One of the biggest trends in the industrial sector at the moment is the Internet of Things (IoT).
But how will this trend affect the MEP industry? What innovations can we expect?
Internet of Things is about objects connecting to the internet and exchanging data without human interference. It is one of the fastest growing technologies in the world. It is everywhere around us and is also finding its way in the MEP industry. With everyone going BIM (Building Information Model) at the moment, information is managed more and more centralized. Unintendedly, we are creating a perfect foundation for IoT. Just add a couple sensors to generate input and build a couple of triggers for the output and IoT has found its way to our MEP industry.
Because IoT means connecting objects to the internet and let them exchange data, it is a very general term and can get hard to understand. So let’s start with an example close to home. Actually, it is in our homes already, ‘smart homes' to be exact.
In the end-consumer market, the application of IoT is clearly visible and growing fast. Smart thermostats have already become the standard. For some time now, we have been able to set our heating preferences by creating schedules for every day of the week. Compared to having to manually turn on and off every single radiator, this was already a great improvement.
With the arrival of IoT however, we are entering a whole new dimension. Products like Honeywell’s Evohome and Google’s Nest makes it possible to further personalize our heating schemes. Having daily schedules for turning on our heating is great, but what if we suddenly change our plans and go out for dinner? By using our phone’s geographical location we can create a trigger to turn on our heating. So as long as your phone is not close to home, the heating won’t turn on.
Are there applications of IoT for MEP contractors?
With IoT emerging fast in other industrial industries, it seems likely that it will also influence the way of working in the MEP industry. Let’s have a look at other applications of IoT in other industries and see if these principles can be applied in the MEP industry as well.
Tracking progress on the construction site live
One industry where IoT has made a great impact (and still has) is the distribution industry. Thanks to the possibility of physical objects connecting to the internet and processing data, human interference becomes unnecessary. Take for example the tracking of an order. In the past, someone was required to scan a barcode at a certain point in the process to see any status change of the package. Thanks to the use of RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) tags customers can now track their goods without human interference because these tags can connect to the internet and share their location data. This makes it possible to automate the tracking process entirely.
So how can the MEP industry benefit from this principle? First, it is an industry that still heavily relies on blueprints and 2D drawings. Data from which we can’t always tell if it is accurate. Of course, BIM is growing rapidly, but BIM is meant as a model to provide information. It does not process information.
IoT and offsite fabrication
This is where IoT comes in. Take for example the offsite fabrication of piping systems. Now these prefab sets can be identified by set numbers and drawings. But what if something changes between the point of fabrication and installation on site? How can the set still be tracked? And if something needs to be reworked, how can the team on site be notified about these changes?
The technology used in the distribution industry can provide a solution here. By marking the prefabricated sets with RFID chips, scanning these chips would automatically result in up to date information telling the person directly what to do. Next to providing information, these chips can also be used for the tracking and tracing of parts in general. Knowing if parts are already on site increases efficiency during the construction process and reduces travel costs and hours spent on site. Just think of the costs if personnel has to return to the company to get the right parts. Not only are time and money lost on travelling, but the remaining staff on site may not be able to continue their work either.
This is just a small piece of a bigger picture. By having the possibility to link the data directly from the field to the 3D model, many more opportunities become available. It is imaginable that we’ll be able to see the project progress live in the 3D model, which makes the planning of the project in general more efficient, reduces failure costs and gives better insights for future planning.
Prefab sets in line
One of the most important uses of IoT is providing accurate information by connecting devices to the internet. What if we connect all the boilers, valves and other equipment in an equipment room to the internet? All this information can be centralized in one place. Instead of having to go through all the individual logs/ papers, a service engineer now gets a clear overview of all the essential data. And instead of doing reactive or preventive maintenance, it now becomes possible to do predictive maintenance. In the marine industry IoT applications are already being used to perform predictive maintenance, saving millions of dollars.
In the MEP industry, all data collected from the equipment could be visualized in the 3D model, providing a comprehensive understanding of the information. Think for example of critical equipment such as water supply pumps in a hospital. In the past, we had to identify which valves and other equipment in line were important for the upkeep of these pumps. We had to look at maintenance reports and compare these with data available about the life expectancy of all the individual equipment.
But what if all the information is available in one place? Then analytical software can predict if a valve is about to breakdown for us, identify it as critical in line and show this information in the 3D model to us. Not only can we see how this valve is connected to the pumps, but we can also retrieve information about the model, order spare parts and plan maintenance. All before the actual breakdown.
Identifying these potential breakdowns can save enormous amounts of money. Not only in terms of replacement costs, but also in terms of downtime and possible damage further down the line.
Onsite use of the Building Information Model at the Earth Simulation Lab
So what can we learn?
With the installation and construction industry going BIM, all data is managed centralized in the model. This means that a big part of the foundation for IoT is already there. Only a couple of sensors and triggers need to be added to generate input and output. This also the hardest part, because where do we start with the implementation of IoT?
Other industries all started small and close to home with the application of IoT. Take the distribution industry, where RFID chips were added to save time on manual scanning and increase their accuracy by ruling out human mistakes. Or the marine industry, where breakdowns cost a lot of money, which is why they started looking for ways to predict breakdowns.
So what can we learn? Let’s rephrase this question: where can we save the most? Not only in terms of money, but also in reducing failure costs. That’s where we should start with IoT.