Survival of the fittest

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy states that the history of every civilisation tends to pass through three distinct phases; those of survival, inquiry and sophistication. The first phase is characterised by the question ‘how can we eat?’, the second by the question ‘why do we eat?’ and the third by the question ‘where shall we have lunch?’
The reason I’m telling you this is because it’s a more entertaining way of illustrating how ideas develop rather than banging on about new technologies, the diffusion of innovation and how all of this applies to facilities management. It is particularly apposite for a debate that is opening up about the use of wireless networks, their convergence with building systems and the resulting convergence of two once distinct job functions.

No doubt you’ve been hearing quite a lot about RFID recently. No doubt you’re also coming to the conclusion that it will have a significant impact on the way buildings are managed. Yet while RFID begins to make its mark, there is another wireless technology that is also set to shake things up. It is called ZigBee and where RFID has been it will surely follow.

However before we start to contemplate ZigBee, even the much hyped RFID has a way to go before it becomes a standard in offices. “RFID is in a mature market when it comes to supply chain management but it’s still in development where offices are concerned,” claims David Rand of Morris Office. “In other sectors, you see an increasing number of firms insisting that the stuff that they buy is RFID enabled, especially in retail. It may not be really quite there yet for offices but there will soon be a pretty pervasive use of RFID in workplaces especially for tracking assets, people and documents. We are possibly up to two years away from it being used extensively by large organisations to monitor people’s use of buildings, meeting rooms and so on.”

According to Gary Watkins of CAFM provider Service Works Global, RFID has established its core strengths in the minds of clients and is about to make its commercial breakthrough. “What has emerged are three distinct roles for RFID; asset management – especially in plant rooms – visitor management and library management,” he says. “I think we’re now at the tipping point following all the pilots and trials where we will see that these functions will become increasingly commonplace. The benefits are already clear and include being able to create an accurate asset history. Life cycle costing becomes far more accurate. Insurance may be lower because it is possible to monitor the sorts of assets that typically go missing. We’re also past the point where there are cost barriers to entry. So I genuinely expect to see significant development in its use very soon.”

Yet its take-up has not been as rapid as some people once believed. Richard Leyland of Unwired thinks that the inertia derives from a concern about the use of RFID for individuals. “There is currently an EU consultation about the rights issues surrounding this,” he explains. “I know some firms have claimed that RFID is not really about monitoring individuals but that is a bit lily livered because it can’t really be anything else. The issue is about how that data is used. It’s a management issue. You can see some reluctance to use the technology because although we have reached the tipping point that makes it economical for large organisations, there is still a degree of resistance to its use.”

While ZigBee is some way behind RFID in terms of its development, it does not have the same obstacles to overcome because it is about stuff rather than people. Unlike RFID, people are still working out how they can best use ZigBee. What we do know is that ZigBee offers a cheap, self-organising, mesh network that can be used for controls, embedded sensing, data collection, smoke and intruder warning, building automation and so on. Crucially, the resulting network uses very small amounts of power so devices can run for a period of years on a single battery.

“ZigBee is quite a different story,” says Richard Leyland. “But it still has obstacles to overcome, notably the fact that it doesn’t have a free ride in other devices, which was a major contributing factor to the success of Bluetooth. What it does have going for it is the issue of convergence. Building management systems, VoIP, security systems and whatever are all being converged on ZigBee. ZigBee allows you to converge AC and lighting to the IP network so can allow the IT team to help to control these things.

“In some ways this is about the most basic functions of the FM’s job,” he continues. “It is about informing you very well about simple things such as whether a light is switched off. The important thing is that this quiet revolution will be about machines talking to machines, so there is an opportunity for FMs to understand this technology, develop the information and apply it to their own roles.”

It also represents something of a threat to facilities managers because it is not merely the convergence of two technologies but also the convergence of two professions who already see some overlap between their functions.

“It opens a new front on an old battleground,” says David Rand. “That is why it is so important for the facilities team to understand these technologies and apply them to enhance their own expertise. There are few examples around of ZigBee’s use at the moment, but they will come very soon, probably during 2008 according to research by ABI, so the time to grasp the initiative on this is now.

“The potential of any such system is clear. Manual inspection has never been entirely reliable and so any well managed system that is based on simple data communicated directly between machines is inevitably an improvement. And not just because of the elimination of human error but because it frees people up to do what they are best at – applying information rather than generating it.”

As the Hitchhiker’s Guide might put it, the war will be won not by those who focus on survival but those who develop the sophistication to apply the tools properly. Now, where shall we have lunch?

What is ZigBee?

ZigBee is a wireless network used for home, building and industrial control that conforms to the IEEE 802.15.4 wireless standard for low data rate networks. ZigBee is slower than Wi-Fi and Bluetooth but is designed to use less power so that batteries last much longer. A typical ZigBee transmission range is around 50 metres.

ZigBee is named after the mesh network it typically uses but it can also be configured in other ways. A ZigBee mesh provides multiple pathways from device to device (like the Internet) so eliminates the potential for a single point of failure.

ZigBee networks are simple control networks that periodically send small packets from sensors to regulate lights or other controls and equipment. A large building can have tens of thousands of ZigBee nodes.

ZigBee uses two types of devices. Reduced-function devices (RFDs) are sensors that communicate with full-function devices (FFDs). FFDs are complex nodes that conform to the full 802.15.4 standard and can serve as routers.

For more information, visit the ZigBee Alliance at