Chemicals, IT and Other Disruptive Innovations: What’s Up in Fire Safety?

Photo Philippe Mangon / Technical Director, Siemens Building Technologies / October 31st, 2012

How does one manage fire hazards in a hospital, an airport or on a plane? If detection technologies are evolving, the key today lies in consolidating and processing information, with Danger Management Systems which also monitor security breach risks and transit management. By specializing in the design of system architectures, major industrial players have evolved into becoming service providers. Fire protection, thus, increasingly appears as one of the most technical elements of a wider business line: security.

ParisTech Review. In the field of fire safety, key industrial players seem to be focusing on systems rather than on the instruments themselves. Where did this change come from?

Philippe Mangon. Indeed, systems are all the rage, given that both in buildings and in on-board installations, protection against fire hazards requires a composite fire-fighting apparatus, which requires coordination between several approaches: detection, active prevention, and course, fire extinguishing.

These three dimensions draw on multiple competences that revolve around specific technologies. First of all, sensors, which use thermal or infrared technology. Then come fire detection units, which process information with electronic equipment and dedicated software. And finally, programmable logic controllers, which carry out fire extinguishing functions once alarms have been set off.

To successfully combine such diverse technologies requires at once specialized and cross-cutting skills: specialized, in some segments such as sensors or the effects of suppression agents on fires, where physico-chemical knowledge is brought into play. Cross-cutting, given that quality and innovation also and above all derive from the interlinking of these different technologies, as well as from the integration of issues pertaining to social sciences (notably emergency evacuation assistance). However more traditional engineering is also relevant, for instance to deal with fairly conventional problems such as fluid mechanics.

However each system is different and possesses specific operating conditions. The task of risk analysis is therefore absolutely central to our business. It doesn’t simply involve making calculations, but also means advising and providing explanations to clients that may not necessarily be familiar with our area of expertise, but who can enrich our analysis. It is a dialogue.

Are available options simply translating standards, or, quite the contrary, the product of more complex industrial arbitration?

The field of fire safety is highly regulated at the European level, and it is even more so at the national level. In France, for example, there are GFMC standards (Global Fire Monitoring Center), which provide very keen reference as to minimum applicable provisions. However some industrial customers may request additional requirements for certain sensitive facilities.

Different solutions have been developed in the United States, for instance regarding vocally assisted dynamic evacuation guidance: a technology that is still underdeveloped in Europe, and which doesn’t belong to the European Union’s body of standards, but that that is of great interest.

In the rest of the world, legal standards are often less demanding, but customers may desire a high security level, and in these conditions, the frames of reference coming from the United States or the EU, that we are quite familiar with, cease to be a simple constraint to become a sales argument.

In a nutshell, I would say that mature markets such as France and Germany are systems markets, that is to say solutions markets. In Asia and the Pacific, we address the market through product placement.

And to answer your question more specifically, standards do play an important role in the definition of products, although they play a lesser role in the design of installed equipment – even if there are normative references on that side too.

Generally speaking the client’s request remains central when it comes to develop a system. Thus an office building will have point detectors located on the ceiling and whose working radius is a few meters wide, with optical technology; conversely, in a large volume, we will have a linear smoke detector, fed by luminous radiation sensors; or, as a final example, a data center will have a vacuum system with multiple outlets, capable of determining that a single card is starting to combust… all depends on the customer and his needs.

How does the market work: it is very open, or at the contrary, oligopolistic?

There are not too many players in the industry and, depending on business segments, one can shift from an open competition situation, with standard products, to a very different logic: long-term partnerships with customers, specific requests with quality requirements, and high added value.

This is especially the case with what we call “special markets”, that is to say on-board equipment, notably in the field of aeronautics. Such markets are global, are very customer-oriented (as opposed to turnkey solutions) and most of the time the challenge is to develop a dedicated system. For example, we are currently working on detection systems for the Airbus A350. Lightness is obviously a factor, but safety and security are absolute imperatives. We must take into account environmental and operating conditions that are quite specific whether it is in terms of temperature, shock, or electromagnetic interference. Protection systems must be at once strenghtened and made more responsive.

Concerning railways, we do not develop dedicated solutions, since it would be economically absurd: we work on intermediate solutions, most of the time in a joint effort not with train operators, but with the Tier 1 OEMs. The market is relatively open – even when the customer is Siemens, we are competing with other suppliers.

Finally, regarding buildings, we usually offer “on the shelf” solutions with modular bricks. Customization plays out in the manner they are combined. It is an open and competitive market, but then again, there are not too many players.

How does quality play out – defining the “best bidder” technologically speaking?

On multiple fronts. For example, a system shall have to be at once reliable over time, capable of early detection and immune to interference phenomena.

Ideally, a given system has of course all the qualities… but in practice one has to choose between trade-offs. Most of the time, all the clients are asking is a system that remains inconspicuous. It must also be easy to maintain and operate, and finally must be reactive so as to intervene as soon as possible in case of an incident.

It is around these three pivotal areas of performance that Siemens and its competitors are working. In this regard, the great importance of feedback should be noted. A large installed base is an opportunity to obtain feedback from many and varied sources, and good information reporting is a strong element of added value. We thus have a team dedicated to supporting teams and reporting feedback, and we also have an independent management “support and training” unit. This is crucial in terms of quality and reliability, two elements that are key to our business, but it is also a component of the innovation process, with incremental logic on areas such as operations and maintenance.

What of the great innovation cycles in your business, besides this incremental logic?

Their time span is a decade, which may seem slow when compared to cycles of merely a year or two as is the case for mobile telephony, for example. But our industry is driven by disruptive innovations, which lead it to deeply reinvent its specialties, for example, by moving from optical solutions to electrochemistry.

I can draw up a brief historical overview. The oldest technologies in our business are the ion detectors, which date back to the 1950s. They have a wide spectrum and are suitable to locate both smoldering and open fires. But they have this one tiny flaw: they are radioactive… which has led to scrap them.

We then moved to optical technologies, which are now central. They notably use infrared and ultraviolet, playing on the dispersive properties of light by particles.

Beginning in the 1980s, we developed multi-criteria systems, which in itself was a disruption. Heat detection systems were first added to optical sensors, and in the 2000s we learned to identify the particles types present in a room (e.g., distinguishing clear particles, or combustion aerosols).

All these solutions have in common a rather broad spectrum. But more accurate systems have been developed, such as coupling infrared and ultraviolet to detect of specific seats of fire (electrical fires, or fires coming from certain high calorific potential hydrocarbons), or for instance the use of very fine light beam emitter/receiver modules that are adapted to industrial warehouses.

What are the most interesting innovations today?

On the extinguishing front, the focus is on developing the cleanest and least polluting products, either by using chemical substitutes, or by working on new methods. For example, two-phase nozzles have recently been placed on the market, that send a mixture of air and water with special properties.

Gas detection systems, which rely on electrochemistry and electronics, are among the most promising fields. These miniature systems use metal oxides that change properties as a function of their exposure to given gases. They are still in experimental phase, and questions remain about their reliability and long-term capacities.

Wireless sensors are also worth mentioning, which interest clients for a very simple reason: one of the sources of costs is the wiring, and wireless therefore is a source of savings. More generally, while the performance of detection tools is essential, the transmission of information should not be neglected. And in this area great strides have been made since the days of case-by-case wiring; things started by wiring a loop, and systems are now addressable, allowing to detect failures faster and thus facilitating maintenance. Thanks to wireless technologies, information gets to be exchanged between programmable logic controllers: this allows to develop active research models.

Reliability and speed of data transport are essential. And everything that allows to single out information elements has value. Pinpointing, for example, a combustion start, or knowing exactly what is burning. In this context, monitoring and information processing systems are of great importance, and again this constitutes a critical area of innovation.

But we must understand the logic of innovation, as reflected for example in the work of the Competence Center that I am running. There is of course traditional R&D at Siemens and its competitors, with new products being developed in hope of finding their customers. But what is driving the most impacting innovations has less to do with the logics of supply than with a response to demand from “special markets”.

This leads us to work closely with other competence centers in the group so as to identify relevant technologies (whether we must identify them within the group, develop them, or acquire them), and then do development work so that technology is adapted to the needs of our clients, with whom we are in constant dialogue.

Most of basic technologies are shared, and solutions are relatively standardized. So what constitutes the “signature” of a company nowadays?

Actually the field of system architectures is where you can find a “signature”, a trademark know-how. And it also happens to be one of the areas that great market players are focusing on, and which can make a difference not only in specialty markets, which especially revolve around embedded technology, but also in buildings equipment. Because where extensive facilities such as a hospital, an airport, or a convention center are concerned, one essential dimension lies in consolidating and processing very diverse and abundant information in what is called Danger Management Systems.

Beyond fire hazards, these environments also deal with security breach risks and comfort issues (flow management, transit, etc.), and people managing such places have a clear interest in consolidating this information so it can be treated in the most effective way possible. So you can find added value in integrating and developing system architectures that are at once reliable, accurate and practical.

Somehow, this trend is driving an extension of the concept of fire safety, which more and more appears as one of the most technical links of a larger business line: security.

Note from the editors
Siemens is a patron of ParisTech Review.

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