As the electronics industry continues to respond to demand for more energy-efficient technologies, the supply chain has adapted its service model to support a broader range of customers. Amidst all the hype surrounding the Internet of Things (IoT), electronics distributors have begun aligning their linecards and human resources to support a subset of the IoT: a smart-building industry that is finally poised to accelerate.
The original equipment manufacturers in the building automation, HVAC and security markets are familiar customers to the distribution industry. But as these OEMs become part of an expanding smart-building ecosystem, distributors are calling on a different type of customer. “Having been in the solid state lighting business we realized the customer base we served was unique,” said Jamie Singerman, Corporate Vice President of Future Lighting Solutions. “These customers were transitioning from a traditional technology – electrical lighting -- to a disruptive technology. That creates a need for a different level of support. Just as customers were looking at a new lighting source, they are now looking at the convergence of wireless, energy management and industrial control, which creates opportunities for distribution at the system level.”
"We have a number of component / solution based customers that are developing products and solutions to compete in the emerging smart home/construction LED lighting markets," said Don Campbell, Director of Lighting Solutions for WPG Americas. "Architects and construction users are just part of an ecosystem of potential influencers and stakeholders that will determine how this transformation takes place. "
After several years of slower-than-expected growth, smart building technology is ready to take off, according to market research firm IDC. Building owners and key decision makers are seeing the value of optimized facility management through the convergence of information technology and building automation. “We call it the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT)” said Keith Kufahl, a TTI Inc. Industrial Market Manager. “We see the advances that LED has driven in regard to green [energy savings] and now the economies of scale [of smart devices] are becoming more apparent to companies in building, construction and related industries.” IDC forecasts that the smart building market will grow in excess of 22 percent through 2019, from $6.3 billion in 2014 to $17.4 billion in 2019.
Customer vs. ecosystem
For distributors, this means calling on a customer base beyond the OEM. “From our standpoint, the traditional customer hasn’t gone away; they have expanded in both the vertical and horizontal direction,” said Alan Bird, President of Arrow Electronics Inc.’s Americas Electronics Components Group. “With connected devices, we are seeing new customers and new applications that weren’t there before. Because of the breadth of that challenge, as technology leaders that’s prompting us to look at the entire ecosystem in order to get a customer from where they are now to the Internet and to do it in a way that is remote. You are taking devices connected by WiFi or Bluetooth and figuring out how to manage security [amongst the connections]; how to harvest the data; and where to store the data -- whether it’s in the cloud or somewhere local. It cuts across both the horizontal and vertical.”
Although distributors aren’t currently calling on contractors or similar businesses, they are finding their way into the control centers of smart facilities. As Future’s Singerman puts it, environmental control can be applied in a room, a hotel or an entire office park. IDC has found that vertical industries have a large impact on the rate of adoption of smart building technologies. Buildings managed in the government or healthcare verticals, for example, tend to be more mature in their appreciation of the benefits of smart buildings and more advanced in their deployment. Whereas investments in the past have focused on HVAC systems, customers are now beginning to expand their evaluation to lighting, plug load, equipment maintenance and other issues, according to IDC.
Suppliers, of course, have responded by developing new products platforms and tools targeted at the IoT. "We do have supplier partners that proactively expand their solutions, driving us to reach out to new and existing customers and markets," said WPG Americas' Campbell. Distributors not only have to become experts in their suppliers’ technologies; they have to add value to retain their connection with the customer. "We at WPG also research market trends, expanding market opportunities and seek out products and solutions that would fill any potential gaps in our product portfolio that would be required to support our customer base," Campbell added.
“In addition to reaching customers we have not traditionally called on, we are really going out there to tell the TTI story,” said Kufahl. TTI has dedicated a number of managers to the industrial space whose responsibilities include identifying the products best suited to the market and services that are most in demand. Cost is emerging as a common touch point among customers, according to Kufahl. “For small and midsized companies our value is we are a stocking distributor,” he said. “Inventory and cost of ownership become key as we go out there and learn who these customers are.” Energy costs remain a large and variable component of building operation, according to IDC. Although the overall pace of smart-building adoption has been slower than predicted, more competitive pricing and technology advances will result in a higher level (and more "smarter" buildings) in the years ahead.
Future Electronics Inc. was an early adopter in the solid-state lighting space and established Future Lighting Solutions in 2004. “The buying behavior and the demand cycles of our lighting customers were quite different than our traditional business,” Singerman said. That focus remains, explained Singerman, but now encompasses Future’s entire product offering. “With the proliferation of the [smart-building] customer base we are working closely with our entire sales organization to help cover the market. By allowing devices and systems to communicate wirelessly, it creates opportunity in the semiconductor space because of the semiconductor content connectivity requires.” TTI sees sensors as another key building block. “We do have expertise in sensors and we work with engineers to design with that technology," said Kufahl.
Boost for the Americas
The adoption of smart building solutions in North America, Europe and Asia/Pacific is particularly positive due to a combination of policy and business dynamics, according to IDC. Growing regulations at the local, regional, and national levels are driving awareness of the benefits of energy efficiency and energy benchmarking. This is good news for an Americas electronics market that hasn’t been growing as much as in previous years. “The industrial market segment typically stays in North America and has not outsourced,” noted TTI’s Kufahl.
From a geographic perspective, North America will continue to implement smart building technology driven largely by corporate objectives of controlling and reducing energy costs, said IDC. Many European nations will continue to expand their investments in smart building technology, driven by continued EU and local governmental regulations. And within Asia/Pacific, China's rapid building boom continues apace, resulting in new construction with many smart building capabilities designed in from the beginning.
“While the 'Internet of Things' is a topic of much speculation in the consumer market, smart building technology has steadily been increasing its footprint and impact among commercial buildings. Smart building solutions are valuable technologies for deploying energy management strategies that generate operational efficiencies, cost containment, and sustainability benefits that appeal to key stakeholders in building management," said Jill Feblowitz, Vice President, IDC Energy Insights.
For the electronics industry, said Arrow’s Bird, intelligent facilities are where the possible meets the practical. “When you start to see the reality of things like smart lighting -- these were things that the industry talked about that weren’t yet embraced by the general public. Our customers have been able to innovate products that have allowed things like residential LED lighting to evolve. Years ago the public didn’t think it was possible to control the temperature of your home with a smartphone. It is an exciting time to be in the market.”