Engineering change

Online Editor

Vicken Arabian on the new wave of custom AHU design and manufacturing

For mechanical engineers needing to design/select air handling units, the advent of air handling unit (AHU) selection software was a revolution. Starting as early as the 1980s, the software began to take over some of the complex calculations and laborious manual cross-referencing with tabulated data involved in the process. By the early 2000s, powerful, stand-alone platforms allowed engineers to design/select AHUs by picking from extensive catalogues of components supplied by various manufacturers from a single pane of glass. Selection software cut the engineering time required in the design phase of an AHU project by 50% compared to early software solutions that didn’t include component data. But then an interesting thing happened: selection software continued to improve its core functionality, but it remained siloed from other aspects of the AHU manufacturing process.

The selection silo

As an engineer, I have a predisposition to see everything as a process or a system. And it always seemed odd that even closely related critical functionalities such as validation, costing, scaled parametric modelling, bill of materials, and ERP integration never found their way into the selection software. After all, all these processes use component data closely related to the design data. Why not extend the functionality of the selection platforms? Using shared data could save days of engineering time on each AHU and considerably lower the risks of errors. We're not talking about an end-to-end solution here – just integrating the next few steps in the process. Despite the obvious benefits, custom air handling unit software makers have remained steadfast in their focus on design/selection.

Collaboration is another sticking point when it comes to AHU design and manufacturing. The current generation of selection software is typically on-premise, often single-station systems that base their workflow around the idea that the engineer is a lone wolf, working on their own, needing no one, and sharing their work only when finalised. Selection software is siloed; it’s not easily networked, uses proprietary formats, and does not lend itself to simultaneously working with others inside or outside an organisation.

So what is the impact? Just in terms of engineering time, the impact of not having a single end-to-end system to unify all phases of design, sales, and manufacturing is pretty significant. Adopting a centralised system with a single source of truth for component data and project-specific data engineers could save time across the design, validation, pricing, and manufacturing phases. In fact, if all these phases shared data, the overall time needed to design, validate, price, manufacture, ship, and service an AHU could conservatively be cut by 25%. It would eliminate the need to lookup data from external sources, re-enter data, and double and triple-check to make sure no errors have crept in. Using a single collaborative system would drive time savings and reduce the chance of human error. And it would have the added benefit of letting engineers focus our energy where we really add value, allowing us to take on new projects rather than spend our time doing data entry.

Why didn’t selection software evolve?

So the real question is, why is AHU software still stuck in the 2000s? Why hasn’t the industry jumped on the digital transformation bandwagon and taken to the collaborative cloud? The answer is two-fold. First, there has not been a driving need for the industry to change how it does things. A typical commercial construction project is a slow-moving beast, and there has been plenty of time built into the process to deliver AHUs on the schedules required for these projects. Second, the process is complicated, with lots of steps, iterations, and stakeholders. The task of building out a software platform (or rebuilding for existing software) that meets the needs of all groups involved in the process, from internal teams to external sales representatives, construction firms, and developers, is a daunting one. So that’s been the answer for a long time: “it’s complicated, and we don’t need it.”

Accelerated demand

All that may be about to change. Climate change and new Net Zero regulations are about to drive a wave of AHU demand, both for new builds and retrofits. Add to that that many jurisdictions are beefing up air quality regulations post-Covid, meaning many HVAC systems in existing buildings will need to be upgraded with more circulation and better filtration. These two factors will push demand for new custom AHUs to higher levels, and with all the retrofits required, production cycle time will need to shorten to meet this new demand.

Higher demand sounds great, but manufacturers’ processes are calibrated to meet current demand, and there are only so many qualified engineers to work on these projects. If the industry wants to meet this demand using the same approach it used for the last 20 years, it would mean major investments in both human resources and manufacturing capacity.

Time to re-engineer

As engineers, we know the answer isn’t to throw more resources at the problem – that will just magnify current inefficiencies and reduce margins. The answer is to re-engineer the process end-to-end to eliminate inefficiencies, improve collaboration and streamline operations. If it’s done right, the industry will emerge from this digital transformation with increased capacity, improved velocity, reduced cost, higher profit margins, and happier engineers, employees, partners, and customers. 

Vicken Arabian is co-Founder and CTO of Kinetix Air AHU Selection Software

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