Up close and personal with the expert.
Interview with Alessandro Villa

Alessandro Villa has been a system integrator in the field for twenty years; an essential professional figure in the field of automation.
Let’s find out together what his role is and why we can’t do without it.

A little bit of background start with. Today, we are more or less spoiled by building automation systems. But it wasn’t always like that. When and how did automation start and what led to the current developments?

Automation comes from two different markets but both rooted in the luxury sector. The first is the marine sector in which automation is a necessity and the other is the high-level residential sector. An important boost was provided by the widespread use of smartphones about ten years ago because it provided everyone with the possibility of owning a fundamental device for controlling automation which had previously been confined to the privileged few.
A panel for controlling automation was very expensive whereas now you can have similar functions using a smartphone for just a few hundred euros.
Another important boost was provided by a few of the major players in the sector who intervened on the market a few years ago with home automation offers, widely covered by the press.

Today’s market has evolved dramatically to the extent that a series of professional figures are needed, including new ones like the system integrator.
Who brings in a system integrator?

More often than not, designers, especially when they are dealing with major projects involving complex interventions, implying the need for the kind of expertise which goes beyond that of installers or electricians,
need to involve a professional figure to take charge of a complex project. This project may entail different functional needs, such as air conditioning, heating, ventilation, as well as the management of security and video surveillance.
The role of the system integrator is to make all the systems relate to one another and make the overall system as uniform as possible by minimising the number of tools required.

People don’t want complicated technology. They want systems that are easy to use.

So, the key then is to simplify?

Simplification is both a consequence and a necessity. It is necessary to understand that in a complex set-up, a large number of management systems must coexist, as I said, for example to control air conditioning and ventilation, etc. which are often supplied by different manufacturers. These systems aren’t created with a user-friendly interface and can, therefore, prove difficult for a user to manage or, as is often the case in offices, for different users to use throughout the day. The risk is that these automation systems can end up being wasted because they are not used to their full potential or faults occur because they are used incorrectly.
Our job is to imagine a situation in which all the tools required to manage the system daily are combined in a single graphical interface unit, which can be easily used by anyone with just a few basic instructions.

Why is the installation of an automation system requested now? Is to save energy or for reasons related to well-being?

In the tertiary and commercial sectors, saving energy is one of the most interesting aspects, even if has not yet been fully tapped.
To date, the request for an automated and integrated system is mainly focused on ensuring that the whole system works and works with minimal effort. People don’t want the complication of technology and they don’t want complicated technology. This is the main request.

A typical office floor with OTOMO products that are integrated with KNX

What are the obstacles you still come up against today?

There are basically two: costs and an anti-technology culture due to incompetence and improvisation experienced in the past.
One of the first questions the customer asks is inevitably “how much does it cost?
Generally speaking, an automation system will cost between twenty and forty percent more than a basic system, but this point should always be clarified. The extra forty percent does not depend on the fact that you are switching from a basic system to a smart system, but rather on the increase in functions requested by the system which were inconceivable with a traditional system.
If we take the restructuring of a small to medium office measuring a few hundred square metres, the overall increase incurred by introducing a building automation system does not exceed more than a few percentage points.
The second obstacle is the price to be paid due to incompetence and lack of professionalism which provoked wariness by the market towards technology, especially in the past. Unfortunately, there are a lot of people who passed and still pass themselves off as automation experts when they are far from being so, thus ruining the image of this sector.

Do you have any advice for business owners who are thinking about restructuring and introducing smart systems?

First and foremost, they should bring in an expert. If they want to achieve specific results, they need to get hold of a system integrator. Unfortunately, this figure is often missing or in the wrong place on construction sites, especially small ones. It’s like expecting to build a house without an engineer and an architect.

How are you perceived by the market?

The perception of our work is that of a technician. The customer sees us on the work site and tends to view us as installers, especially on small work sites. On bigger work sites, there is a better understanding and so, we are viewed as designers because we also participate in project meetings before the building work gets under way.

What advice would you give to installers and designers?

Contact the system integrator as soon as possible to ensure guaranteed end results for the least cost. Unfortunately, we are usually brought in when the systems have already been installed and configured and when it is too late to obtain satisfactory results for the customer.
When the customer starts thinking about using different systems, such as air conditioning, heating, burglar alarms and ventilation, that is the right time to consult us.

Bluetooth or KNX, which of the two technologies is most used in automation?

Bluetooth is an amazing innovation. You can build entirely Bluetooth systems or expand existing KNX systems. I can see a promising opening for retrofitting with Bluetooth, i.e. implementing older systems with added technology and functionality.

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