AV pros should take a closer look at building control and automation systems

Year-long backorders are prompting some integrators to look outside pro-AV for hardware. Tim Kridel investigates which types of products they’re using, and the additional market opportunities they enable.

Suppose you ordered 11 rooms’ worth of control panels and related hardware in December 2021. Then in August, the vendor says everything for that order will now ship in third quarter . . . of 2023.

For Anders Jørgensen, Stouenborg project chief, that’s not a hypothetical scenario. “It is one of the biggest reasons why we're looking into other manufacturers.”

But those other manufacturers aren’t traditional pro-AV vendors. Instead, Jørgensen is increasingly turning to Beckhoff Automation, whose hardware and software are used in applications such as automotive manufacturing, robotics, smart cities and turbines. Those applications are why its control and automation products — and similar ones from ABB, Schneider Electric and Siemens — are often referred to “industrial” even though they’re viable options for a variety of AV use cases.

“For instance, I have a Crestron controller with a Crestron touchscreen, and that system controls Beckhoff infrastructure on shades, motorised screens and things like that,” Jørgensen says.

In today’s era of tight supply chains, industrial products are particularly attractive because they’re more widely available than bespoke AV hardware.

“I can actually get a Beckhoff unit within five to six days,” says Jørgensen, who cites faster support as another benefit.

“Here in Denmark, we have a full-time programmer at Beckhoff. You can call from very early in the morning to very late in the afternoon and just ask questions. So the support is actually so much better and so much more efficient. One of the reasons for that is by using their products, we become part of a very, very big industry: automation for buildings and for industrial works.”

A third major benefit is scale: industrial products are sold into so many disparate verticals, which adds up to large volumes that it can often enable a lower cost structure.  


Smart buildings

Industrial control and automation products can also be helpful for AV firms expanding into building management applications, such as to help clients achieve LEED certification.

“[With] an industrial controller such as LOGO!, it is possible to use a single controller for several tasks such as the control of screens, blinds, HVAC system, lights, etc.” says Pamela Angelica Pacheco Tellez, Siemens marketing manager for LOGO! and S-1200. “Additionally, it is possible to include energy monitoring to improve the energy consumption of the building and therefore save money.”

Interoperability isn’t just desirable in multi-vendor, multi-industry use cases such as smart buildings. It’s necessary.

“To create a truly smart building, the integration of multiple devices on a single smart platform, and their ability to interact seamlessly with each other, is essential,” says Kas Mohammed, Schneider Electric digital energy vice president for the UK and Ireland. “Interoperability ensures every device and application feeds into the overall goals for a project, whether that’s to lower costs or carbon or improve occupant experience. 

“Furthermore, when looking at choice of supply post-occupancy during the service and maintenance period, it can be extremely helpful to have an open source and open protocol system as opposed to relying on a single source, such as an AV-specific product. This choice can help lower the long-term risk and cost involved in a project.”

Putting multiple, disparate systems — such as AV, HVAC, fire and security — on a single, common infrastructure also saves money.

“The current deployment that we see today is that every different contractor is coming to the building and laying down a different infrastructure,” says Casto Cañavate, KNX Association marketing manager. “So there is a mess of different networks trying to coexist in a building, and they don't. They create their own silos. The future we see is one common IP infrastructure which is secure and that every technology, every brand, every protocol could be part of.”


Why AV?

Of course, many other professions also are targeting the burgeoning smart building market. But some AV pros believe they have a competitive edge because they take a more holistic approach.

“My belief is that AV integrators are still best placed to move into the kind of master systems integrator/smart building integration role because of the range of services that we've been dealing with, as well as the focus on good user interfaces and user experiences,” says Mike Brooman, Vanti CEO. “In the mechanical/electrical industry, those guys are trained on controls for valves, actuators, pumps, all those kind of bits and pieces. [That’s] not necessarily ‘control’ as the AV industry understands it in terms of user interfaces and things that people have to work with on a day-to-day basis.”

Another positive factor is that some non-AV vendors are singularly focused on their segment of the building market. AV integrators can fill the gaps that they leave.

“The traditional HVAC control manufacturers are hopeless at doing anything other than HVAC,” says Karl Walker, Beckhoff market development manager. “They don't even touch lighting. They don't consider lighting to be part of what they do.”

But other vendors increasingly recognise that they must be able to integrate with disparate systems. 

“Lutron were always approaching us and saying, ‘We really need to integrate into the wider building automation system,’” Walker says. “But because their intellectual property is in what they do and how they control lights, they really don't like to open themselves up to third parties. There are few products out there which have been reversed engineered to work with their systems.”

Like the integrators it works with, Beckhoff sees opportunities in bridging those kinds of divides.

“We work with quite a few integrators where we would put the Beckhoff system alongside the Crestron system and have function blocks so that we can just talk seamlessly to each other,” Walker says. “We would take over the control of heating, ventilation, air conditioning, lighting, whatever, but ultimately the front-end user interface is through the Crestron, so it looks like you've got a seamless Crestron system. But in the background, there's Beckhoff doing all of the heavy stuff.”


Learning the ropes

To work with industrial products — including ones that are already installed in the client’s building — integrators must get up to speed on their protocols, interfaces and other nuances.

“If you want to step in [that] kind of business, you need to invest in training and knowledge,” says Olaf Stutzenberger, global marketing and communications manager for electrification in ABB’s smart buildings division.

One example is KNX.

“[By] using a system like KNX, the professional only needs to go to one training and learn how to use only one tool to configure any KNX-certified product,” Cañavate says. “KNX offers the biggest ecosystem of home and building automation in the world: 500+ manufacturing companies offering more than 8,000 certified KNX devices.

“Thanks to this, any application that a customer needs can be integrated with others without any problem. We help our members, such as ABB, to make sure our technology will be using the latest secure technology for their devices, which are developed according to the needs of the market. In short, big ecosystems will help to avoid silos and guarantee that all products interwork together.”

Industrial control vendors say that their products can interwork with bespoke AV systems that support KNX and other common protocols.

“I am not familiar with Crestron or Extron devices, but as long as they can communicate via Modbus TCP, KNX, Ethernet, Modbus RTU or digital signals, it is possible to exchange the signal with LOGO! to control lights, blinds and screens,” says Siemens’ Tellez.

The type of building management use case also helps determine which protocol is the best fit. 

“KNX is commonplace in lighting controls and automation in high-end residences,” says Schneider’s Mohammed. “There is also the lighting protocol DALI, whilst BACnet is the predominant protocol in use in heating, cooling and ventilation systems. Fortunately, a tool like Schneider Electric’s EcoStruxure Building is able to interact with all of these to make integration far easier and more cost effective to achieve the client’s ultimate ambition.”

EcoStruxure also is an example of the types of vendor-specific tools that integrator staff will need to master. Some vendors say their tools have a flat learning curve, which is a plus for newcomers.

“The LOGO! software is targeted to people who have no experience in automation,” Tellez says. “Communications are done through wizards or simply with drag and drop. If you need to develop a dashboard to show some values or interact with the application, LOGO! has a free software/tool called LOGO! web editor (LWE) in which it is possible to develop a simple web page simply by drawing meaning without the need of code.”

Another example is learning about use cases beyond traditional AV ones. Understanding how to make window shades raise and lower isn’t the same as understanding all of the reasons why they need to.

“For example, whilst opening and closing a blind for enhanced vision of a screen is a fairly obvious application, there is also the possibility of complex strategies around the heating or cooling benefits in the operation of blinds and in turn the interaction with the heating and cooling plant systems,” says Schneider’s Mohammed. “Those interactions and needs may change throughout the day as the sun rises or sets and it moves around the building. The temperature conditions within a space and current use of a building are all very dynamic factors that smart controls take into account.”


All together now

AV firms with several years of experience in building automation faced plenty of challenges early on.

“When we did our first smart building back in 2015, we found a lot of the integration very difficult to achieve in a way that made sense,” says Vanti’s Brooman. “We even had a trouble with SSL certificates that had been loaded onto AMX not being kept current, so we couldn't trust certain services and all this kind of stuff.

“When we came off the back of that project, we started looking at whether we could move to a kind of broader integration platform that would support a range of building services and also allow us to talk to those modern APIs that were becoming a lot more prevalent in the world.”

Those kinds of hard-won lessons led to Vanti to found the Smart Core Foundation, whose initiatives include an operating system for buildings. Like Windows or MacOS, the Smart Core Building OS serves as a framework that third-party applications run on.

“There will still be a place for all of the disparate systems,” Brooman says. “They're not going away anytime soon. If you're doing retrofit projects, there still needs to be something that's going to talk to systems that are already present within the building.”

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