Buildings IoT

5 questions with Rob Vandenberg, OTI’s new director of managed services

By Natalie Patton | March 7, 2018

At first glance, the aviation industry and the commercial buildings industry don’t have a lot in common. In aviation, the operation of equipment and assets is typically a matter of life or death. In buildings, often the worst-case scenario is lots of hot/cold calls. Of course, there are critical aspects of building management too, especially these days as operational technology networks gain access to the internet, but on the whole, airline asset management has innovated faster than commercial building asset management for good reason. Our new Director of Managed Services Rob Vandenberg comes from that world and now he’s here. Following our announcement that he has joined our team, we wanted to take a minute to talk with him about what the commercial buildings industry can learn from the airline industry, where there may be surprising similarities, and how software can be the universal equalizer.

Rob, welcome to OTI! I know you’ve only been with us a short time, but when you look at the commercial buildings industry, do you see any parallels with the aviation industry when you started there 20-or-so years ago?

Thanks, I’m happy to be here! There are definitely a few similarities that come to mind when thinking about the aviation and commercial buildings industries. First, the assets in aviation contain many sensors that generate a lot of data about the operation and condition of the assets. Second, several decades ago, an industry-wide infrastructure called ACARS (Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System) was created to transmit messages containing this information between aircraft and ground stations.  While this was a common infrastructure to all commercial aircraft operators, many of the software systems that used it – particularly those related to asset management and performance monitoring – were built in-house by individual operators or airlines.  There was an appetite for commercially available software systems that can be applied more broadly, but that transition is still ongoing.

When I look at commercial buildings industry today, I see many parallels to the aviation industry at that time.  Sensors and meters on assets generating data that is available through a common, standard infrastructure and an industry that is looking for commercially available software solutions to optimize the operations of their assets.

At this point of technological advancement, would you say software is built on the same principles no matter the industry? Is this a development advantage?

Right now, enabling technologies have made it so that software development efforts for individual industries can move much faster to deployment.  The commercial buildings industry doesn’t have to invest in an infrastructure like the aviation industry did several decades ago, it can leverage the infrastructure and technological advances that are now available to all industries.  I’m thinking the Industrial Internet (also known as the Internet of Things or IoT) and the Cloud in particular. So, we don’t have to build nearly as much enabling tech just to get started on industry solutions – which is a huge development advantage compared to 20 years ago.

What are some challenges you ran up against with your airline asset management software? Have you identified any particular hurdles yet in the commercial buildings space?

Aviation is a heavily regulated industry – only other industries I can think of that would be more regulated than aviation are nuclear and potentially healthcare – so the regulatory and compliance aspects required in the software were quite high. Also, aircraft and aircraft engines are large, expensive and complex assets requiring equally large and complex organization to manage them.  When you add in the operational context – the assets are continuously moving all over the world! – the result is a set of requirements for a very large and complicated set of software solutions.

Another challenge we continuously confronted as we were trying to build a commercial solution was vastly different legacy systems within organizations with little existing integration or standardization. This made projects longer and much more complex. We also found that while we were on the way to  building a standard commercial solution, it was difficult to move aircraft operators away from of their unique requirements. This resulted in highly configurable systems that are frankly difficult to build and maintain, and projects that had a lot of customizations. That’s difficult to scale.

With buildings, I see an opportunity to move faster. There just may be more appetite for more universal systems in the commercial buildings industries and that is very exciting to me. I haven’t run into any real hurdles yet, but it is still early!

In this industry, there is much talk of siloes that run in every direction – siloes between devices that don’t talk with each other, siloes across networks, siloes within the C-suite. Was this true of the airline industry as well? What’s your advice for using software to overcome those issues?

That was definitely true of the airline industry in my experience. We were undertaking massive integrations on the systems side, and then also having to get everyone aligned on the organizational side. There was a continuous effort to re-focus on the problems we’re trying to solve and get everyone on board with those goals.

As for advice, “Don’t try to boil the ocean,” is one phrase I like to use. We can’t try to deliver on every feature all at once. The key is to deliver value early and deliver it often. The types of solutions that we’re envisioning are cost-saving solutions. Those are always harder to get attention for within an organization, compared to projects that open new revenue sources. So, to overcome that natural inclination, our cost-saving measures have to show value early and they have to lead us to become valued partners to our customers – both through the life of a project and through a long-term relationship. And finally, industry standardization cannot be overlooked. Proprietary options are always going to cost more while working on more limited scale.

What are you most excited about when you look at the to-do list for your new position with OTI?

Prior to working in the aviation industry, I was involved in a project that built a condition-based maintenance system in an industrial steel mill.  So much has changed technology-wise since then, but I’m reminded of that work now that I’m with OTI. What’s exciting is there is more standardization today and the enabling technologies have made tremendous gains. Plus, data is more readily available. So, I’ll be able to build something much more robust – and much faster – than I was able to over 20 years. Also, OTI is very well positioned to succeed in this space; OTI has a very strong customer base that is receptive to asset management and performance monitoring offerings and OTI has already made significant investment in the backbone infrastructure that will run these solutions.

Follow along as Rob and OTI work on the next generation of asset management for commercial buildings. Subscribe to out blog. Connect with OTI and Rob on LinkedIn. Follow us on Twitter and sign up for our newsletter. Exciting things are on the horizon – we hope you’ll join us.

*Featured photo by Joseph DePalma on Flickr.

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