There is a lot of value in applying ideas from seemingly disconnected places.
Cognification. This is Ben’s preferred term for the idea that a device is at least partially aware of its environment, and changes how it operates based on this information. Cognification is one of the connected-building trends that Ben is most excited about. “It was not too many years ago that we all carried digital cameras, mobile phones, personal organizers, calculators, etc. as separate devices. These devices have now all converged into a smartphone. In the next ten years, I see a similar platform being created by combining lighting, fire, security, phone, HVAC, Internet, and other networks to make buildings much more flexible, efficient and aware”, says Ben. Although he started college on an art and literature scholarship, Ben graduated – from the University of Minnesota – with an electrical engineering degree; this path gave him the opportunity to combine his passion for creativity and mathematics. He began his career at what is now Artesyn Embedded Technologies, designing AC-DC power supply hardware and software for the server/computing industry. After completing his MBA, he did a brief stint at a medical device startup, before designing and managing several sensor platforms for the industrial automation industry at SICK, Inc. To get more involved in business strategy and leverage his MBA, Ben moved into product management at Honeywell. After four years, he found that he missed working closely with new technologies, and believes that the system architect role will be a perfect balance of business and technology for him. Ben joined TE in February 2016 as the US systems architect for Intelligent Buildings.
What is a current industry challenge that TE engineers are working on?
The best way to enable systems and devices is to make these more intelligent. TE has acquired several sensor companies in the last few years, allowing us to combine our sensor and connection technology into an edge device that streams data to a larger system. The challenge is to figure out what data provides the most value to the customer, and how to provide this data most effectively for the customer’s application. This is achieved by figuring out where decisions need to made to optimize performance, and what drives those decisions. For example, using an occupancy sensor to determine when a room is empty, which then indicates that it is okay to turn the lights off. This a really simple example, but these systems get complicated very quickly. Let’s say we have a sensor detecting when a window is open or closed, and someone decides to open a window to get some fresh air. In a fully integrated system, this information could be used to prevent the HVAC system from turning on, the lighting could adjust to account for a change in the brightness in the room, maybe the security system becomes aware that the window is open and checks to see if the glass is broken. There is an infinite number of ways to implement these systems, and it is important that we understand what drives these decisions. Using the previous example again, the HVAC system will care that the window is open, but the security system may not. The big challenge is how to we provide the maximum value to the system, while creating a cost effective solution to our customers.
How do you go about solving an engineering dilemma for customers?
Obviously, the first challenge is gaining an in-depth understanding of the problem. I think the best place to start is by observing the experience that the customer, and possibly the customer’s customer is having out in the world. As an outside observer, you can see issues that the customer may not be aware of, because they are either too close to the issue, or have accepted the features of the current solution.
From there, it is a matter of combining any potential insights gained with customer needs and capabilities. Sometimes that is all it takes, while other times it comes down to evaluating tradeoffs and experimenting with several solutions until you are able to arrive at the best solution to the problem.
What most interests you in working for TE?
The culture of innovation and experimentation. We are living in a really incredible time with unprecedented connectivity and access. Large, publicly traded industrial companies are all facing a similar challenge: How do we continue to deliver value to our shareholders and leverage our scale, with the constant threat of disruption looming from small, fast, nimble and innovative competition?
TE has a very pragmatic approach to innovation. By constantly trying new things, we are better able to avoid being disrupted by the rapid pace of innovation. The secret is to make sure we take each of these new ideas to their logical conclusion and learn from them. I really enjoy being part of such a dynamic environment, and watching us all progress together.
Where do you see future of connectivity in building/city environments in 20 years from now? What about 10 years from now?
We are in the era of user experience, where we are using our current level of connectedness to personalize and optimize our experiences. It was not too many years ago that we all carried digital cameras, mobile phones, personal organizers, calculators, etc. as separate devices. These devices have now all converged into a smartphone. In the next ten years, I see a similar platform being created to make buildings much more flexible and efficient. There will be a tremendous amount of innovation around this platform, similar to what happened with apps on smartphones. Based on our personal preferences and needs at any given time, we will be able to adjust our environment to suit our needs. This includes controlling light to create natural feel to environment, matching light to our natural everyday rhythm, controlling temperature based on the number of people in a room, there are an almost endless number of possibilities.
As for 20 years from now, once the innovation begins on the intelligent building and city platform, it is almost impossible to predict how the technology will shake out. I anticipate many more highly connected, net zero buildings, networks of smart street lights, self-sufficient DC micro grids, the possibilities are endless!
What industry trends are you most excited about?
First, cognification. I think the “smart device” terminology has been overused to the point that it now refers to any device that is enabled with a microcontroller and some firmware. With cognification, I am referring to the idea that a device is at least partially aware of its environment, and changes how it operates based on this information.
Second, sharing. Rather than owning assets, we have constant access to services. This can be seen in many forms; streaming movies instead of owning DVDs, ride sharing instead of owning a car, streaming music instead of CDs, or even owning the digital music files.
Lastly, questioning. The rapid progress and dropping cost of technology have allowed us to look at old problems in a new way. One example I find particularly interesting is the power grid. We are revisiting the idea of a DC power grid, in addition to addressing alternative energies from the demand side instead of supply. The improvements in many alternative energies have been fairly incremental, however, the reduction in power consumption in electronic devices has been much more impactful. The power consumption levels in some cases are so low that devices can be powered via energy harvesting, or alternative energies are able provide more than enough energy to power the system in question.
What is the biggest challenges TE customers face?
Within the connectivity/IoT segment, I think there are two major problems, compatibility and security. With no standards established yet for the IoT (or more accurately, several competing standards), our customers are left guessing which direction is the right one. Eventually, there will be some convergence, but in the meantime, customers are left with some potentially frustrating compatibility issues.
Security is the other big challenge. With such a large number of sensors and devices generating massive amounts of data every day, privacy and confidential information can be put at risk. The security challenge applies not only to devices, but also the cloud and the huge repositories of existing data.
What inspires you? How do you approach tough problems?
I am inspired mostly by the people around me. I love to hear the perspective of people whose experience is different from my own. There is a lot of value in applying ideas from seemingly disconnected places. It allows for a better solution than I could have come up with on my own.
Similarly, with really tough problems, if the path forward is not clear, it is great to talk to someone to make sure you are not missing something. I had a manager when I first graduated who gave our whole team blocks of wood with his picture on it. He told us that when we had an issue, to tell “him” all about it. If we still did not come up with an answer, then we should go have a conversation with someone else about it. Sometimes even talking through something with yourself will help you see what you were missing.
What influenced your decision to become an engineer?
I actually went to college on an art and literature scholarship. I did not really know how to turn that into a job that I wanted, so I focused on mathematics for about a year because I really liked it in high school. I did not really know what I would do with a math degree either, so I went into engineering. For me, engineering was the best of both worlds, it allowed me to use my creative side, while still using a lot of the math that I really enjoyed.