Seeing what’s real

by Michelle Dunner
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It’s the bane of every facility manager’s existence – vital equipment hidden behind walls, in ceilings or under floors. When the system fails, the consequences are likely to be expensive at best and catastrophic at worst. Frustration and inconvenience to occupants is an added level of complexity a facility manager doesn’t need.

But what if we could ‘see through walls’? X-ray vision is not the stuff of science fiction, rather a technology making the most of advances in augmented reality (AR) through the Internet of Things (IoT).

Imagine an asset tag or QR (quick response) code sitting unobtrusively on a wall, linked to a hidden asset, and giving vital feedback about the asset’s precise location, performance and maintenance needs – directly to a facility manager’s phone, tablet or computer.

AR and virtual reality (VR) are the latest technological tools moving online to help the facility management industry better manage the life cycle of assets and buildings.

Tech giant IBM has been a major player in this market, last year introducing its AR-powered Cognitive Building Solutions, which allows users to experience the ‘real world’ through video, audio, graphic rendering or data. It’s the final piece in the puzzle that makes IoT-enabled data insights actionable for facility managers.

With the goal of helping facility managers to understand and be responsive to their occupants’ needs, and troubleshoot before failures occur, the combination of IoT and AR is driving appreciable improvements in customer service and experience.

Julian Fogarty, group executive for brand, innovation and technology at Spotless, says changing customer expectations are driving the uptake.

“In terms of facility management, I think there’s recognition that we need to change as an industry,” he says. “The rapid change we’re seeing now is as much to do with our industry being a bit of a laggard in the past, as with what our customers now expect. There’s also demand from governments and society in general for more sustainable facilities.”

But, ultimately, when budgets continue to be squeezed, especially for capital expenditure projects, the influence of high-energy prices has been a major impetus. “And that has combined with the technology sector being very fast-moving and competitive, offering lower entry point costs for both use of technology as well as its implementation,” Fogarty says.

“Interestingly, a lot of the new funding models now allow significant investment to uplift a facility. If it’s viewed as an operating expense rather than a capital expenditure, there can be a neutral – or better – in year P&L impact. Generally, companies are keen to invest in their core business rather than the facility.”

Chris Marrable, director of strategic consulting for Cushman and Wakefield, says one of the most exciting opportunities presented by AR and VR is in visualising future facilities. “People can see what only could previously be imagined,” he says. “The technology is also able to demonstrate the principles of interoperability where designers and builders are now creating complete digital models before anything is built. These are explored virtually by potential users, tenants, operators and so on before anything comes out of the ground.

“This will rapidly replace drawings and other two-dimensional forms of record. It will enable tenants in particular to have a much bigger influence on the execution of buildings. Ultimately, they’ll have the experience of ‘occupying’ the building without it existing. The technology is accelerating rapidly and the real challenge will be for people to make imaginative use of it.”

Marrable says there are already examples of where AR is changing the way in which we interact with workspaces.

“Just look at what’s happening in co-working spaces. In one of the leading businesses globally in this space, the main benefit of signing up with them is not the physical space, but they have a great app where the social network is completely integrated.

“The digital experience of the space is as important to the occupant as the physical space and the ability of their system to connect people is making the difference. This is a development that allows people using older buildings to remain relevant.”

123RF's Daniil Peshkov © 123RF.com

123RF’s Daniil Peshkov © 123RF.com

EVERYTHING’S SMART

The bottom line about the way people interact with facilities now, Fogarty believes, is that there’s an expectation for everything to be ‘smart’.

“IoT is fundamental to delivering the day-to-day interaction people want with their building,” he says. “Importantly, implementing IoT-based solutions has got to a point that is low enough, in terms of cost, and easy enough to achieve without reams of technicians. It’s now becoming mainstream.”

Where facilities have significant scale, Fogarty says they have more scope to invest in technology that will make them more efficient, or deliver a better consumer experience.

“Where there is high-volume consumer interaction at facilities – like shopping centres, sporting facilities or hospitals – they are further ahead of the curve. For example, people now expect to turn up to a game of football and use their phones to navigate to their seat, order their food and check the queues around the ground,” he says.

There are also environmental expectations. Companies looking to achieve lower operating costs through better environmental outcomes are embracing technology. “For example, take a facility where water consumption is a problem,” Fogarty says. “Previously the only way to check usage was physically through the meter every few months, meaning the data was months old by the time we could address the issues.”

“Now, we implement cost-effective smart IoT sensors in any facility to monitor consumption 24/7 in real time. We are able to identify when and where more water is being consumed than would be expected.

“But it goes beyond diagnosing a cracked pipe. We are able to determine the ‘why’ as well – people would overuse water at certain times of the day and we have been able to look into the behaviour driving those kinds of outcomes. We’ve shown results where this early diagnostic intervention can lower consumption by up to 70 percent.

“Equally, there’s a place for sensors on machinery, on boilers and the like, and identifying when they’re being overused.
It tells us where there is a need for maintenance to be more effective, or where we have to address a behavioural issue. In another example, a client was operating a number of freezers where the temperature was rising at a certain time of day, every day. We discovered the people bringing the stock in, were leaving the freezer doors open during the delivery, making the energy consumption spike. IoT gave us these immediate insights.”

JUMPING TO THE NEXT BIG THING?

The data-driven insights brought by IoT-enabled technologies and delivered through AR and VR interfaces are changing the FM landscape. Is there a danger of jumping from one development to the next without fully realising the benefits? Fogarty says there’s a strong possibility this is already occurring.

“The real value in any tech-enabled space is the way everything comes together. We need data and to capture ‘rich data’ you need smart assets and smart facilities so, in short, IoT. Then you need an analytics platform and artificial intelligence to augment this with other available data and interpret the information. This ultimately allows whatever robotic technology you may be using in a facility to function properly.

“We’re only scratching the surface in terms of analysing the data we can access. We’re pretty good at looking at how we’re benchmarking and maintaining assets. We’re good at tracking historical data, current usage and estimating the useful life of an asset. We’ve reached beyond using standard cycles, such as replacing boilers every five years.”

“But what is emerging now is genuine predictive analytics. While an asset is running, we can identify – based on patterns – whether a particular piece of equipment is going to fail soon because certain changes are occurring. We can optimise an asset’s operation and hence lifespan based on all the variables – for example, factoring the current outside temperature versus movement of air in a facility – to optimise the air-conditioning and get the best comfort for occupants.

“What’s possible goes beyond general office buildings and moves into a range of multifunction facilities. Major sporting venues, for example, can look at smart video analytics to monitor crowds outside things like food outlets or restrooms. A TV screen can then alert patrons to where the queues are shorter. It’s all about improving the experience for them.”

Cushman and Wakefield’s Marrable says AI (artificial intelligence) and AR are being used to capture information on customers and occupants that he believes hasn’t fully been tapped into yet. “I think perhaps some people in the industry are still concerned about the threat rather than the opportunity. Having that kind of data available will drive more intimate relationships between landlords and facility managers.”

123RF's Supparsorn Wantarnagon © 123RF.com

123RF’s Supparsorn Wantarnagon © 123RF.com

THE DIRECT IMPACTS OF AR, AI AND ROBOTICS ON FM

Spotless’ Fogarty believes there will be impacts across the board in facilities management. “In the context of security, CCTV (closed circuit television) will be able to conduct a live stream analysis of inventory conditions or identify any particular threats. There are already security robots that can operate 24/7, cover greater ground and use recognition software to identify concerns.

“Robotics are also coming to the fore in terms of cleaning, offering ways to achieve a better outcome and a better service delivery.

“In terms of AR and VR, there are a lot of applications – including onboarding and training FM staff, particularly for safety. Facility managers can get an immersive experience before they’re even in the field, and can familiarise themselves with the protocols and environment. It’s a way for them to be more productive, right away.

“Another way we’re using the technologies is with the events spaces we manage. We can give people a sense of what their event would be like within a particular space before they decide to make a purchase.”

There are also significant benefits for remote sites. “Virtual support in the field is a big area to tap into. You may need to send someone to assess or fix a problem, who may not have detailed knowledge of the asset or equipment. However, someone sitting hundreds of kilometres away, with the experience and skills you need, can view the problem and guide personnel on where to go and what to do, and step that person through a maintenance procedure or bring in centralised support.

“This technology already exists, but I’m not sure it’s implemented yet to any scale –perhaps it’s currently too costly. The common thread is that these are solutions that rely on rich asset management databases. If you don’t have that information or 3D modelling of the facilities, the technology has nothing to reference.”

CHANGING THE WAY WE OPERATE

Fogarty says the level of investment in technological development is heading in the right direction. “It’s not where it needs to be, but having said that, it’s almost less about investment to develop new technology, but rather the investment required to get people to change the way they operate to get the best value from technology.

“All companies have financial constraints. There’s no magic bucket they can draw upon to ensure they’re making the most of what they’re putting in place or implementing it at scale. We need to make choices – rather than find more money – and ask whether we need to look at spending less in back-office technology, and move it to the front office, on things that create a better experience for customers?

“Or, can I reduce the spend on my internal infrastructure and perhaps move to a lower-cost cloud technology? Diverting those funds into IoT or data analytics instead.

“There’s no doubt facility management has been a laggard with regard to technology, but the industry has woken up. Facility owners expect FM providers to bring innovative and tech-based solutions with their offerings.”

DO WE NEED TO LOOK OUTSIDE THE BOX?

Last year Spotless ran a two-day hackathon at the Melbourne Cricket Ground to drive new thinking. “It was called the ‘Hack at the G’ and it was a 48-hour period of extraordinary energy,” Fogarty recalls. “We came up with a number of working models we could implement.

We have also partnered with other organisations like universities and start-up programs to support our drive for innovation for our customers. Our partnership with the Startupbootcamp smart energy accelerator program is one example, which is helping us find new alternative energy solutions and new ways to optimise and improve energy consumption at our customers’ facilities.

“But while it’s critical that we look outside our own four walls, what’s equally important in facility management is building scale. There are some great solutions and ideas out there, but not enough capability to implement and adopt them at any significant scale.

“We have to get the people on the ground doing things differently, and changing the way they operate to get full value from the technology that’s already out there.”

Fogarty says that innovation takes ‘five percent idea and 95 percent execution’. “One is no good without the other. All ideas and sources of new thinking are important, but we need to be able to demonstrate how they can work in practice and be able to implement at scale.”

This article also appears in the December/January issue of Facility Management magazine.

Lead image: 123RF’s dolgachov © 123RF.com

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