Data Management

On the Job: Web-Based FM System Brings Competitive Edge

14 Dec, 2005 Cadalyst

PDS provides facilities managers with clickable, diagram-based documentation for building projects

Facilities managers who rely on a new PDS (Professional Documentation System) from Farnsworth Group can spend less time navigating through mountains of facilities data and have more time focusing on facility operation, thanks to the clickable, Web-based system.

Two years in development, the new system is the product of Chad Grindle, section manager at Farnsworth Group, a full-service engineering and architectural firm, and a development team led by Jim Conigliaro, senior system architect at Northwoods Software, a provider of Web content management, creative design and application software solutions. Facility owners are requiring faster and more efficient response to operation and maintenance issues from building operators, so Farnsworth and Northwoods set out to develop a system that would offer greater ease of use. The new system allows nontechnical staff to search and even add information to the powerful database application by visually interacting with project diagrams -- side-stepping typical database applications and PDF-based solutions -- through a simple clickable interface.

For each building, floor and room in a facility, the PDS holds an information page with a photo and a list of all components. Choosing a component and clicking Go takes the user to a detailed information page for that component.

"This PDS allows us to offer our clients Web-based access to operations and maintenance documentation for a building or a number of buildings on a campus," Grindle says. "Each PDS implementation replaces what can be anywhere from six to twelve 3" binders." Northwoods initially worked on a simple system to allow Farnsworth clients to access PDF-based manuals over the Web.

"These PDF manuals were thousands of pages," Conigliaro says. "The only interactive feature was the ability to use the search function in [Adobe] Acrobat to find relevant text. Later, we spent months brainstorming, trying to figure out a way to make this same information available dynamically on the Web. Rather than dig through a manual, we wanted to allow someone to access data by clicking on elements in a building diagram."

PDS displays the component-information view of an air-handling unit. Details include physical data, user manuals, contact information and links to all systems that incorporate the component.

On-the-Fly Updates
The diverse nature of information contained in such a system was one challenge, Conigliaro explains. "We realized early on that we needed a way to keep track of a large amount of diverse and changing information. On one day, someone may need to add information to the PDS having to do with fire sprinkler systems, and the next day on the bulb, wattage and dimensions of lighting fixtures. We started a database-driven program with an extensible data collection system. If a Farnsworth client has a brand new building with 40 brand new pieces of equipment, they can store that information, defining the specific pieces of data required for each piece of equipment on-the-fly."

Grindle had earlier participated in XML standards-making process, which turned out to be helpful to the PDS project, Conigliaro says. Grindle credits Northwoods' flexibility for the usable, elegant system that resulted.

"When we realized we wanted to create clickable graphic interfaces in order to make the program usable by our clients, Northwoods suggested we use Visio as an interface," Grindle recalls.

A view of a facility's compressed air system. Microsoft Visio diagrams are associated with building systems and include hot links so that clicking any of the components in the diagram takes the user to the detailed information page for that component.

Visio -- Microsoft's business and technical diagramming software -- is widely used and a free viewer is available, but tying the PDS into the program was a challenge, Conigliaro says. "We wrote an enhancement to Visio that is downloadable through a standard Web browser. This is something we have never seen before, and it was a challenge to intercept events in Visio like dropping a shape on a diagram. We needed Visio to be in constant communication with the server, so some passcode-protected Web services were required on the Farnsworth server."

Flexibility is Key
The result is a system that allows Farnsworth staff to create a PDS for any client with no additional programmatic requirements.

"If a new fan is added in an existing facility, it is easy to program that information into the system," Conigliaro explains. "The system is so flexible that we can track the RPMs of the fan -- literally any information on any piece of equipment can be added, and fields can be added to contain a variety of information."

Rick Fessenbecker, Northwoods Software managing director, says the current PDS represents only the first version of what could be the most powerful application of its kind in the commissioning industry: "We will be working on the PDS on an on-going basis."