So You Want To Be A Building System Integrator

January 11, 2002
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If all building automation systems (bas) and control products were the same, system integration would be a relatively simple task. However, these technologies did not develop linearly over the last several decades. In fact, virtually all bas platforms were originally designed as proprietary systems.

More recently, however, a torrent of open or “common” communication protocols have been introduced to the industry, followed closely by new manufacturer claims of “open” systems. Confusion ensued — and still exists to some extent — over the true meaning of the word “open.”

Meanwhile, the significance of the system integrator (SI) as a key delivery agent for total integrated building solutions has escalated dramatically. There is now an acute demand for professionals who understand the protocols, the various technologies, and most importantly, how to apply integration strategies effectively in an open building controls system.

By today’s definition, an SI is essentially responsible for specifying, installing, designing, and maintaining the functionality — trends, alarms, and schedules — of a bas created on a network communication protocol, such as LonTalk®. Unlike a traditional product integrator, who is responsible only for integrating an individual product or subsystem into the building automation scheme, a system integrator’s responsibilities surpass all others in this class. An SI must be able to assemble various manufacturers’ components to create a cohesive system that satisfies the building owner’s objectives.

Owners, therefore, should expect the responsibility of the SI to include the installation of a solid, stable platform or system to build upon from one manufacturer, rather than simply adding different products and components onto the system. A true system integrator must therefore be able to provide a single-seat, site-wide bas interface, which building owners are now demanding.

An SI’s responsibilities also extend beyond a network integrator, who also has responsibility for the specification, design, installation, and maintenance of open control systems. However, the network integrator does not typically integrate third-party components and products onto a solid, consistent platform. An important distinction to remember is that the SI is the only one responsible for ensuring that the system is truly open, and that it provides full hvac functionality.

THE IDEAL MODEL

To understand the true significance of today’s SI role, let’s create a role model, or ideal SI.

The predominant qualification for a successful SI is the use of leading-edge technology. The ideal SI must have a highly advanced bas architecture as a backbone upon which to build. Typically the backbone comprises all of the vital components of the bas architecture, including the workstation, controllers, tools, peripheral devices, and manufacturer-supplied training.

The proper mix of technologies must also exist in order to provide a reliable platform, to generate useful information for the users and to communicate effectively with complementary, competitive systems.

Knowledge is an important qualification for the ideal SI. In addition to the appropriate standards and technology tools, the SI must thoroughly understand how to properly apply these tools and solutions. Certainly, experience is required to understand the owner’s objectives so that the right protocol and technologies are used to meet these objectives.

The key for success is not just knowledge and experience, but the ability to apply them to attain the best overall solution.

Likewise, owners should be fully aware of the day-to-day benefits they will receive as a result of the SI’s solutions prior to investing in any technology. Most technologies, such as LonTalk, are communication media that operate invisibly to the end user, although the actual benefits typically are user-interactive.

Once the protocol and technologies are matched with the owner’s objectives and anticipated benefits, the ideal SI must have the capabilities to implement and complete the project. The SI must provide the hardware installation, tools to configure and commission the system, and training for operators.

Because the owner’s needs for open systems go well beyond architecture and software, the ideal SI must also be able to provide long-term technical support. This comprises higher-level services, such as operator and system training and education. By committing to continuous support, the ideal SI forms a partnership with the owner.

EDUCATION IS KEY

Education of all the involved parties in the controls industry has long been a major issue, from designers and users to manufacturers, operators, and engineers.

It is vital that owners, too, have not only a basic education in hvac, but also a solid understanding of how the environmental requirements of their building affect operation. Most obvious are the positive effects of improvements on productivity, employee morale, and building efficiency.

System managers require more education than ever before in terms of bas operation, networking, and controls technology in general. They need a higher level of understanding in order to tap the powerful new capabilities of integrated systems and to help owners realize the return they expect on their investments. This is why manufacturer-supplied training is important.

The SI becomes pivotal in explaining to the managers how their roles will change and in educating them on what the impacts will be of their adjustments and corrections. Likewise, training to learn new skills today is just as important as continuous training and education in the future to keep up with system integration issues.

Experience shows that effective, long-term relationships between the SI and the owner can be traced to productive communication in the early stages. Well-founded relationships begin with a thorough understanding of the owners’ needs and their facilities.

Early on, the SI is responsible for establishing realistic limits of what can be achieved by system integration, and for outlining the schedules and costs required to deliver the finished project. The SI must also assume responsibility for proper wording of all specifications for the project, including functional and detailed descriptions, scope of work, testing and procedures, support services, and documentation.

The astute SI also understands that working closely with other vendors in the early project stages will pave the way for smoother implementation and proper

commissioning later on. This approach creates a win-win attitude among the team players and demonstrates the SI’s professionalism at the outset.

To improve their odds for success, SIs will also need to embrace methodologies that represent the best practices of the industry. This will help improve their project management skills, encourage open communication, and facilitate team efficiency from inception to customer acceptance.

ACCOUNTABILITY

The deciding factor for many owners can often be the SI’s ability to function as the single source of accountability for the project. As the sole source of responsibility for the project, the SI serves as the single point of contact when a problem arises.

Many owners regard this as highly desirable and beneficial because it avoids wasted time and expense while allowing owners to focus on their core business.

When owners choose an SI who assumes this responsibility, they expect to rely on only one entity for answers, information, and resolutions. To meet this need, the SI must have experience pulling all of the pieces together, from design and installation through commissioning and customer turnover.

Publication date: 01/14/2002

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