Back in the 1970s, I rented a house with a classic Honeywell round thermostat. Natural gas was expensive, and I couldn't afford one of those fancy, new clock thermostats, so I plugged an incandescent nightlight into a timer and hung it under the thermostat. When the light went off, the heat went on. (I read how to do this in a magazine.)
To anyone familiar with process control, the common household automatic setback thermostat holds little mystery: A few temperature and time settings with manual overrides get the job done. But some folks are daunted by programming a thermostat, so I wasn't surprised to learn that an innovative company called Nest has produced a self-programming version: Use it like a conventional thermostat for awhile, and it "learns" your preferences and makes them happen. It also has sensors to tell when you're away and connects to your Wi-Fi, so you can play with it without touching it. Big deal.
So it surprised me when Google recently purchased Nest for $3.2 billion. That's a lot of money—more than enough for Lenovo to buy Motorola Mobile ($2.9 billion) and the same amount as Carlyle Group is paying for International Packaging Group, which operates 88 manufacturing locations on six continents and serves 45 countries. Nest offers just three products—the thermostat and a smoke/CO detector that comes in both AC and battery-powered versions—sold over the web and in big-box stores. It doesn't seem to have a factory.
The key, of course, is that the thermostat is connected to the Internet, and the buyer is Google. With its light-and-motion presence sensors, the thermostat can tell quite a bit about you, and the fact that you bought it ($249) tells Google even more. (Well, it probably already knew you bought it.) Above all, it says something about the value of the Internet of Things.
People who buy a Nest are participating in a pervasive sensor network of thermostats that will not only pay for themselves with energy savings, but also allow equipment to run more efficiently and reliably. The thermostat can independently control a blower and humidifier or dehumidifier, tell its owner when to service the HVAC filter, compensate for local weather conditions (using the Web to get them), and more. Its programming is continually refined and automatically updated. Like Google.
A building operator using Nest thermostats could gain great insights into how equipment is being operated, how much energy is being used, where and how to prioritize maintenance, and which equipment is deteriorating and should be repaired or replaced. And more, which I'll leave to your imagination. That's a lot to get from a programmable thermostat.
Control engineers are seeing similar potential in pervasive sensing for process equipment. Ian Verhappen (page 20) compares the emerging technology to the process analyzers that revolutionized many plants starting in the 1950s by enabling us to control directly on product properties instead of just temperature, pressure and flow. Back then, it was analyzer specialists in the plants who designed, constructed and assembled the components, enclosures, sample systems, circuits and interfaces into useful analyzers. The best ideas come by familiarity with the plant, not with analyzer technology.
Now we're at a similar point with pervasive sensing. Wireless networks are common, sensors are inexpensive, and what we need is for process equipment and control experts to put them together into systems that give us information we can use to improve productivity, efficiency, quality and reliability.
As Nest has shown, enormous value can lie in what, at a glance, seems to be a well-picked-over and unpromising field. What are your pain points, your bottlenecks, your pieces of equipment with thick maintenance files? What could you do about one of them with some inexpensive sensors, a program and a little piece of Internet?