Earlier this year, the government unveiled details of the Real Estate Transformation Map. The blueprint identified the Facilities & Engineering sector as having the greatest potential for transformation. Put another way, it is a sector with one of the highest risks of disruption.
“Smart Facility Management”, or the automation of facilities management, is being touted as the way forward. As progressive as it sounds, industry leaders should be mindful that there are limits to automation; the upfront cost of technological investments is rather prohibitive for facility owners and investors. Increasingly, decisions around whether to automate or implement sustainable practices in the built environment are being driven by the need to create positive experiences for the users of the space.
From Technical Competence to a User-centred Experience
The advent of smart homes and offices has given the facility management industry a big push towards training and re-skilling. The Internet of Things has enabled temperature and lighting levels to be adjusted according to the comfort of individual users within a building. As big data automates processes, facility managers are increasingly being trained to analyse data, make deductions on usage patterns and with that, propose meaningful solutions that are sustainable and cost effective for users and occupiers.
Those working on site daily have an intimate knowledge of the problems and issues faced on the ground. They are in the best position to diagnose common defects and experiment with technology to solve issues. This innovative spirit is amplified when leaders put in a support structure that encourages fresh approaches to provide the occupiers a safe, healthy user experience that in turn improves productivity. Facility managers thrive in a culture that fosters experimentation, where leaders believe in the value of constant training and re-training of staff, investing in equipment that trouble shoot problems and alert technicians to possible defects ahead of an incident even before a problem surfaces.
At some facilities, technicians and site managers sit together and brainstorm different types of technology to solve problems. In many cases, the solution is practical, easy to execute and affordable as technology and equipment are sourced from cheaper sources outside of Singapore. It is possible to implement a solution for a few hundred dollars in some instances. Simple, ready-to-use equipment such as cameras have been useful for a variety of solutions. These include monitoring sites remotely to deter illegal dumping and to monitor technicians on site from a remote operations centre to alert staff to any potential risks and to ensure site technicians adhere to proper maintenance procedures.
Technical competence is no longer sufficient in a built environment that is constantly evolving. It is heartening that the government is looking to work with institutes of higher learning to upskill and deepskill the current facility technician workforce. But what will truly transform the work ethic is to build a culture of innovation from within, from the ground up.
What is critical is that site staff are agile, innovative professionals who care deeply that a facility runs smoothly for the comfort of its occupiers and the daring to experiment with simple technology. Today, more site staff are being trained to fly drones. It will not be long before they are trained to operate satellite operation centres that monitor a portfolio of unmanned sites.
With increased automation, facility and engineering professionals will be able to spend more time managing tenants and occupiers across several buildings. The skills required to handle customer feedback, manage third party vendors and contractors on behalf of clients is an intricate blend of customer service, transactional analysis, negotiation and often, a keen sense of intuition, skills which machines and Artificial Intelligence will not be able to learn for a long time to come.
Facility Management Not a One-size-fits-all Solution
Manpower costs make up about 60 per cent to 70 per cent of the cost of operating and maintaining a facility. it is therefore tempting to look to technology to automate and digitise to manage operating costs. The market has witnessed the emergence of drone technology, remote sensors, robot cleaners and many other machines that automate manual processes. But it is dangerous to adopt a one-size-fits-all approach to cost control. Any meaningful discussion on the ratio of manpower to technology on any given facility should start with the business needs of the facility owner. Reducing costs is a major consideration, but the safety, productivity of the occupants who use the space are also key. A tailor-made bespoke solution requires more time but yields more value in the long run.
Robo cleaners, for one, are being touted as a quick-fix solution to cut down the number of cleaners required. But some sites are more suited than others for such an expense. Robot cleaners work best in flat, wide-open spaces within airports, warehouses and storage facilities. In a shopping mall with narrow corridors, the benefits of using robo cleaners are limited. And in some facilities, it is still more cost effective to hire cleaners to do the job.
A lot of expectation is being raised around the potential benefits of a Building Information Management System that helps facility professionals use a variety of sophisticated intelligent, AI-powered tools to manage a facility. However, the reality is that the potential for BIM technology can only be harnessed with new buildings. It is very costly to install a BIM system in older buildings with existing structures. Technology has its limits in older buildings.
The transformation of the facility management industry hinges on the ability of facility management leaders to draw out the heartware in facility management professionals, to imbue a deep sense of curiosity and daring to experiment, beyond text book learning. This is challenging in the traditional facility management model where the performance of site technicians is measured largely by the ability to carry out procedures with precision. With the advent of technology, it is critical for the built environment to formalise the measure of the value of innovation and the ability to harness technology for a safer, healthier and more productive workplace.
This article first appeared in The Business Times on October 6, 2018 under the headline “The Future of Facilities Management in a Tech-driven World”.