Invensys and smart cities: An industrial-strength enabling platform

Wed, 2014-02-05 06:00 -- Jesse Berst

Q&A with Rob McGreevy, VP Platform and Applications, Software Solutions

Rob McGreevyRob McGreevy has always had an interest in automation. As a student at the University of Iowa, he liked to experiment with early home automation products. He then took a part-time job helping set up campus-wide building automation.

After college, he went to work for a series of automation vendors, turning his hobby interest into his profession. Today he is responsible for defining and executing the product strategy for the platform and applications team within Invensys Software, now part of Schneider Electric and a Smart Cities Council Associate Partner.

For its fiscal year ending March 31, 2013, Invensys’ Software business achieved $395 million in revenue and experienced double-digit revenue growth. Worldwide, there are 850,000 software licenses supported.  In July 2013, Schneider Electric SA agreed to buy Invensys for $5.2 billion. The transaction is now complete.

 In my recent conversation with Rob, I learned that:

      • Invensys believes the smart city market is at the tipping point, as evidenced by the firm's double-digit growth.
      • Historically known for industrial automation, Invensys is moving strongly into the smart cities sectors and infrastructure and already has hundreds of projects in place for buildings, water and wastewater, energy and transportation.
      • Its "secret sauce" is a global partner network that now numbers more than 2,300.
      • Its next initiative is to push out its connectivity even further towards the edges, while also making its applications mobile-friendly.

More details below. -- Jesse Berst


Has the smart cities market hit the tipping point?

Yes, we're at a tipping point. A lot of factors are converging to cause more and more of our customers to move ahead with projects. Until recently there had been a lot of talk but now we have good case studies. Customers are expanding systems with a broader smart cities approach.

As a great example, Carson City Public Works in Nevada started by using our products and services for managing its water and wastewater operations. Now it has expanded beyond that. They have connected all the solar arrays and traffic lights and street lights. And they have equipped municipal workers with mobile devices that they can use to manage the city.

Do we have the technology we need, or is there more to invent?

There are no major technology hurdles preventing us from achieving the goals. But there is complexity involved in tying together manual and semi-automated systems. Cloud computing and software-as-a-service (SaaS) and sharing infrastructure will help to overcome the cost-complexity barrier.

When you move to SaaS, you get a lot more flexibility versus installing servers and software on your own. And you also get budget flexibility. You can often operate from your opex budget rather than capex.

Which technologies are core to a smart city?

First, you need the ability to connect to disparate systems. You need the ability to talk to the traffic system and the water system and the HVAC system, etc.

Next, you need the ability to centrally organize and archive the data. Our Wonderware Historian now comes in two flavors. You can have an on-premise version, and we recently started to offer it as a service. We've also improved its ability to handle very large data sets, into the millions of inputs range.

And then you have applications that sit on top. You have to make sure that the apps are put in the hands of the people best able to act on the information. That may mean mobile applications, tablets and even apps for citizens.

Are there ways to overcome the financing obstacle?

Integration in China's railway systemIt is a bit easier in areas like China where they are making big investments in infrastructure. Since they are spending the money to modernize, and in some cases literally building new cities, it's easy to cost-justify smart technologies. For instance, we have a huge project with China Ministry of Railways where we are integrating all their high-speed rail stations, hundreds of them.

In Europe and North America it's important to tie the projects to cost savings. You need to build a business case to justify a project based on the anticipated savings. For instance, Carson City has quantifiable metrics -- percentage reduction in staff hours, less time in trucks, reduced work times for routine tasks. These are the kinds of things needed to justify the investment. Most cities expect a three- to five-year payback.

And of course you want to aim first at projects with a quick return. For instance, a smart water network to reduce water needs or enable mobile workers to be more productive.

And there's also the citizen engagement angle. The more you can empower citizens with information, the more they will support smart technologies. It's a "softer" benefit but it can be impactful. So your business case should clearly explain how the new system is ultimately expected to improve citizens' lives.

What areas of the world are leading the way?

There's a lot going on in Spain, in places such as Barcelona and Ecocity Valdespartera Zaragoza. Germany is progressive too. For instance Bremen is consolidating 160 facilities into a centralized management system. There are a few pockets in the U.S., typically an expansion of an existing system. We see a lot in these specific countries, but smart cities are around the world. We think this is spreading in awareness.

How important is the smart cities market to Invensys?

It is one of our major themes. We're in more than 8,000 water facilities alone. Thematically, the stuff we have done well in the industrial setting, we believe can do well in smart cities as well. We've already done much of the heavy lifting and have a solid foundation in place.

What is Invensys' role in the smart cities ecosystem?

We're a solution enabler. We provide the tools and technology to enable smart city applications. We deliver those applications through a large network of partners and systems integrators.

What does Invensys do better than any other company?

We have a proven track record. We have an advantage because we have so much experience in so many places. We have world-class technology -- the connectivity to tie together the pieces, the interfaces to pull the software together and an ecosystem of experienced partners to deliver solutions.

Our partners are our chief advantage. You can't just parachute in and then leave. These systems require long-term care and feeding. Local support is critical. We've been doing this for more than 20 years, and we now have 2,300 global partners.

Are there any misconceptions about Invensys and its smart city capabilities?

Traditionally we were seen providing SCADA to manufacturing. The truth is that during the past decade we've done many smart city applications – building automation projects, schools, railways, airports, the London Underground and more.

What's next for Invensys

We are continuing to invest in broad connectivity, in software that talks to all sorts of devices. With smart cities there is a bigger emphasis to connect directly to embedded systems. Edge connectivity -- for instance, rather than talk to a controller or concentrator, talk directly to the individual smart meters. Or the traffic sensors. Or the refrigeration sensors in trucks and buildings. And so on.

We're also building out our data historian and analytics. To drive improvements in cities, you have to "historize" the data and then analyze it.

We're accelerating our efforts to make our software available as a service. And to make our systems mobile friendly -- tablet-ready, smartphone-ready, location-ready.

What is the single most important thing a city leader should do today to position his city for success?

Take a stand. Be a leader and a visionary on how smart technology can help citizens. Help people understand what's in it for them.

What's the right way for a city to get started?

With a vision for where you want the city to go. It doesn't have to be super-comprehensive. Once you have an overall vision, then start small. Most cities can't fund a "big bang" project, but they can fund something small with a quick return.

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Jesse Berst is the founding Chairman of the Smart Cities Council. Click to learn about the benefits you receive when you join the Council for free.