HVAC vs. Industrial Automation—Lessons Learned and Perspectives Shared

Jan. 28, 2015
At AHR Expo this week at McCormick Place in Chicago, the equipment is a bit different than what we’re used to talking about. But many of the conversations are the same.

At Automation World, with our focus on industrial automation and controls, we don’t spend much time talking about heating and air conditioning. But as part of a series of articles we’re publishing this year, we’re taking a closer look outside the typical industries we cover to see what lessons can be learned (see January’s cover story, “Automation Lessons from Thrill Rides and Theme Parks”). One of those, coming up in our April issue, will explore building automation.

So, particularly since it was right here in Chicago this year, I took a spin this week through AHR Expo, a tradeshow focused on HVACR (heating, ventilation, air conditioning and refrigeration). I wanted to find out a bit more about what drives that market, and how our typical automation suppliers play in that space.

For some automation and control suppliers I talked to at the show, it doesn’t make sense for them to go anywhere near the industrial market, which is more complex and has considerably more liability. As one control vendor put it, “If an HVAC system goes down in a building, people get hot.” But for others, there are lessons to be learned from both commercial and industrial markets to be applied on the other side.

Granted, in many ways, industrial control is more difficult—besides being more complex, it’s more demanding in terms of speed and precision. But one thing that sets the HVAC market apart from industrial automation is the need to be more flexible with communication standards, according to Jason Moore, marketing director for Eaton’s electrical sector. While industrial automation relies on protocols such as EtherNet/IP, Modbus and Profibus, “we don’t see those kinds of networks in HVAC,” he says. “We have to become more agnostic.”

Eaton doesn’t have what it would consider its own “network of choice,” Moore adds, so the company instead adapts to support all types of networks.

Also HVAC technology is perhaps the most cost-driven segment Eaton serves, Moore says. “It really teaches us how to stay on top of cost.”

Some of the themes in building automation are common to the industrial space as well—automation suppliers and their customers are dealing with many of the same issues, for example, in trying to make sense of all the data that’s been coming off of sensors for years.

“We’ve been collecting data for years and years,” notes Bobby Marcus, general manager for Siemens Industry’s Infrastructure & Cities Sector. “But now what do you do with it?”

At AHR Expo, Siemens is showing Advantage Navigator, a cloud-based integrated platform that helps facility managers get a view of the long-term performance of their facility. It collects and analyzes large volumes of building performance data to generate actionable information.

Integration of all that information is key for building automation, Marcus notes. “We talk to a lot more things, to create a fully integrated building,” he says. The industrial space, by contrast, is typically still operated separately from the front office.

Some of what Siemens is showcasing this week emphasizes that integration, with the ability to visualize a whole building or campus from one central application rather than separate screens; and also capabilities for total room automation, rather than the separate controllers that are typical for the HVAC, lighting, blinds, etc.

Much of that perspective is shared by Schneider Electric, which is demonstrating its solutions to visualize data from one building or a series of buildings, like a chain of stores. “It’s all about how to get the right data in the right hands at the right time,” says Aubrey Oates, marketing program manager for Schneider’s Buildings Business. “There are a lot more pieces of data coming in now.”

Oates also notes the need for more electrical information to be embedded into the HVAC system to help what are typically more mechanically minded engineers.

Getting that data into the hands of those who need it is central to the argument that Opto 22 is making with its groov mobile interface software. With compelling stories to be told in industries like food processing and grain handling, Opto 22 has its platform at AHR Expo to make an impression on the HVAC market as well.

For one person to be able to just walk up to a damper with his phone and make sure everything is working right is a major benefit of the mobile technology, notes Ben Orchard, senior sales engineer at Opto 22. “For compliance checks, he can just tick a box, and make sure the damper is doing what it needs to do.” This is in contrast to having to radio back to somebody who’s back in front of a PC with SCADA/HMI on it.

Opto was encouraged to exhibit at AHR by a hospital customer in Australia that it’s been working with for some 18 years. When it comes to providing solutions for a hospital or a factory, there’s not really that much difference, according to Orchard. “There’s really broad overlap. I’m surprised there’s not more crossover,” he says, contending that the vocabulary might be different, but the code is still the same. “It’s still analog and digital in, analog and digital out, and code in the middle.”

The lines are becoming more and more blurred between the operations and manufacturing sides, reflects Ken Wagner, national business development manager for Carlo Gavazzi. Jon Bach, Carlo Gavazzi’s vice president of marketing for North America, agrees, noting a common theme of gateways and connectivity on both sides. “Wireless is coming up more and more in every industry,” he says.

Even that Ethernet backbone, on which manufacturing has traditionally become separate from the front office, is becoming more integrated, Wagner says. “Now it’s all robust.”

When looking at good diagnostics, there are more similarities than differences between industries, according to Chris Bohn, business unit manager for thermography and IR windows at Fluke. In the HVAC industry, “I’m talking to guys all day long working on motors, pumps, variable-frequency drives—all the same stuff as industrial,” he says. “They’re probably smaller motors, smaller pumps…but they’re still the same.”

Although in building automation, there is typically more concern about airflow, temperature and humidity, Bohn adds. “And the building envelope is a major theme.” Meaning it might not be the equipment (e.g., the A/C unit) that has a problem; it might be improper insulation in the building.

“A dollar’s a dollar,” Bohn says, so however Fluke can take efficiency to the next level, it does, whether it’s looking at the equipment or the building it’s in. “There’s money wasted there too.”

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