Buildings run by embedded chips are a problem everywhere. In Australia, the problem is taken seriously -- not only by engineers but by the press.
This appeared in THE AGE (May 12).
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ENGINEERS are now waging an increasingly desperate battle against the Millennium Bug in Australia's office buildings. Time is running out and, according to several of the country's leading consulting engineers, only a very small percentage of office blocks has been surveyed, let alone cleansed of the potentially disastrous problem lurking in many of their control systems.
And time is not the only scarce commodity. "We're also running out of professional support. There aren't many of us in the field," said Mark Greig, director of Lincolne Scott, a big Melbourne-based engineering consultancy.
Nor is that manpower shortage the only one faced by building owners. If there is a shortage within the consulting engineering field of the skills needed to assess the risks, there is an even greater shortage of those capable of fixing the computing problems.
The engineers simply identify problems and assess the risks they present. In itself those are complex and time-consuming tasks. But getting programmers and even obtaining upgraded equipment are further, and possibly even greater difficulties.
"A lot of clients are discovering that it's now hard to find anyone to give them a hand." And the work is only just starting. . . .
"All of the technologies in a building, the services ranging from the supply of electricity to telephone switchboards, to air-conditioning and security systems, are controlled in one way or another by PC-based or embedded microprocessors," he said. They ran the lifts and the fire detection systems, for example. They controlled the opening and the locking of doors and the ventilation systems.
Those issues, he said, not only involved the working of the building and the access to its offices, but could include health and safety issues and those, in turn, could lead to legal problems.
"Microchips are very cheap and they are in everything from hand driers on the walls of toilets to building automation systems," said Greig. . . .
Beyond that, one of the real problems faced by the business community was the obvious failure of many building owners to confront the looming problems.
"I think most of them are aware they've got a problem, but they're saying to themselves they'll get around to it in a week or a month or two. But there's no time left. The deadline is not moving," Greig said. "It's going to hit at the end of next year, whatever they do. It's the only project deadline in the country that is known and absolutely fixed." . . .
"A lot of buildings have things hidden in ceilings and behind finishes. We look at all of the documentation we can get and interview everyone who has knowledge of the building. The aim is to get access to as much information as we can so that we can identify as many microprocessors as we can.
"When you have that information - and it's usually a large list - there is a reasonable chance that if there is a big risk in there, you will pick it up," he said. "One of the biggest hazards in this business is stuff you don't know about. It's important that the building owners understand that. They have to tell us everything they know, even if they think it is insignificant." . . .
The services in a building generally represented about 30 per cent of the cost of a building, said Fowler. "The controlling aspect represents a significant chunk of that, but it is impossible to tell without detailed examination how much compliance might cost. It's a case of how long is a piece of string; in some cases, very short, in others, the whole ball." Identifying the risk is, of course, only one facet of the issue. Then come the fixes.
"The nature of the problem determines the fix," said Eagling. "In some cases, you may not be able to make the item compliant, so you're looking at replacement, and that means you might have a supply problem. Manufacturers might not be able to get the item to you in time.
"In other instances it might be a simple software change, or a new circuit board. These are reasonably straight-forward. An associated problem is that the original manufacturer might no longer be in business, or may have left that sector of the business."
Nor is the risk limited to what is in the building, said Greig. "You need to consider your power supplies and telephone connections. You might be fine in the building, but if you lose your power for any length of time, you'll be in trouble. Australia is in reasonable control in this area, but in Asia it's likely to be serious."