – had been resolved.

Technology is the backbone of society and real-time energy monitoring with a view to raising alerts when things are going awry is a way to exploit the wealth of data that manufacturers now have at their fingertips. Higher than expected energy costs, potentially damaging cash flow and putting projects on hold at small companies, can be avoided by checking energy usage, or better still, getting a computer to do it for you.

Download IBM’s Smarter Buildings Research article here.