Better Together

by Katie Lee

Integrating facility information and systems.

By John Mulcahey

Technological advances in the FM industry have greatly enhanced the productivity of facility teams. From building information models (BIM) that house data about a facility’s assets to the building automation systems (BAS) that control energy conservation, today’s facility is more complex and sophisticated than its predecessor just 10 years ago.

However, these improvements have also created a new problem: how to keep track of the large quantity of information and disparate systems associated with a given facility. As this technological revolution in the FM industry moves forward and the vast amount of different software and data types continues to multiply, it will become critical to have technology systems that work together.

In a traditional FM setting, a facility manager would have each team member overseeing a number of building systems. Once a problem arises, the team member responsible would need to access a computerized maintenance management system (CMMS) to enter a work order and have a technician investigate the problem. If information on any facility assets — such as an air handling unit or water heater — is needed to resolve the issue, that team member would go to a plan room to look through paper binders for operations and maintenance (O&M) manuals, shut off points for energy sources, safety procedures for working on the equipment and distribution systems showing the areas that will be affected by the piece of equipment in question.

There is no one tool that can monitor, control and maintain information on an entire facility. At the same time, allowing each system to stand entirely on its own and not inform others of issues or changes is untenable. 

So how do we — as facility managers and operators — bring all of these diverse systems and data sets together?  In the software development world, one would say systems need to have an open application programming interface (API).  To the rest of us in FM that means programs need to be able to tie together and share information with one another. By integrating BAS, CMMS and electronic facility information, the documentation process can be automated, providing a FM team with a complete record of work (inspections, repairs, change-outs, etc.) done on a given asset. Additionally, integration offers a FM team instant access to facility information across platforms, such as plans and O&M manuals.

For example, let’s say an air handler unit goes out in the middle of the night. With integrated systems, the BAS would send a signal directly to the CMMS, auto-generating a work order for the technician to perform. Linked to that work order would also be electronic facility information — such as a map of the spaces affected by the outage, a parts list for the asset and a history of work done. From there, the technician would have the information necessary to fix the problem with the AHU. After completing the work, the technician would close the work order and the BAS would reset. All repairs and changes would then be logged in the CMMS. Those logs would then link to the facility information system where the FM team can find a comprehensive history of the facility.

When it comes time to look for a new system, facility managers and owners must ask vendors about integration with existing systems. In most instances, the capability exists, but facility owners and managers do not ask the question. Next time you consider purchasing a new system, ask if the system has an open API and if it has the ability to link across multiple platforms.

Integration of facility systems helps FM teams make smart, informed decisions and will greatly increase the efficiency of a FM team. Although many FM teams might not have time to integrate their systems in the short term, it should be a long term goal for all facility managers. Moreover, purchasing a system with integration capabilities will not cost a facility manager any more than one without. Integration presents an opportunity to become more productive and add value to your facility with no investment of additional capital.

— John Mulcahey is with AkitaBox – facility information management in Madison, Wisconsin. A licensed professional engineer, Mulcahey’s career spans over 25 years as a mechanical, electrical and plumbing design engineer and as a facility director. He has been involved in new construction and major remodeling as the leader of maintenance teams in large organizations. Email the author at [email protected].

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