From CMMS to AI: Choosing the Best Facilities Management Software

Traditional applications are evolving, and managers feel the impact of artificial intelligence

By Ryan Small, Contributing Writer  

As the heartbeats of institutional and commercial buildings, facilities managers are tasked with a Herculean feat — choosing and implementing software that does not just promise the world but actually delivers a corner of it, neatly organized and cost-effective. From CMMS to CAFM to IWMS to EAM, managers have a range of software options, and each can deliver a range of appealing benefits. 

The challenge is to select the software that meets the needs of their departments and organizations, especially as technology advances such as artificial intelligence (AI) are prompting managers and building owners to rethink long-held views of software’s benefits and challenges. 

Sorting out software 

Traditionally, managers seeking greater efficiency, lower costs and improved productivity in their buildings and organizations have chosen from among four groups of facilities management applications: 

Computerized maintenance management systems (CMMS). These systems track, schedule and document maintenance activities, and they help users schedule regular maintenance, routine inspections and preventive maintenance. Once the software is fully operational, the detailed history of equipment maintenance it provides can be valuable

The history of work that was completed on which pieces of equipment can help managers with predictive maintenance and resource allocation when combined with sensors and AI programs. This capacity for predictive maintenance can be indispensable in environments where operational continuity is critical. 

Computer-aided facility management (CAFM) systems. This software shines in optimizing the use and management of physical spaces. Key features typically include space management, asset management, maintenance management, room booking and energy management. The application can manage seating arrangements, track asset locations and assist in compliance with health and safety regulations. It should not come as a surprise that CAFM systems are comparatively more expensive than the more specialized CMMS. 

Integrated workplace management systems (IWMS). The Swiss Army knife of facilities software, IWMS offer an integrated suite for managing real estate, infrastructure and facilities assets. The application brings together functionality across property management, maintenance, space utilization and environmental sustainability. An IWMS helps organizations maintain a holistic view of their facilities operations, aiding in strategic decision making and resource optimization. 

Enterprise asset management (EAM) systems. These applications take a macro view of facilities, focusing on the entire lifecycle management of an organization's physical assets. From procurement to disposal, an EAM helps maximize asset performance and longevity. This software is essential for tracking asset health, managing maintenance activities and optimizing asset replacement strategies in asset-intensive industries. 

In addition to these four groups of applications, managers also might consider capital planning software. This strategic planner of applications is designed to assist facility managers and financial planners in long-term asset and infrastructure investment planning. Capital planning software helps in forecasting future capital expenditures, assessing risks and prioritizing investment projects based on strategic objectives and the viability of funding streams. It is crucial for ensuring capital spending aligns with an organization's long-term goals. 

That said, specialized solutions for capital planning are still developing. There are often planning modules available for purchase in CAFM, IWMS and EAM applications, but their usability, or lack thereof, is tied to the structure of the underlying data and out-of-the-box reporting. The data required to plan work orders might materially differ from the data required to report to a chief financial officer or director. For this reason, this kind of activity often still takes place in spreadsheets. They are not graceful, but until capital planning software catches up, it is practical. 

Demystifying AI in FM 

AI is more science-fact than science-fiction, but the foundation of its success is a clean and structured data set for the type of information facilities managers want to make decisions about. For most facilities management organizations, those do not exist yet. 

How do we know this? Managers can ask themselves if they are 100 percent confident that every work order is properly tracked by staff, that every piece of equipment has a complete work order history and that every piece of inventory is captured, including installation date, current condition, replacement cost and repair history. Most likely they are not. The facilities management industry is moving in the right direction, but it is not there yet

Why is it so important to have clean data? At its core, AI creates a model to perform tasks typically requiring human intelligence. These models excel at pattern recognition and prediction. They operate through algorithms, which are sets of instructions a programmer writes for the computer to follow. 

These algorithms can be relatively simple decision trees, which is like a flowchart of yes/no questions leading to an outcome. But they also can be complex neural networks, which mimic the human brain's interconnected neurons to process information and learn from it. 

Unlike humans, an algorithm can only process the information it is trained on. AI models thrive on large datasets. The more data they have, the more accurate their predictions and analyses become. But in many facilities, collecting this data systematically and ensuring its accuracy can be a daunting task. 

Despite these challenges, AI is steadily gaining ground in facilities management. Its applications are already evident in areas such as energy management and predictive maintenance. For instance, AI can sift through extensive maintenance records to predict HVAC system failures, enabling proactive maintenance strategies that avert costly downtime. This premise is mirrored in IoT sensors that monitor equipment through vibration and sound patterns. AI is also optimizing energy use in buildings, balancing efficiency with occupant comfort. 

The potential of AI in facilities management is expansive, and the applications are diverse, from optimizing space using real-time occupancy data to enhancing safety through intelligent monitoring. AI and data analytics symbolize a frontier of possibilities, promising to make facilities more efficient and adaptable to changing organizational needs. 

Despite the challenges of data quality and required expertise, embracing these technologies could unlock unprecedented levels of efficiency and effectiveness in facilities management. 

Cost considerations 

Budgeting for facility management software is like planning a wedding. Failing to account for every flower and canapé — or in this case, module and support hour — means costs will spiral. Software implementation is the iceberg to this Titanic. What lies beneath the surface can sink the whole operation. 

Calculating return on investment is not just about the price of the software. It is accounting for every hour of training, each minute of support and the potential cost of sanity if things go sideways. 

A successful implementation is a well-staffed one. A lack of planning when selecting management and planning software can result in a manager and organization having to do double the work. Managers might have to change providers when implementation fails. It often is time-consuming and expensive and can make managers look bad. 

The journey to selecting the most appropriate facilities management software circles back to a fundamental truth: Knowing the specific needs is more important than the allure of fancy features and buzzwords. It is critical to aligning the capabilities of these applications — whether it is a CMMS's maintenance prowess, a CAFM's space optimization, an IWMS's integrated approach or an EAM's asset lifecycle management — with the unique challenges and goals of the facility. 

As more managers embrace AI and data analytics, they move further into a future where facilities management is less about reactive firefighting and more about strategic foresight. The key lies in understanding the potential and limitations of these technologies and preparing for the data-driven requirements they entail. 

Choosing the most effective facilities management software is less about finding a one-size-fits-all solution and more about tailoring a system to an organization's needs. Managers need to audit the needs of the organization and create an RFP to fit those specific needs. 

Ryan Small, FMVA, FMP, is vice president with FEA. 

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  posted on 12/1/2023   Article Use Policy

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