DALLAS — Micro Electro Mechanical System — or, MEMS. It’s coming to the HVAC world. And soon.

That was one of the many warnings and messages at the third International Trade Press Forum, hosted June 12-13 by Siemens Building Technologies. Siemens presented market trends and innovative technologies which it believes will be dominating the building technology segment in the near future.

One such emerging technology is MEMS, which is already in place in the automotive and medical worlds. It is a system of silicon devices that are so small, they cannot be seen by the human eye.

Yet, according to Kevin Osburn, head of Product Marketing and Development for the Building Automation Division of Siemens Building Technologies Group, the technology has the potential to combine five key capabilities that would make it “an excellent possibility for the building management system of the future” — sensing, wireless networking, processing, efficient power, and self-configuring.

“There are emerging technologies that we believe can be applied to innovating the building and the way it fundamentally operates,” said Osburn. “In order to improve the control of the building, we must change the way we monitor the environment of the building. To do this, we must also change the way in which we acquire the conditions in the building.”

Kevin Osburn: “Many customers don’t want to invest in the sophisticated staff to run these advanced systems, so maybe more monitoring and support can be outsourced to service providers.”

Sensors, Sensors Everywhere

Early adopters of MEMS technology are using it today for many applications, Osburn told a roomful of trade press representatives from all over the world, including Germany, Austria, Canada, France, Ireland, and Italy.

“The automotive industry is using MEMS to sense the tire pressure on a car while driving and to control the power in an airbag based on sensing the size and weight of an occupant in the seat,” he said. “The medical world is using MEMS to change the way they can continuously monitor blood pressure and CO2 in respirators. The audiovisual world is using it for creating more advanced digital projectors.

“These small, inexpensive sensors could also be placed in several locations in a room instead of just one, perhaps mixed with the paint on the wall so as to be invisible. They could sense where the occupant is and the conditions around this person, and then use this information for better control decisions affecting comfort and safety — creating the smart space around the individual and individuals within the building.”

In today’s building management systems, sensing takes the shape of boxes that are mounted on walls to acquire temperature, humidity, and indoor air quality. Sensors are also inserted into pipes or airways to do the same, with the addition of pressure. All of these devices have two things in common: wires to power them and wires to bring signals back to an intelligent device that analyzes the signals.

“In some cases, the powering and sensing can be done on the same wire, but at the end of the day, you have wires and boxes and probes all over the building,” said Osburn. “This means money, time, and effort for all of the devices, wires, commissioning, and troubleshooting over time.”

In order to really improve the current situation, it means changing all components, he said.

“What if we could eliminate the signal wires? What if we could eliminate the need for power? What if the replacement did not need a box on the wall or did not have to be inserted into a pipe or airway?” he asked. “Wouldn’t this all change the time, money, and effort that goes into the common building management system of today?”

MEMS, he said, would change “everything we think about a building management system today.”

Also On The Horizon

According to Osburn, other key technologies that will improve the operations and lower the cost of systems in the future include wireless networks and shared networks.

“These innovations have the potential to save significant space, time, and money for buildings,” said Osburn. “Better sensing and networking will combine to bring more data together that can be analyzed and converted to information for better decision making. More information can help optimize the building’s performance. It can also be used with past performance for comparative analysis and help to make better future decisions. This type of analysis can also be used with an eye towards the future and help with preventative maintenance and diagnostic information that will improve the building’s uptime and extend the life of equipment.”

Meanwhile, integration standards are now starting to take hold in the market thanks, in part, to the testing bodies that are improving the likelihood of success from connecting building subsystems, said Osburn. He noted that BACnet now has the BACnet Test Laboratory, LON has the LonMark Foundation, and Konnex (more so in Europe) has DIAL, VDE, and others.

“Going forward, the probability of success and the ability to set proper expectations before two systems are connected will greatly improve, thus providing additional information,” he predicted.

In order to keep the cost of these new solutions acceptable, the way we acquire and operate the systems in the future will also change, he said.

“Many intelligent building management systems are underutilized today, so perhaps in the future you will only pay for what you use,” said Osburn. “Many customers don’t want to invest in the sophisticated staff to run these advanced systems, so maybe more monitoring and support can be outsourced to service providers. All of this sensing and data and information also sounds like complexity and confusion and costs, so maybe more intelligence needs to be embedded in the systems for self-configuring, and diagnostics will be needed to keep the costs down.”

He noted with every new advancement in technology, opportunities and challenges in other areas may emerge.

“So, there is no time to rest,” he summarized. “We expect that these innovations will impact the buildings of the future, and we will see much on these benefits in our lifetime.”

Publication date: 07/14/2003