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The development of digital technologies in the Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning (HVAC) sector has been transformational for the industry, as well as for those who run HVAC systems. While the electrification and digitalization of machines, and assets has made a lot of operations simpler, it has also meant that the collection of machine data has never been more critical.

Given that engineers can now view lots of different metrics on a single screen, including things like heating controls, humidity levels, and more, what exactly are the skillsets required of a modern HVAC engineer in the digital age? And, what will the role look like as digitalization and data-driven processes continue to evolve?

Remote Working

This real-time data can be used to ensure that assets are doing what is expected of them

The most obvious change to the way HVAC engineers are operating in the digital era is the ability to perform diagnostic tasks remotely. Thanks to mission-critical assets being monitored and managed by the Internet of Things (IoT) solutions, engineers can see when burners are activated, or when defrost cycles kick into action.

This real-time data can be used to ensure that assets are doing what is expected of them and if concerning behavioral patterns are flagged in the data, engineers can diagnose faults, without having to attend the site.

Efficient fault diagnosis and repair

Even with a machine right in front of them, engineers can often still learn more about what is going on inside, from their laptops. The ability to gain deep insight into how a machine is functioning, without having to physically ‘open it up and look inside’, is a benefit to both the engineer and the site.

Engineers can diagnose faults more efficiently, without having to undertake invasive investigative work on a shop floor or workplace.

New skillset for HVAC engineers

The HVAC engineers of the digital age may be more likely to be sat with a laptop, rather than up a ladder, so what new skills does this role require?

The reality is that HVAC engineering now requires maintenance professionals to understand the data, as much as the mechanics of the assets that they are trying to fix. There are lots of different sensors, control panels, and monitoring solutions, all presenting different forms of data, so engineers need to be able to interpret information, from all these different layers.

As many manufacturers have their own digital controls systems, engineers will also be dealing with different naming conventions and unstandardized data, even within a single site.

Controls agnostic IoT solutions

The need for digital skills and comprehension of data analytics is still fundamental to the modern role

Thankfully, recent innovations in controls systems means that engineers will have the digital tools that they need to translate this complex and disparate data. Controls agnostic IoT solutions sit across existing digital infrastructure, to connect directly to the asset and present the data in a simple standardized language, for engineers to analyze.

The need for digital skills and comprehension of data analytics is still fundamental to the modern role, but it’s made a lot easier and more efficient, thanks to these progressive innovations.

Real-time data analysis

The ability to see data in real-time means that the way maintenance is carried out is starting to look very different. Thanks to machine behavior monitoring and trend analysis, engineers will be alerted to a machine starting to go wrong, much earlier than the point at which it breaks, enabling them to proactively visit sites, in order to fix minor faults, before they reach critical failure.

The ability to proactively fix faults also saves end-users a lot of money, as maintenance calls will be less frequent and when they are needed, much less severe than they otherwise would have been, if the fault was only detected at the point of the asset breaking down.

Digital Skills and the Future

What does digitalization mean for HVAC engineers? A lot of the requirements for diagnosing and fixing faults in modern HVAC systems have developed over time, so skills have grown slowly and steadily.

There hasn’t been a big bang of digitalization in HVAC, but rather a steady move towards integrating newer technology. This means that most engineers already have the skills, to carry out maintenance roles in the digital age and will continue to be able to learn new skills, at the rate of digitalization.

Commissioning engineers, new HVAC specialist role

There are a small number of new, specialist positions, which are important in the HVAC engineering profession

There are a small number of new, specialist positions, which are important in the HVAC engineering profession, due to digitalization, with the most obvious being commissioning engineers. This role specializes in controls engineering to implement new digital systems, for either new or existing sites, at the beginning of an organization’s digital transformation journey.

Much the same as the HVAC engineer of the pre-digitalization age, the commissioning engineer will work with site managers, so as to ensure systems are implemented correctly and to the right specifications, for a particular venue.

Data-enabled future of automated HVAC

The bottom line is that we’ll always need HVAC engineers, as there will always be assets that need fixing or replacing onsite. Even as we move towards the data-enabled future of automated HVAC machines, they are just that, machines that will break down on occasion and will need to be fixed by a professional.

Furthermore, the HVAC engineer of the future will certainly see a shift in skillsets, as they are increasingly required to understand data analytics and software engineering. If you had to ask me to make a bold prediction, I’d say the HVAC engineer of the future will be at a desk, more than up a ladder, but their hands on skills and expertise will be required, for as long as there are physical machines with moving parts.

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Lee Harpham Refrigeration & Energy Solutions Manager, IMS Evolve

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