Facility App Trends: Pocket Sized Productivity

By Nancy Stein
Published in the July 2012 issue of Today’s Facility Manager

The economy and tightened budgets have impacted facilities across the country, particularly hospitals and university campuses. Today, facility managers (fms) are required to manage and maintain more square footage with fewer people while ensuring the quality of care remains exceptional at trusted institutions.

Undaunted by these challenges, fms are using innovation and flexibility to do their best to stay ahead of the curve. As buildings become more intelligent, fms who recall the necessity of diagnosing system conditions from the depths of a dirty boiler room are now enjoying the benefits of advanced technology; from sophisticated field devices to mobile apps that enable monitoring, commanding, and control from any location, these technologies are helping fms create new best practices that improve operational efficiency.

FM Technology Advancement Timeline

The world of facility management is quickly evolving. Remember when?

Late 1960s: Automated DDC. Computer technology enabled electronic control processes for HVAC direct digital controls made it possible to reduce the quantity of moving parts associated with pneumatics and tightened the control loops.

1970s: Dark Days in the Field. Controlling at the product level meant walking through a dirty and dark boiler room and having to plug into devices locally with a bulky laptop. This was necessary in order to make a physical connection with archaic serials cables; it also meant fms had to fidget around in order to sync up communications baud rates before they even got the chance to enter login credentials and get to the information needed.

1973: First Handheld “Box” Mobile Phone. The first mobile telephone call was made from a prototype handheld phone. It weighed 2.5 pounds and measured 9″ long, 5″ deep, and 1.75″ wide. The prototype offered a talk time of just 30 minutes and took 10 hours to recharge.

Mid-1990s: Sharing Networks Through BACnet. The BACnet protocol opened the door for device/interface interoperability between numerous control manufacturers. It provided end users with several options in control products that had varying levels of interoperability.

2002: Wireless Field Devices. Wireless solutions were introduced as a way to interconnect components and use low power designs. Mesh technology created a self-forming, self-healing, reliable network that could adapt more easily to changing structures.

2007, 2008: Smartphones and Tablets. Apple released the iPhone® and sold 4.7 million in the summer quarter, giving it nearly 13% of the smartphone market. The first Android phone, the G1, launched in November 2008.

2012: Mobile Apps. Affordable (and sometimes even free) apps become available from Android, BlackBerry, and Apple iTunes marketplaces.

The latest mobile apps provide access to today’s building automation systems (BAS). Some apps communicate with controller-based, embedded BACnet web servers through an intuitive user interface designed and optimized for smartphones. This provides a quick and secure mechanism to monitor and control mechanical and electrical equipment, no matter where the user is working in the facility. Apps can leverage the controller’s existing user authentication mechanism without requiring initial configuration or customized interface.

New Technology = New Mindset

Today, building operators are usually faced with managing more and more square footage with fewer staff members. When they employ the latest technology, these managers hope to gain greater productivity by leveraging it to access and control building systems, lighting, elevators, and other equipment efficiently, quickly, and effortlessly. As with any profession, there are those who are eager to try new technologies (accepting the risks but anticipating rewards), and those who take a wait-and-see approach (unwilling to risk upsetting the status quo without ample evidence that the new technology will deliver positive results).

But there is evidence that attitudes towards applying new technologies are changing. For example, more people under 35 are entering the facility management (FM) profession. [To find out more on this topic, read “Leveraging The Aging Worker”.]

According to the Profiles 2011 Salary and Demographics Report from the International Facility Management Association (IFMA), adopting trendsetting technology is anticipated, intuitive, and expected for this generation. Not surprisingly, the survey also revealed those who have been in the industry longer tended to be more reticent towards adopting new technology.

In Utah, Bryce Atkinson, vice president of sales for Atkinson Electronics has, for more than 20 years, supplied control systems to hospitals, universities, and other large customers. “A decade ago, you’d have to be very technically minded to implement a new technology. That has led to some hesitation or ‘buy-in’ whenever a new advancement is released. The smartphone apps of today are a stark contrast though,” says Atkinson. “They are so much simpler to implement. Since they are embedded, all you have to do is fill in the blanks and you are done. Once fms start using them, they tell me they wished they had these years ago.”

According to Atkinson, the best apps are those “native apps that are optimized for a great user experience on each platform.” He notes that an ideal application “leverages the existing controllers’ database and therefore requires no setup or configuration. Just download, authenticate, and go.”

Retail And Commercial Solutions For Small- To Medium-Sized Buildings

Owners of smaller footprint buildings are increasingly turning to energy management systems to help get control of their energy spending. High energy intensity per square foot buildings (such as fast food restaurants) can benefit from building controls but cannot typically bear the cost of a highly engineered system or the dedicated staff necessary to manage the facility. Some vendors are addressing this need by releasing specialized retail and commercial energy management systems (EMS) solutions (like EcoView™ from Siemens, which is available).

Designed specifically to meet the energy management needs of restaurants, medical offices, retail shops, and other small commercial businesses, these offerings are feature rich wireless EMS that provide a rapid payback through reduced energy bills and allow the fm to manage the schedule and view equipment performance from a web browser. Some apps even allow the fm to view or control facility settings for all their buildings while they are on the road.

The free Siemens EcoView mobile app is currently available in Apple iTunes; an Android version is due out later this year.

So when the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences in Little Rock, AR, expanded into a 540,000 square foot facility with 234 adult beds and 60 neonatal beds, members of the FM team were prompted to rely on the latest technology. They tapped into tools such as web-enabled devices, wireless data connectivity, and their smartphone or tablet to save money and increase productivity. Their ingenuity helped to ensure the indoor air quality would be optimized and the building would be comfortable, safe, and energy efficient.

“For best results, any mobile app interface design should be user friendly and intuitive,” says Ryan Schlotfeldt, Siemens Building Technologies product manager. “Some apps on the market often require additional configuration to gain access to the same information—all of which can potentially result in higher startup costs.” Schlotfeldt adds, “Some are purely browser based and really were designed for use on traditional large monitors, which can dramatically increase the number of manual ‘click-throughs’ and pinch zooming through user initiated touch gestures to get to the desired information.”

Tighter Control

In the past, any time an fm went on a field call to check out a system alarm in person, general visibility into the system was lost. Consequently, that person risked missing any new, potentially more critical system alarms.

The ability to connect remotely is making a huge impact on productivity. “With my smartphone or tablet, I can walk through a building and true feedback is instantly available to me—in the palm of my hand. I no longer have to be at a desktop tied to my computer—or even take that 30 minute walk from a mechanical room to an office to assess and diagnose from my computer,” says Thomas Luyet, director of IT at Powers of Arkansas. “The result is now we service a lot more buildings.”

Atkinson has seen the change particularly in hospitals and on university campuses where the impact of the economy and tightened budgets has increased an fm’s responsibility to manage and maintain more square footage with fewer people.

With remote access, fms can achieve tighter management capabilities through more frequent monitoring. Luyet has found this especially useful in critical areas, such as isolation rooms, where there needs to be a constant and careful eye on air pressure.

No Outlay Of Cash

Some mobile apps are either free or available for a nominal fee, meaning costs should not deter fms from trying them. “Smartphones and tablets are devices most people already have, so there’s no additional outlay of cash. With the apps you get instant access, allowing you to do things you could not do before,” says Luyet.

Most in the industry know that the design and construction of smart buildings offers the tangible benefits of lowering energy, maintenance, and capital costs. At a time when fms are exploring every way to improve operations and decrease costs, a powerful way to increase productivity sits in the palm of their hands. Armed with sophisticated tools at every level, it’s an amazing time to be an fm witnessing just how far technologies can help to advance both their buildings and their profession.

Nancy Stein

Stein is director of product management for the Control Products & Systems Business Unit of Siemens Building Technologies division where she is responsible for strategic direction of all CPS products. She also monitors the development of business plans, managing life cycles, and product positioning in the marketplace. Stein has a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering from Purdue University and a MBA from DePaul University and has been with Siemens for more than 22 years.