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Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Smart Facilities and the Complexity Tipping Point

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CloudA tipping point refers to a point in time where change self-propagates, leading to rapid transformation. The concept first moved into popular culture when Malcolm Gladwell published The Tipping Point in 2000. At a deeper level, tipping points are related to a subset of complexity theory known as bifurcation analysis. What’s fascinating about this concept is that it is relevant to a wide range of applications, encompassing everything from the behavior of crowds to engineered systems.

What, you might ask, does this have to do with smart facilities? I believe that we are reaching a tipping point beyond which the tools and practices commonly used today in AEC and EPC will no longer be able to cope with the complexity of new building, process plant, and infrastructure projects. Advanced facilities today don’t merely contain systems—they contain systems of systems—and it is becoming difficult with current AEC and EPC techniques to predict how these systems will interact with each other under various conditions. A new approach is needed to effectively manage the design, construction, and operation of the new generation of smart facilities.

There are many examples of complexity in the built environment. Perhaps the most complex example is the electric grid in the United States. The complexity of this system goes beyond multiple interconnected utilities and transmission system operators to include weather and the behavior of millions of households and businesses. Process plants are another category of highly complex systems—a modern refinery or chemical process plant contains an extremely complex web of machinery, piping, instrumentation, and controls. Even conventional buildings can incorporate highly complex systems—modern hospitals, factories, and other buildings incorporate interconnected sensors, actuators, and control systems.

The Internet of Things (IoT) is accelerating this trend toward complexity, and is arguably the driver for moving us beyond the complexity tipping point. One example of IoT taken to the extreme, at least by today’s standards, is The Edge, a 430,000 square foot building that opened in Amsterdam in 2015. The Edge incorporates nearly 28,000 sensors that monitor everything from localized temperatures to hand towel inventories. Robots roam the building to provide added security after hours. The main tenant, Deloitte, provides employees with automated services that recognize their cars for parking access, provide desk assignments, and adjust temperature and lighting to their preferences.

So, what can we do in the face of increasing complexity? Thankfully, these problems have already been addressed in other industries. The field of systems engineering has its origins in work done by Bell Labs in the 1940s, and since then systems engineering has been widely adopted in manufacturing. Complex products ranging from aircraft to automobiles and medical devices are designed as systems. At its core, systems engineering provides tools and processes to design and manage complex engineered systems over their life cycles. Modern modeling languages and analysis tools can emulate and predict the behavior of systems, creating the ability to study system behavior under varying normal and abnormal operating conditions. This ability is essential for the development of systems that are robust—in other words, systems that behave in desirable and predictable ways when they are disrupted.

CIMdata, the leading independent global strategic management consulting and research authority focused exclusively on the PLM market, is also a leader in understanding the application of systems engineering tools and processes. We expanded our Simulation-Driven Systems Development (SDSD) consulting practice in April 2016, and encourage you to contact us to learn how our knowledge can benefit your AEC or EPC business.

Let me know what you think!

Ed Martin

Also, don't forget to register for my webinar on October 13, when I will address the obstacles and opportunities that can happen with the transformation of AEC. For more information and to register visit, http://www.cimdata.com/en/education/educational-webinars/webinar-transforming-aec-obstacles-and-opportunities.

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