Nexus #6 (1/21/2020)

Digital twins for buildings; the pros and cons of a dedicated data layer; and rumblings from Siemens' smart building acquisition spree

Welcome to Nexus, a newsletter for people applying analytics and other smart building technology—written by James Dice.

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This is an experiment, and I’d love your feedback. If you have thoughts, questions, ideas or tips, join the discussion on LinkedIn or hit reply.

And by the way: if you missed last week’s edition, you can find it here.


My latest ideas

+ Defining the Digital Twin for Buildings—In part one of this three-part series, I traced the history of digital tools for buildings to find a definition for the modern day digital twin. There’s been lots of great feedback on this post so far, which will help in writing parts 2 and 3.

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News worth knowing

1. Analytics

+ On the Pros and Cons of the Independent Data Layer—My conversation with KGS BuildingsNick and Alex continued this week. I’ve had a lot of fun nerding out with them and others who have reached out in the last few weeks. I want to share a brief nugget from our conversation on the merits of an independent, open data layer.

💭 Side note: I’m thinking about recording these types of conversations for a podcast. If you like that idea, hit reply and let me know. 🙏

Here’s a quick summary of the independent data layer concept:

When designing your EMIS (or Smart Building) Stack, you separate the Integration and Historian Layers from the Application Layer rather than choosing one vendor’s solution for the whole stack. See my What is EMIS? essay to understand this delineation in more depth. You may also see it referred to as a data lake or middleware. I’m sure there are new acronyms for it—our industry sure loves acronyms.

The proponents of this approach tout the following primary benefit, which can sound pretty great from the building owner’s perspective:

You simply need to tag your data, put it in a data lake, and then plug in any application like fault detection and diagnostics (FDD). Then, if you don’t like the FDD, then you still own the tagged points (information model) and can just plug a different FDD vendor in.

This sounds pretty compelling, right? I know it does… because I’ve made this argument once or twice in my past life as a consultant. The argument looks something like this:

🙂 It’s a risk-free first step on the journey to a smart building: unlock and model the data that’s currently locked away in proprietary and siloed systems.

😁 It creates a single source of truth by enforcing one data model (e.g. Project Haystack or Brick Schema) for all applications and promotes interoperability.

🤩 It reduces dependence on one vendor and promotes a cooperative ecosystem. Depending on the building owner’s needs, it may be most beneficial to select multiple vendors to fulfill all the capabilities desired. If the data layer platform is designed as such, it could start to look like an app store for the building.

🥰 Similarly, it de-risks the investment by allowing the owner to trial, test, and compare multiple smart building applications without needing to restart the costly integration from scratch.

But, but, but:

Once you peek under the hood of this approach, as Alex and Nick helped me do, it might not be so pretty. Here’s their take:

While this sounds great to an owner, its simply not true. In a perfect world with perfectly understood points and metadata about those points, as well as metadata about the equipment and system interactivity (aka sequences), this would be possible. But this is not a world we live in. It’s hard to imagine living in it for quite some time.

As I unpacked this further after our conversation, it started to look worse. Here’s why:

🤔 De-risking strategies like this perpetuate the myth that these technologies aren’t quite ready for primetime. Some vendors in this space have proven their solutions in real buildings over and over again—they’re already primetime.

😏 It might actually increase risk for the owner by adding complexity, increasing the timeline, delaying results (e.g. energy savings), and involving more vendors that need to work together.

😬 It probably won’t work. If you don’t understand and plan for the applications that will use the data, you’ll struggle to model it appropriately. Today’s applications accommodate and even require vastly different types of metadata, meaning even standardized tagging is bound to fail applications that need more or need it in a different format.

☹️Complex applications like FDD are not an undifferentiated commodity. Here’s Alex and Nick again:

For the foreseeable future it is not a commodity. There are enormous differences in the complexity of information models vendors are employing and therefore the usefulness of the FDD results.

As we discussed last week, these guys know a thing or two about FDD results.

🧐 Just because your data is in a full-stack software, doesn’t mean it’s not open and usable. The best vendors (but certainly not all vendors) can provide the full stack and still serve as the data layer for other applications.

Where do you stand on this? 

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2. Smart Buildings

+ Siemens has been makin’ moves—In 2018, Siemens went on a bit of a buying binge, gobbling up J2 Innovations, Enlighted, and Building Robotics in a two-month period:

  • J2 Innovations brings its open software framework for building
    automation and IoT to operate, monitor & control buildings, enhancing
    comfort and safety

  • Enlighted with its smart sensor system proliferates building IoT,
    increasing energy and asset efficiency

  • Building Robotics Inc., with the Comfy workplace app for personalized
    and responsive buildings, helps us to enhance space and user
    efficiency

I hadn’t thought much about this since then, but there have been quite a few rumblings lately on the after-effects of these purchases:

These developments are exciting. My question here is what kind of ecosystem is Siemens building? As they say:

Siemens Smart Infrastructure (SI) provides customers with a comprehensive end-to-end portfolio from a single source — with products, systems, solutions and services from the point of power generation all the way to consumption.

Is the ecosystem only for the companies Siemens owns?

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3. Thank you

I want to thank everyone who has replied, forwarded, commented, and shared this newsletter over these first 6 weeks. And especially to those who have pointed out something I was missing. You all teach me something new multiple times per week.

🙏🙏🙏THANK YOU🙏🙏🙏

Here’s some of the feedback I’ve heard so far:

"I think this is a great way to keep up to speed on all the new tech coming our way."

“You go deeper than and cut through the standard industry marketing spiel”

"This is practical and concise, you don’t bullshit”

If that sounds like it would be of value to someone you know, please share this with a few colleagues this week.