A central nervous system for buildings

Siemens Ltd

By Helmut Macht, CTO, Siemens Building Technologies
Tuesday, 14 March, 2017


Networked, energy self-sufficient, adaptable and, above all, smart — that is what the building of the future should be. Rapidly advancing digitalisation in building technology will soon make this vision a reality.

Whether it is ICT, the automobile industry, media, entertainment, finance or pharmaceuticals, the digital transformation has spread to virtually every sector and begun to change markets with new competitors and business models. Now digitalisation is taking hold in building technology, fundamentally changing the way buildings will be planned, constructed, used and, ultimately, managed.

The potential offered by digitalisation is enormous even if you look at nothing but energy consumption: buildings not only account for more than 40% of global energy consumption and a majority of all CO2 emissions, they are also one of the largest expense items in a company’s balance sheet. Operating costs make up almost 80% of the total costs across the entire life cycle. For this reason, efficient, automatic monitoring, as well as control of lighting, ventilation, heating and security systems, are important levers. In new construction, this has already become a reality. But the true revolution is taking place behind the scenes.

The digital twin

In contrast to today’s practice of doing planning work while construction has already begun, Building Information Modelling (BIM) is centred on planning the entire building with all its disciplines all at once and then simulating, testing and, if needed, correcting it in a virtual data model. This makes it easy to eliminate errors and inconsistencies in the software — instead of having to do it at the construction site where it is a much more laborious process. In essence, the building is constructed twice: first on the computer (virtually) and then in the real world (physically). This is referred to as the ‘digital twins’.

Since planning for the various disciplines takes place at the same time, it is possible to create coordinated multidiscipline solutions. In the past, this was difficult to achieve because of the project award practices in use. Virtual planning and the use of a common data model allows early verification even of detailed variants in order to optimise the building.

What impact does the choice of a specific type of facade have on the construction and investment costs as well as on maintenance, cleaning and user comfort later on? How does an additional door affect future evacuation scenarios, comfort and heating costs? If such questions can be answered before ground is broken, it becomes possible to make construction projects more cost effective, straightforward and sustainable and to operate buildings more safely, comfortably and efficiently.

In the past, end-to-end building information modelling failed because the technical requirements could not be met. Cloud computing — virtually unlimited computing power and storage capacity as well as uninterrupted availability of networks and end devices — has eliminated the obstacles that made implementation difficult before. At least in theory. Broad-based adoption is still hampered by the fragmentation of the various sectors encompassing many stakeholders with different interests. The companies and people who work on the individual processes or disciplines within a building have traditionally acted independently. The close coordination achieved through BIM is a novel concept and requires customised process steps and business models. Other limiting factors include the comparatively high purchase costs of suitable systems, a lack of standards and interfaces as well as the fact that only a few manufacturers to date have been able to provide BIM-compatible data for their components. In addition, current project award practices are such that ‘digital’ planning and simulation are typically neither budgeted for nor reflected in the fee schedules.

Nevertheless, an ever increasing number of public construction and infrastructure projects now require BIM, and at the EU level its introduction has already been decided.

Communicating and evaluating everything

Another cornerstone of digitalisation in building technology is the Internet of Things — the internetworking of machines, devices, components, sensors, actuators and other objects. This convergence between the real and the digital world is the foundation for connecting the different disciplines in a building and for creating new digital services and building models. Remote service solutions, for instance, make it possible to detect and correct component problems quickly and efficiently from virtually anywhere. Preventive maintenance concepts minimise downtimes because components are able to notify their manufacturer at the first sign of trouble — long before there is actual damage which would cause disruption. Today, business continuity is a vital factor in business planning.

Sensors, actuators and similar devices supply a wealth of valuable information, most of which remains unused. Intelligent evaluation using big data applications could combine these massive but unstructured amounts of data into meaningful performance indicators — in real time if needed. Smart algorithms evaluate trends and recognise patterns in user behaviour or consumption, thus enabling informed decisions, predictive strategies and continuous optimisation. This, together with sophisticated self-optimisation functions, gives buildings a central nervous system — making them smart.

Smart buildings increase productivity and save energy

Building users benefit from such building intelligence. Since the indoor environment is perfectly balanced in terms of lighting, air quality, temperature and humidity, they feel comfortable. This, in turn, has a positive impact on their productivity at work. In addition, smart buildings also have a positive effect on energy efficiency. This aspect is becoming more important as the call for ‘zero net energy buildings’ is increasing at the European level. Smart buildings meet this demand because they do not simply consume energy, they also generate it using local systems such as photovoltaics, wind power or combined heat and power plants (CHP). This is what is known as distributed generation. Any excess energy generated by the building is fed into a general power grid or stored locally, for example in electric vehicles connected to the building and used as temporary batteries while they are not being driven.

Smart buildings determine consumption as well as current and predictive user demand, control themselves and procure energy only when it is in adequate supply and available at a reasonable rate. This is how building intelligence will ultimately help stabilise the entire power grid. Today’s cloud-based building and energy management platforms from Siemens are important approaches towards that goal.

The evolution of buildings

Digitalisation will take buildings into a new dimension in terms of efficiency, security and comfort. Because sensors are everywhere and the data they supply is evaluated intelligently, buildings will become dynamic ecosystems that respond intelligently to their environment and leverage their benefits over the long term in conjunction with other buildings and infrastructures (‘smart grids’).

The digital transformation in building technology will bring about a paradigm shift for the entire industry: it will lead to new and changing business models. Software will become a central factor; openness and transparency will be key; closed and proprietary systems will be big losers. This transformation process will lead to opportunities that can only flourish in the digital world. However, new business models have already begun to change the rules of the game and have the potential to shift the balance of power in the marketplace. As a result, classic competitive situations will give way to more complex constellations where, through a network of partnerships and alliances, companies are interconnected in ecosystems but at the same time act as competitors in the market. It also means that partnerships between traditional industrial enterprises and large IT players will play a much more significant role. The alliance between Siemens and IBM is a targeted response to this development.

For further information on the Building Technologies Division, visit www.siemens.com/buildingtechnologies.

Image courtesy of Siemens

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