Last reviewed 21 August 2018

What will the coming era of automation, robotics and Artificial Intelligence (AI) mean for environment and facilities managers? Dave Howell reports.

How environment and facilities managers control the spaces they are responsible for is about to radically change. The convergence of AI, robotics and Internet of Things (IoT) will deliver a raft of new technologies aimed at automating many of the tasks managers have had to perform manually.

The level of automation that will be seen over the next decade will be profound. As the smart city has begun to come into focus, and as the information infrastructure has matured, these technologies will be embraced by those who can see the advantages these systems will deliver to their estate management.

Several technologies are developing in parallel. AI continues to find its way into every aspect of modern life. For environment managers, having intelligent systems at their fingertips can offer a degree of automation — HVAC being the obvious first system to benefit, followed by security.

Automation is of course linked to the continued digitisation of businesses and their estates. According to research from Vodafone: “Many companies are integrating IoT with wider digital initiatives: 49% of IoT adopters are using IoT and data analytics platforms to support decision-making, while 39% of businesses are using data-driven insights to shape their products or services.”

IoT continues to suffer from a lack of standards and interoperability. However, these issues will be quickly resolved, as these devices hold the key to much more profound levels of automation. When every aspect of an environmental system can be accurately monitored, this inevitably leads to more automation.

Ghosts in the machine

The level of automation that is possible also depends on the continued development and expansion of cloud-based services. Much of the automation control that will take place will be via hosted services. This offers managers the maximum versatility when managing what can be large estates with often specific needs. Cloud services are now ubiquitous, secure and extendable making them the ideal platform to build automation system upon.

Collaboration is also a clear trend across the automation sector. The so-called Application Programming Interface (API) Economy is shaping how automated systems will be developed and then presented to their users. As IBM states: “APIs enable organisations to share data and applications using easily accessible standards and platforms. They are more than basic tools for application developers and data scientists. They represent a new form of business model innovation, bringing together disparate functionality to create completely new customer experiences.”

Automated systems based on a range of APIs, coupled with IoT sensors using hosted systems offer a new landscape of control that managers will be able to take advantage of. Whether this is HVAC control or maintenance support, the automated systems that will become commonplace will use all of these technologies as they are rapidly converging.

This is amply demonstrated by the recent development of the Workplace Advisor and Personal Assistant from Steelcase. The innovation is a cloud-enabled, space sensing network built on Microsoft Azure IoT that collects and analyses anonymous data to provide organisations meaningful insights about how its people work and how its office is performing. Steelcase then layers its expertise over the data, to generate actionable insights into how people are working and how the workplace needs to change.

Commenting, Serena Borghero, Director of EMEA Research Communications at Steelcase told Croner-i: “Businesses can use space measurement solutions to tackle this challenge. One scenario is, for example, that strategically placed sensors track precise, real-time usage of the office space, identifying which rooms are open versus ones that are reserved but sitting empty. This way organisations can view space holistically which helps to create smart, connected workplaces. The information can also be used to inform people and help to connect them with their colleagues and the best places to work, so they can spend less time searching and more time collaborating.”

Auto environments

The potential consequences of more automation and how this could impact on environment managers was the core subject of the Croner-i interview with Klaus Allion, Managing Director, ANT Telecom who commented: “From AI to robotics, the Internet of Things to automation and Industry 4.0, many industries are evolving to leverage this new innovation to drive productivity improvements.”

Allion continued: “But what happens next? How does the company respond to these alerts? Information is brilliant but, it is only of true business value if actioned intelligently to achieve measurable improvements within operations. It is down to environment and facilities managers to carefully select the right technology to improve processes and achieve a ROI, opening the door to a world of exciting opportunities, enhanced productivity and streamlined efficiency, if managers can get it right.”

Automation technologies for their own sake won’t deliver the benefits a business or organisation is looking for. “Through the use of smart technologies, organisations can utilise intelligent alerts to provide an abundance of information, however there is a risk of inviting a multitude of data that can overwhelm companies,” said Allion. “The ways in which organisations respond to alerts is still, in the main, archaic. So, facilities and environment managers must ensure that adequate processes are put in place to action information from data intelligently, to achieve measurable improvements within operations.”

The future for managers will contain a quantum leap in automated systems. Allion concluded: “There is no doubt that over the next decade investments in robotics, AI and IoT will transform manufacturing processes, and the playing field for environment and facilities managers. But whatever innovation is introduced — and the deep insight, sophistication and early warning these systems will give into potential issues — will only deliver value if companies can respond intelligently and effectively.”

Environmental control

As environment and facilities managers embrace more automated systems, care should be taken to understand how these platforms could impact their wider businesses. “Robotics will mean more batteries, using heavy metals, that require charging; thus, there could be environmental penalties,” commented Rob Farman, Principal at Abacus FMEC. “It makes the organisation much more cyber dependent and environment managers will need to understand the technology and cyber security aspects far better and, certainly, improve the latter, where the UK is very complacent.”

Pete Trainor, Co-Founder and Strategic Design Director at AI specialists Us also explained: “If the core role of the environment or facilities manager is to develop and implement environmental strategies and action plans, in order to ensure corporate sustainable development, robotic process automation (RPA) — a very loose version of data-driven decision-making … (technically not AI, but in this instance a much better option!) could play a vital role in informing sustainable procurement of goods and services. For example, stocktaking and ordering for the very basic utilities like toilets, or waste management.”

What is clear is that all these technologies are converging. Managers tasked with meeting compliance (especially as Brexit approaches), for their business’s CSR ambitions and stated goals, and of course the continued support of their workforces and supply chain will increasingly turn to automated systems as these become available.

Trainor concluded: “An often overlooked opportunity with even basic data collection and AI-based services, is in using the data collected and processed to create awareness of issues, and promote at all levels of an organisation, the impact of emerging environmental issues. If a building was for all intent and purpose ‘thinking’ (not literally, but I mean smart enough to tell a central hub what it was doing environmentally) then the relationship between staff and the environment becomes much more connected.”

Over the next five years, a new ecosystem will develop where managers will be able to buy automation services that could transform how they manage their estates on a practical basis, as IoT, AI, robotics and machine learning spawn new products and services.

Your checklist

Environment and facilities managers considering more automation of their estate should bear in mind:

Data will become the core of automated systems

Without the infrastructure to collect relevant data, automated systems can’t function efficiently. Look for automation services that have robust data collection systems.

Security in the cloud

All of the automation systems used will be hosted. Look closely at the security protocols of these services to ensure they are robust enough to meet any cyber threat.

Interoperability across services

Managers will likely buy several services and systems. These need to integrate together to provide complete estate control. Here, APIs form the foundation of high levels of integration across systems and services.

Don’t forget your people

The automation systems that will become available can be highly attractive, but managers must always consider the impact these could have on their workforces.