It may be tempting, but it’s usually something to resist.

There generally appears to be a clear division between the building and industrial automation markets, but not always. Sure, the applications, products, design techniques, business models of the players involved, etc., are typically very different. In particular, industrial automation involves applications that are often one-of-a-kind, with an importance placed on the handling of most contingencies and minimizing downtime, plus the need for integration with various systems and other controls. That sounds like many of our mission critical or medical projects (or where many seem to be headed when you throw in LEED®, net-zero energy, etc.).

So, the question is should building automation products/design/installation still be used when a project appears to have become as complicated as that for an industrial automation project? First, some background. Table 1 provides a quick comparison of some the important attributes concerning building and industrial automation (from the point of view of a building automation person).

Other than perhaps the last issue in Table 1, it seems that some of our more complex projects might benefit from an industrial automation “treatment.” Unfortunately, use of an industrial automation approach (products, contractor, etc.) in a commercial project is a bit like fitting a square peg into a round hole. Unfortunately, huge project management (i.e., the project’s contractor hierarchy) and business practices gaps exist between how industrial automation is normally executed and that process for building automation.

Additionally, industrial automation contractors do not seem to have sufficient knowledge/experience with commercial applications (which is made only worse on more complex projects).

Experience with some real-life projects has led use to ponder this dilemma many times over the years, and we have always concluded the following:
  • However tempting or logical it might seem to use industrial automation in complex building projects, it usually leads to problems (generally due to the technical and business practices “gaps”) that are greater than the benefits.

  • The better approach is for all involved in a project to help ensure that the building automation portion is treated with the level of respect commensurate with that required of the project.
This brings us back to a theme that we are constantly revisiting: the importance of educating clients, architects, engineers, general/mechanical contractors, et al. about the attention that building automation design/construction deserves in a building project, especially for one that is complex (e.g., striving for very low energy usage, extensive integration). Therefore, the solution to successful modern complex building automation projects continues to be the same old story (only moreso)!ES