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Building Technology Podcast – Guest: Ken Sinclair

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Scott: Hi everybody this is Scott Holstein with Computrols, I would like to welcome you to the first episode of Computrols new smart building podcast.

We have a guest for you today that is one of the better-known names in the building automation industry, Ken Sinclair, Ken is going to be talking to us a little bit about the edge building emotion and what is going at the AHR Expo this year.
But before we get into that I want to let you know a little bit about the format we’re going to be using for this podcast in our future episodes.
We will be having guest on our podcast that we consider to be subject matter experts on smart building topics. This is not meant to be a Computrols promotional podcast, we are going to be focused on educating our audience on new and existing technology in smart buildings. We’ll likely start it off with a few question and answer kind of format and then from there let the conversation flow. This may change over time as we start to figure this out but for the time being let’s get started.
We have Ken Sinclair on the line with us. Ken strives to be a catalyst of the IoT future. His goals are to inform his readers of the future of building automation, which will involve the full embrace of the IoT. Ken believes that systems will be smarter, self-learning, edgy, innovative, and sophisticated, and that they will automatically configure and integrate new equipment to optimize themselves to self-manage, and self-heal, will be reinventing purposeful, productive, desirable buildings, and accommodations and Ken wants to help grow our only real resource and assets our younger people by reaching out to youth with messages about our vibrant, vital, and rewarding industry.
Ken welcome to the podcast.
Ken: Wow that’s quite an introduction. That’s a lot of words, I didn’t know we were going to have to say that many, they weren’t so bad when you saw them on HTML page but it’s a lot of words for you to blurt out.
Scott: Well great. Ken, I really appreciate you being on our inaugural podcast as one of the bigger names in the building automation industry, I really think that a lot of people view you as one of the major influencers for the industry. Of course, you have had automated up for 20 years now, Is that right?
Ken: That is correct.
Scott: Wow
Ken: We started in 1999 and it’s our retirement project so I need to retire from my retirement projects.
Scott: Yeah and I think people are finally started to catch up because the building automation industry is getting a lot more exciting these days, but I would say that you were way ahead of your time, 20 years ago creating a website like this with this kind of information. I can tell you as someone more recently joining the building automation industry that and even 3 years ago there weren’t a lot of resources for this kind of information so that the fact that you have had this website up for 20 years is really really impressive and also, I think everyone in the industry owes you a debt of gratitude for getting this conversation started.
Ken: Well thank-you very much Scott, that is great. Actually, one of the things I am kind of proud of that is on there for everybody since we are heading here towards an educational podcast. If anyone wants to just grasp a quick overview of the last 20 years, we have on our education page there’s the evolution of the automated buildings and basically, it talks about the early days and the formation of BACnet, the formation of KNX, DALI, and even the use of Ethernet and how we came to be where we are and it basically talks about movements that changed us like grid wise and smart grid and it’s in a format of a timeline that you can actually fly over and if you hadn’t looked at it it’s an interesting thing. Therese and I originally put it together for our 15th anniversary and I have basically reformatted it a bit and taking it forward for the last 20 years. So, you can actually sit there and put it in 3d mode and you can spin over the last 20 years in a blur and you can see all little things that were big things every year that turned into kind of make the industry into what it is, and it also involved our ventures into IT and the early days of all of our companies. Actually, Computrols has been at this for a long time. When did you guys start?
Scott: We just celebrated our 35-year anniversary this month, so it’s been quite some time. We started as a service company then, of course, we started doing some integration and eventually started making our online of controls, but I do think that having that history is really important especially when you are talking about bringing in the younger people into the building automation industry. I think it is important to know where you came from to really kind of guide where you are going, and when you have younger folks coming into the industry who don’t have that historical knowledge all they know is the latest and greatest, I think that you lose something there so I love that you and Therese put that together and keeping up with it and reformatting it into few different ways, I think that is an important thing for our industry, in general, is to have that historical knowledge.
Ken: The other thing is that if you poke around and you do a search on the site for Computrols, I think you will be surprised that in the early days of BACnet, Computrols was doing some amazing combining of IT and internet at that time with what was happening in the BACnet camp and it is some pretty evolutionary interesting articles that came out of the Computrols camp. The other thing I like to mention is that every article, interview, and news released that was every published by automated building is still online, so our first article which was about our building as a website was where the thinking was the internet was new and the whole idea was the building would have a URL and we would basically depict the building first of the digital twins, I guess, way back when so a lot of the history is not new it has been there a long time.
Scott: Yes, and that was revolutionary thinking at that time with the internet really being kind of a newer thing and I know I have read some of the older articles that was written by Mike Donlon, our Director of Research and Development, and yeah it is pretty cool to see how ahead of his time he was in a lot of that thinking. It is really something to have all that historical knowledge to be assessable for our industry and Ken I think the last time I think I saw you, you were moderating a session at the AHR Expo. I know that is a big event for you every year. What are your plans for the Expo this year?
Ken: We actually have nine sessions if you believe it. We usually do about four, but Kim Pierce is the lady at AHR that organizes these education sessions and she’s really bullish that education is a big part of AHR Expo and she has been increasing it and we are kind of jokingly calling it the pop up educations sessions for the industry because most people tend to go anyway, so we are going to have a whole bunch of free education sessions and folks can show up, so anyway just the quick way is to go to automated building education page there is a quick overview of the nine sessions, it is actually ten on there because we were originally carrying the one for the grid wise folks and they basically took it back on to their own, which they should’ve, but we had to get it going so that is more an example of us being a catalysis, anything that anybody is not doing, we will do it until they come to their senses and take it over do it themselves, so that’s good. Anyway, so the general theme is a whole bunch of neat things. One is basically building emotion, and we started playing around with this in a few articles and we used building both as a noun and a verb, and we find that building has an emotion. The emotion of the building is the people that are inside the building, and they all tend to be a community, and they tend to think alike, and they interact, and we need to sense that, and we have the ability now with social media to sense how people feel, and we also all of our control systems are starting to track people where they go in a building, and what kinds of things they are doing, and even starting to record some of their actions whether they open a window or close a shade, and we start to put some of that into artificial learning and stuff, anyway, so that is one facet of it. We’ve got two, how to do I get started in building automation programs that are useful. Which will be great, I think to get people started, Kim was bullish about that to try and get people into our industry. We’ve got one that talks about, I’m very excited about, it’s a bunch of young folks under 40 that are putting on a session Open Hardware, Open Software, and Open Minds and what it is all about is it’s just the change we are starting to see in the industry moving to devices that are like raspberries and beagle boards and the open hardware platforms that we can download open software into and we can get back into the matrix movement which is some of the stuff we’ve been writing about. Now, so it is good we have our Collaboratory, our Connection Community Collaboratory, I think this is our 6th year of putting that on, and this is the one where grab up a bunch of industry experts and they all give us a little shot of where they see industries going, and then we roll it all into an open dialogue and it got rated for experts only and I don’t want to scare anybody away because it is certainly an idea for anybody putting together the industry to come and just talk and just talk with the other people that are putting together the industry and you know how big is voice going to be? How big is video going to be? So, some of those big decisions are bantered around the room, it is really useful. Another one is Master Systems Integrator and it has an interesting twist. It gets pushed into Super Master Systems Integrators so that whole field is evolving fast as well.
Scott: Yeah, now lots of exciting stuff, I was just about to say was one of the sessions that I attended a couple years ago was that session where you had a few industry experts and you were moderating. I was new to the industry at that time, relatively new at least, and I found it to be extremely interesting. There was a lot of kind of theoretical discussions to about where the industry is heading and the people that you had in the room were people we want to hear from. They were the experts, they were the leaders in the industries, so I can definitely vouch for that session, but it sounds like you got a lot of interesting things coming up. The building emotions is new to me. I was reading through some of your articles for this month’s magazine and I was hoping you could expand on that. You talked about a little bit how people interact with the building and the emotion of the people and the emotion of the building. I was hoping you could enlighten our audience a little bit more on that topic.
Ken: Okay, I think I brought it back from Helsinki, in fact, I did. Earlier this spring, we were invited to the Smart Building conference in Helsinki, and I was actually a speaker and moderator there, and just rubbing shoulders and listening to what the folks on my panels were talking about. The European approach was more people orientated than the North American approach, so I found that intriguing and started to pull out some of what I thought they were saying, and they were striving to make a stronger connection to the people because they feel that is more important than the technology and you have to give these folks a lot of credit because of course evolved the cell phone industry and the cell phone industry in my mind is we all love are devices and we are all very emotional about our devices and we seldom have that kind of emotion about buildings, but we should. We should have a relationship with our building and so we have to create and it is like a new fabric and it’s like a virtual fabric which we can get our minds around now, and so the idea is we will get the feedback of the people, and the other thing that is happening is our buildings are becoming people processed driven. The measured variable in our building is now people, I mean it use to be temperature and humidity and stuff like that, but what is the measured variable? The measured variable is the occupant and we don’t even like calling them occupants they call them inhabitants or because they have to have a stronger connection with the building so if we kind of take a look at the industry and say hmm that’s an interesting folk to look harder at these people, we need them to have more input into the building. The other thing is psychologically they want to be involved if they feel they are in control they will be happier. Whether they in fact actually change the temperature or not that is not a big issue, it’s if they have the ability to do that. We have had some success stories like Comfy that has come out and basically gone out and got information from the people and created a relationship between the people and the building, and of course, that has been successful in the fact that Siemens has purchased that company and is actually promoting it which there was worry that they would just buy it and put it in the closet, but that is not true, they are seeing now that it is a strong selling asset is its people connection and they actually about the same time I was mattering about building emotions Siemens came out and started to move in that direction, as well, so, it is hard to roll it all into a few words but feel free to read some of the stuff I have written on that. I guess that is another thing too, is in addition to automated building, I have been writing for Connected Contractor, which is a publication that goes out and it is kind of a good exercise for me because instead of writing the magazine I am back to being the guy writing articles and it forces me to write two articles a month, and that is a lot, but I have the amazing benefit of having a whole bunch of incredibly smart people from the industry writing me ten to twelve articles a month, so I am able to cherry-pick those and pull the ideas of what people are writing about and writing them into my articles which makes me look a heck of a lot smarter than I really am. I can actually just pull pieces of their articles, so again, I’m just the catalyst the mixer, the maker, the candlestick baker, whatever, folding all this stuff together.
Scott: Oh yeah, I can tell you as a marketing manager guy, writing a couple of articles a month sounds pretty doable, right, it’s a couple articles a month, how long you think it takes? Two hours maybe, but I can definitely relate to you. It is not always simple especially when you’re trying to pull in quality information on a regular basis, but yeah, like you said, you got a great resource in automated to pull from and if you’re editing those articles your reading them, so you’re picking up on the latest and greatest knowledge, I think, from those industry experts. So, building emotion thing is really interesting to me, but something else you talk about pretty frequently is The Edge. The Edge is something I think new folks to the building automation industry and I think that people who aren’t necessarily keeping up with the latest and greatest don’t know a lot about it. I was hoping you could give us a little bit of background on what The Edge is to start off.
Ken: Okay, the edge, actually we have great interview this month with John Petze. John, of course, is in the data business, and he is helping me define The edge, and of course, what he says right away is the edge is really edge computing and basically what is happening in the evolution of our control systems is if you kind of keep looking where we came from we came from headend systems, dumb panels, and we got some semi-smart panels, and then, we had panels that, man, they were like computers, and now what’s happened is with the advent of Raspberry Pi, beagle boards, and stuff, we now have full-blown computers in our panels that are basically able to work in natural languages, so what has happened is the cost has dropped and the technology has moved further to the edge. The processing is done at the edge, the edge being closer to the sensor, in fact, the sensors and the computing come one in the same and edge devices are evolving and the edge devices are becoming smarter, basically they actually are doing the interaction and they start to basically take on building emotion because they can actually do that. Let me give this example, one of the problems in collecting data the people get quite skitterish that that data will be used in another manner. We can actually have an edge device that learns about the people either video wise, voice wise, or voice trends, or any myriad of different ways, but we can actually have it collect all this data, it can do some self-learning and it can even do a bit of artificial intelligence, and then we can purge our data so we don’t have that data actually connected to a person and if we don’t send it up to a cloud, which the cloud tends to be the problem on most of the security breaches or usually pulling large pieces of data out of the cloud, so if the stuff never gets sent to the cloud, there is some safety in that. So anyway. the edge devices they just become smarter. They do more things, and of course, the other thing that is happened here is probably a few years ago, we had a collision and ran into the IoT industry and I kind of think we went through a period of time where we said, “man this IoT industry is going to consume us,” and now I think the leaders have basically come to a conclusion the IoT industry is going to save us. What we need to do is become the building automation division of IoT. We have to think like IoT people. We have to create devices that have amazing user interfaces. We have to think more like software people, and this is a thought that a lot of people are doing now, the car companies have had to move from being people who build physical cars to actually being people who are software companies, and they have to support edge technology because the latency of trying to take a car and look at another car and make a decision to put on the brakes, you can’t do that by sending that information up to cloud and having it come back again, so you basically have to move the intelligence out to the edge, and so we’re seeing that same thing in that industry. So, the automotive industry becomes the software industry, the building automation industry becomes the software industry, get over it, it’s not us and IT, we are IT and we need to grow, and we need to become that division, and when we understand the 20 years of crap that is on automated building that is us that is why we are different than the IoT industry, because we understand all those bits, and all those little dampers, and all those little actuators, all those little things that have to happen when we have a building emotion reacting through an edge device something has to happen and only our industry knows how to make that happen, but we need to learn more about the IoT collection of data and the creation of the emotion. Boy, that was a sermon and one, wasn’t it?
Scott: Now I tell you, that was a great explanation of the edge, kind of, those distributive smarts throughout the building automation systems, and I also kind of liked what you were saying along the lines of we all have to be software companies now to some degree or software developers in thinking about how users are going to interact with our new technology because we are gonna have a hard time making humans more technical, so it is probably better that we make our technology a little bit more human, right?
Ken: Super, Yep, I agree.
Scott: Well something you also mentioned was the security aspect of it and that was a little eye-opening even for me, you know you have seen the cloud data breaches and there is no doubt that there is a lot risk inherent there. I was reading an article the other day about the smart city that Google wants to build. I believe it is in or just outside of Toronto and there has been a lot of debate ethical and otherwise about the security of this data and associating with individuals, so you have mentioned that with these edge devices they can learn but they can also purge data so it is not associated with an individual, and therefore, not really imprinting on privacy much. Can you talk a little bit about kind of where we are as an industry where in terms of figuring out where the line is?
Ken: Yeah, I think, I try an simplify everything because I have trouble grasping the complexities of life so I have to pull little pieces out and make it simple. My simple take on the security is it is not so much our problem. The smart city people have to work it out. The automobile industry has to work it out and whatever security concepts that they come up with that they feel comfortable with or public opinion support in which it is probably more to the point, I’m happy with. I mean we obviously got to beef up our BACnet passwords and stuff like that. We have holes in our systems that we can drive trucks through and everybody knows where they are. We obviously have to fix those and that is where we should be concentrating our efforts, but as for the final security or whether we are going to allow this data to exist, and we are starting to see some strong push back from Europeans, and I am definitely not in favor of that, because what that is going to do is basically lead us to a situation that we will have two, or three, or four, or five internets, basically, there will be an underground internet because even if it’s great now the bad stuff exist on the internet and if you are smart enough you can actually go out and find these folks and make work arounds to stop them from what they are doing. If we, in fact, drive all this underground it’s going to be like a different situation, so there is a prediction now that there is going to be a Chinese internet and basically a North American, although we starting to now see that there could be a European, so that in my mind would be devastating. The most amazing thing of the internet is the openness and yeah, it reflects life, there are bad guys out there, but there are good guys out there too so we have to find each other, it’s totally an amazing vehicle, so I think we have to protect it, keep it free, and keep it open.
Scott: Yeah, I completely agree with you there. I definitely see that as a potential challenge and a roadblock, really to this technology all really becoming commonplace and I am wondering, you know, what are some of the other challenges that our industry is facing outside of potentially separate internet for different countries, and not being able to share information quite as easily? What are some other challenges that we have as an industry that you are seeing today?
Ken: Well I think the biggest one is it is hitting all in nose, is shoring up BACnet to make it tougher and faster. It was never intended to be an IoT protocol. It was meant to be a field control protocol. It does a great job of that and it is well received and as it turns out the IT people love it, because it is, in fact, extremely well defined, and well behaved, and a little more opened then they would like. But that aside, it’s great and it has amazing penetration as well, so we have most of our projects from the last five years, probably or for sure BACnet, but the problem is it has to go faster, somewhere along the line it has to get converted into IoT speed, and how we do that is it is getting done for us. There are many methods of doing that now, and I think what we need to do is to work harder as an industry and acknowledge that problem and come up with and maybe choose some of the IoT standards and start working with them. I applaud BACnet on that, in fact, that they have embraced Haystack, which is an amazing nomenclature, that’s basically has a common naming system so we can basically machine build products by the names and stuff, we can build our graphics, we can actually engineer the system once we have our names, so they have embraced that. They have also embraced Brick, which is another convention that works in that direction. We are starting to see industry acceptance and again when I was in Helsinki convention that was one of my messages is that if we want to make all this virtual stuff visible you basically have to come up with some kind of a tagging scheme, and it’s got to be a lot more powerful than what we have been using in the past, and it has to be machine discoverable, and it has to be machines can create from it, so anyway interesting, interesting stuff there. Another thing, of course in that, that is coming up is we have the giant companies that aren’t really standards, but they are so big you can’t ignore them, and that would be people like Amazon, Google, Apple, so they come up and have their own ecosystems of how they do things and the impact of devices like Amazon Alexa and Hey Google at home these kind of devices that you actually just talk to and they have made their platforms available so it is extremely economical to include them in our devices, like why wouldn’t you talk to your thermostat and you can also ask it what the temperature is, and ask it anything thing the internet knows, and oh, by the way, turn the temperature up or set it back at 4 O’clock because I’m not gonna be here today, so we start moving in to more natural languages and that is kind of another trend that is starting to occur is in our interfaces where we are basically evolving more and more to natural languages. The challenge for the industry, back to the question, I keep rambling on and forgetting the question, anyway, the challenge for the industry is to try and I don’t think we can ignore any of these things, you can’t ignore what is going with Amazon Echo, and you cannot ignore what is going on with Google, you can not ignore what is happening with Machine Vision. We are pretty comfortable now talking to devices, but we are not all that comfortable, but we don’t understand how they could interact with us from a visual point of view, Machine Vision, the fact that every cell phone has one, two, or three cameras in it. These become the cheapest devices and they are able to gather an amazing amount of information and so all of the sudden we see vision as becoming a new sensing device for our building automation devices it’s cheaper. It becomes a light switch. It becomes occupancy sensor. It can become a face identification device and all of this fall into a very low-cost device. So, we have to understand the evolution of these devices, not run away screaming that somebody invented this thing and it is going to be the death of us all, that’s not the thing, we have to understand this new device that works in a manner we can’t even imagine, and we need to think, how can we use this device to create a greater emotion to our building, to provide a greater connection to our buildings. We need to become the automated building IoT division. We need to take this technology and go. Why we were talking here, I did a search and I come up, Mike Donlon, Director of Research and Development, 2001. We have an article here. The title of the article is, “Using Standard Internet Protocols in Building Automation”. In 2001, Mike Donlon is writing an article for automated buildings. So, you guys all think this is new stuff, this is not new stuff. The only thing is, is that it is actually happening now. It is actually what we have been talking about….
Scott: Exactly
Ken: for 20 years. It is actually happening. I would actually love to…, I think the next person you have to have on this podcast, and sometime, I would like to do a podcast with Mike, because Mike and I had great discussions back 20 years ago, and I am kind of guessing that if we both haven’t lost our minds then we can probably still have great conversations.
Scott: Yeah, I think we can make that happen, Ken. We would certainly love to have you back and I do have plans to get Mike on the podcast sooner than later. He is a great resource for what is happening in the industry and where he sees it going, but I really appreciate you taking the time for us today. It has been a great education, and like you said, I think a lot of these ideas have been out there for a long time, and the rubber is just hitting the road in terms of the technology. We are finally getting there, and I don’t think there’s ever been a more exciting time to be a part of the building automation industry.
Ken: Right, ok, The other thing as we are winding up too, let me give one plug. That later today, the November issue of Automated Buildings is going online and the theme is Edge-ification, and that is just a word I have invented to basically talk about how the whole industry is moving to the edge, and we are also now talking the edge-ification meets the maker movement moving the murky muddled middle to the Edge. That is the theme.
Scott: Oh yeah, if you are not familiar with, I highly recommend it. As I have mentioned, it has been a resource for the building automation industry for 20 years now, and I highly encourage our listeners to subscribe and go there and check out and see what Ken has going on. Also, check out the sessions that is going to be involved in at the AHR Expo. I think there is a lot of really interesting talks there. Ken, again, we thank you for being a staple in our industry and helping educate new people and people that has been around for a while and giving that historical knowledge and still continuing today, to really be on the cutting edge of all these different trends. So, with that said, Ken, thank you for coming on the podcast today. We are going to wrap things up here. Any last words?
Ken: See you all in Atlanta
Scott: Spoken like a true Canadian. Well alright Ken, we will talk to again real soon. This is Scott Holstein with Computrols and we are wrapping up our first podcast.