Walking a Mile Down the Control Design Path

One of my favorite Gary Larson cartoons shows the wagons of a wagon train circled and
under attack with flaming arrows pouring in from above.  Taking cover behind one of the wagons, one settler is exclaiming to another “Hey, they’re lighting their arrows!  Can they do that?”

Obviously, the issue, right or wrong isn’t whether the enemy is allowed to shoot flaming arrows;  they are already pouring in and there are wagons on fire.  The issue is, how do we deal with it and make it stop.

In many ways, I think the HVAC controls industry is in the same sort of situation.  We are caught up in a procurement process that clearly is not working for us.   Complaints about control problems in particular and problems with our current construction process in general run rampant, with flaming arrows coming in from all sides and all parties.   As Dr. Joe Lstiburek  so sardonically1  and succinctly put it,

The future is not in plastics, my boy, the future is in construction.  Actually, the future is in fixing construction.

I guess what I’m saying here is that we have a problem and discussions about idealized processes and about why things are so dysfunctional, speculation, complaining, finger pointing, and all of the other “flaming arrows” that are flying around are not going to solve it. (That’s not to say planning and discussion aren’t a in important part of moving forward, but with out actual implementation and application, good ideas will not lead to a solution)  Rather, I think we all need to take a deep breath, acknowledge the flaming arrows, and then stop shooting them at each other.  After all, the stakes are pretty high for everyone
involved in the process if we can’t resolve things.

  • From a design perspective, a poorly designed or implemented control system can take the best mechanical system incorporating the most efficient equipment and turn it into
    an inefficient, inoperable mess and occasionally, debris.
  • From a field perspective, the start-up, commissioning, and operation of building systems is inextricably intertwined with the start-up, commissioning and 0peration of the control systems supporting them.  The success of one is dependent up on the success of the other.
  • From an Owner’s perspective, lofty design goals and performance targets that are never achieved as a result of the dysfunction typically result in further dysfunction.  High tech, high efficiency systems that don’t  work are often less sustainable, less efficient, and more problem prone (a.k.a. customer dissatisfaction prone) than the
    lower tech, less efficient systems they replaced.  Modest efficiency that is achieved and persists will always trump a dysfunctional high technology system.
  • From a planetary perspective, all of this dysfunction represents a highly unsustainable way of doing things.  Hardware that never works or fails well in advance of its design life due to misapplication represents poor stewardship and a waste of precious resources as does the inefficiency and waste it engenders.  Neither we nor our children can afford for us to continue our current way of doing things.

So, at this point, some of you are probably thinking “alright Mr. smarty pants, tree-hugging engineer, if you’re so smart, what do you think we should do about it?”  While I
can’t claim to have any great answers, what I can do is share my the thoughts and ideas that have come to me as I have contemplated Michael Ivanovich’s recent blog discussion in particular and the bigger problem in general.

One of the first things that came to mind when I thought about it was the concept of walking a mile in the other person’s shoes.  I’ve been lucky that way in my career;
I’ve worked as a designer in a consulting office, as a systems engineer for a control contractor, as a field engineer for a mechanical contractor, as a facilities engineer for a wafer fab, as a technical support engineer for a not-for-profit, and as a commissioning engineer in my current job. I feel very lucky to have been blessed with such a broad range of experiences. 

For one thing, the varied experience has given me tremendous exposure to a lot of interesting stuff.  But probably, more importantly, its allowed me to experience everyone’s “pain”. And, having experienced the pain, I am less prone to inflict it when I am on the other side of the fence and more determined to find the common ground, convinced that we are all, at our core, intent on doing the right thing.  But being human, we sometimes zig when we should have zagged.

Not everyone has the luxury of a career path like mine.  And, even if they do, such a learning process, by its nature, takes time.  But, the good news is that there are some resources out there that can help you “walk a mile in someone else’s shoes” in the short term.  One such resource (and you younger folks are going to love this) is a video game called Peacemaker that allows you to play both the role of the Israeli Prime Minister
or the Palestinian President and endeavor to bring peace to the region before your term in office ends, all while dealing with the real events that have occurred in the conflict.  From listening to folks talk about it on National Public Radio and reading some of the reviews  on the Peacemaker website, the virtual experience of being in someone else’s shoes provides a whole new perspective.

Currently, I don’t know of any virtual reality tools that would allow someone to experience different sides of the HVAC and controls industry (although I have been involved in some late night discussions about the idea with some folks).  One resource that is out there that may provide some measure of insight is the Control Design Guide, a component of the Functional Testing and Design Guides suite on PECI’s web site.  The opening chapter of the guide starts out by taking a look at the control system design and procurement process from the perspective of the three key players; the Designer, the Controls Contractor, and the Owner. 

In reading through it, you will probably begin to gain some appreciation for the “other folks shoes” and begin to discover that many of the challenges we are facing are to some extent, the result of people with good intentions being caught up in things that are beyond their control and also people doing all the wrong things for all the right reasons.  The chapter then moves forward into a discussion of techniques and practices that have been successfully used by some in the industry to deal with the issues and resolve some of the problems.

So, if this string of posts that Michael spawned has caught your interest, take a moment to read the opening chapter of the Control Design Guide.  Then come back here in a couple of
days and I’ll post another resource that may makes some of the tools and techniques discussed in the guide available to you on line.

1  I confess to not knowing what sardonic meant until Michael Ivanovich used it in a recent post and I looked it up;  it means disdainfully or skeptically humorous or derisively mocking.

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One Response to Walking a Mile Down the Control Design Path

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