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Volume 41,   Issue 1      January 2006


Back to the Future
    Electronic Access Control Hardware Brings Users Newest Technologies

by Brigid O'Leary

It’s been more than a decade—13 years to be exact—since characters played by Sly Stalone and Wesley Snipes were cutting eyes out of corpses to override the retina scan protective locking system on a building in the movie Demolition Man. In 1993, the concept of retina scanning was very futuristic (and quite gruesome, thank you). Sometimes, though, the technology we see in the movies reflects what is already available, even if it is not necessarily in use in the mainstream. While the average American citizen still uses manual hardware to gain entry into his or her home or office, consumers and architects alike are gaining more than a passing familiarity with electronic access hardware (EAC).

My How It’s Grown

We’ve come a long way from the old-fashioned brass key with two prongs and a round head. Security hardware has evolved over the last several centuries, and quite dramatically of late, too. For the seasoned traveler, it’s a rare find these days to check into a hotel and be handed a key rather than a plastic card. 

In fact, the use of EAC is growing, and has been for at least ten years now.

“It’s consumer-driven. It’s the information that electronic products are out there and what they give to the consumer, to the building owners” that is fueling the steady interest in EAC, says Stuart Farrell, access control manager for CHMI.

“When we started, the products … fingerprint readers, retina scans, all of it was really out there, but it’s very common now,” says Farrell.

It is a sentiment echoed by others in the industry.

“I wouldn’t consider anything really new. It’s been around for a while. It’s ever increasing. It’s growing by leaps and bounds. A lot more manufacturers are coming out with a lot more access control products. Companies that, years ago, only made magnetic locks or electric strikes are now a lot more into electronic products,” says Scott Hammond, sales manager for Oxford, Mich.-based JLM.

Not only have companies segued into electronic products, but many are embracing the shift wholeheartedly. 

“Many manufacturers have been diverting the profits from the basic door and hardware business into their electronic access control product portfolio,” says Scott Duncan, president and chief financial officer of DORMA Architectural Hardware.

Compute This

In the grand scheme of things—and certainly compared with the history of door hardware—a decade is barely a drop in the evolutionary bucket. What brought about this comparatively sudden evolution in hardware? The same phenomenon that has revolutionized the lives of citizens in nearly every developed nation in the last two decades: the computer.

“It’s closely tied to the computer being really a normal part of everyday business. As soon as you [started to see] personal computers on every desk, that almost immediately got transformed into what you can and can’t do with controlling access into these buildings,” says Farrell, noting that the technology that allows for the existence of EAC “closely coincides with the personal computer revolution” over the last two decades.

“Who Will Pay for It?”

Without computers, of course, the existence of EAC would not be possible. However, electronic access control—like mechanical hardware—can only offer limited protection, albeit with significantly different limitations on what it can do.

One of the flaws of any access control system is called “piggybacking or trailing,” which can happen if one person with the capability of opening an access controlled door and someone else (who may or may not have the credentials or authority to enter) follows them in while the door is open.

“Then you have to have video monitoring and people to watch it. You have to watch a system that has the system control and the monitoring all rolled into one with a taped-back up and humans monitoring each aspect. That’s where it really gets expensive. That’s why you’ll see people who are installing electronic access control also installing monitors, videos, that sort of thing,” Duncan explains. “It’s hard for me to envision the elementary school I can see outside my window going completely EAC, unless it is donated.”

At this juncture, most people still trust one another and the move toward electronic access control of any sort remains steady. In the automotive end of things, the majority of new cars are offered with options for remote entry (unlocking doors with the key fob rather than just the key) and some even allow users to start the car remotely. So will we see people running around with key fobs that unlock their houses, the way we see them remotely unlock or start their cars?

“Yeah. I can imagine that. The question is, who will pay for it? The price has been rolled into the cost of the car,” says Duncan.

The technology is there; it’s just cost prohibitive and the cost is a significant factor in the limitations to the spread of EAC. Systems can run from roughly $600 for a simple mag lock and reader for a door to upward of $5000 for more complicated systems that require systems integrators. Installation, of course, could push those figures higher.

“It’s very expensive. For some customers [the deterrent] would just be the price. You can do access control fairly cheaply, but some customers view the use of cameras as more important than access control on the doors,” says Hammond.

Price aside, the idea of a completely keyless system for a building has other issues that must be addressed, including not only the “piggybacking” problem mentioned earlier, but a whole series of questions that building owners and managers, Duncan feels, should be addressed before installation of an EAC system begins.

“Do you want one fob to get into the building and that same fob to unlock the office door? And do you want the same fob to get you into the bathroom and supply cabinet? Then you get into protocol, who am I going to let open all these doors?” he asks. “One thing to say is that the ‘smart’ building is a lot smarter than remote entry into a car.”


Those aspects of technology that allow for buildings to outsmart cars (so to speak), present other troubles. First and foremost: fire codes.

“The codes that are built around traditional hardware are tied into fire codes, which are very important,” says Farrell. “Evolution is the key word. Most of these building codes were written going back to the turn of the last century, in response to the large fires in public buildings, those codes addressed mechanical devices and were written around how mechanical devices work. What you see now are codes that are starting to describe how electronic parts available now work within the code.”

But codes are slow to change and the worst-case scenario for technology is total system failure, such as with a power outage or fire. For these reasons, Duncan explains, most EAC systems contain a manual override.

Gaze into the Crystal Ball

Manual override is important, of course, but what does the steady progress of EAC systems mean for the future of good ol’ mechanical hardware? Forecasts look good.

“There are people who have predicted the extinction of the mechanical key for 15 years or more. The answer has to be: ‘it depends on the ultimate pricing of the EAC systems,’ but it’s hard to compete with the tens of thousands of doors that are already installed with a perfectly good, workable key system where there is minimal maintenance,” says Duncan.

While mechanical hardware is not likely to disappear soon, it, like everything else in the world, is facing—if not already undergoing—evolutionary changes. 

“I think you’ll see some blending of traditional mechanical hardware with electronic devices that might carry on the informational role that electronic devices are so good at. That’s already happening today, but I think the traditional mechanical device that can open a door from the inside but keep it locked from the outside and not depend on electronics to make it work, I think that’s going to stay with us for quite some time,” says Farrell.

There are, of course, some companies and buildings that have skipped the evolutionary step. Biometric access uses the human body and those aspects of being human that make us different from one another to create another level of security. Retina, palm and finger print scans are the aspects of this kind of technology with which most people are familiar, even if it is only through Hollywood portrayal (again, think movies such as Demolition Man and Mission Impossible or television shows such as 24 and CSI). It remains a fairly futuristic concept to many, but it looms on the horizon as the next big thing.

“Biometrics is on the horizon, but we don’t see a lot of activity with it [right now]. That would be the most cutting edge [technology that] I see forthcoming, but just not a lot of people are buying it yet,” says Hammond.

Look at Me Now
Whether a company is taking baby steps to implement EAC or jumping in with two-feet and setting up biometric access control, the fact remains that electronic access control is here to stay. 

“It’s going to become more prevalent,” predicts Farrell. “It’s almost all commercial [implementation] right now. I think you’ll see it residentially in the future. The same things that are so convenient for businesses, with every kid carrying a cell phone, I can see the same kind of entrance into a home as people become more security conscious.”

“I think what we’re going to see is a growth in EAC, a growth in closed-circuit television monitoring stations probably most in those segments that can afford it—primarily in government buildings funded by taxpayer dollars,” says Duncan.

As EAC becomes more prevalent among consumers, it will change how jobs are bid and implemented and will doubtlessly have a long-range impact on every aspect of the building industry. 

“Architects must either become specialized or have access to specialized security designs on the high security building segment. Builders will partner with a variety of firms to execute the more complex EAC designs. Some traditional manufacturers of hardware have begun to purchase security integrators, those companies that design and install EAC Systems. But these manufacturers risk competing with their primary contract hardware distribution channels,” surmises Duncan.

At the very least, EAC is changing the dynamics along the building chain.

“I think you see the hardware companies that are out in the market—particularly those with which I’m familiar—choose one particular field of expertise or the other. They’re either great with mechanical devices and know the codes backward and forward and that’s what they specialize in, or they’re in electronics with their own specifiers,” says Farrell. “Architects utilize people in both, but there are companies that are beginning to embrace both parts of it. When you get into electronics, you need people who are familiar with how those things are wired and how things are tied in and integrated with security systems of a building. It’s more than just what happens at the door, but how that information is carried back to the computers that handle the overall security of the building. You’ll see that more and more integrated as time goes by. There is a separation between the two trades: traditional hardware market and EAC market. I think it’s certainly happening now and I think in the next ten years you’ll see more companies that do both sides of the story and that will be more helpful.”

Be Prepared
In the face of the emerging and growing EAC industry, what’s a glass company to do? First and foremost, be prepared. Learn as much as possible about the technology available and how it works—or at the very least, know which companies to go to with questions.

“If they are working on a project as part of their bid package and have EAC hardware to include in it, they can’t just stop installing it at the door and leave the wires hanging out. They should subcontract with someone who is familiar with the way things work,” Farrell continues.

“Most of our problems with field conditions is when there is a breakdown between the installation of the door and who is going to finish the installation through the rest of the building. You have a guy who’s familiar with installing aluminum doors and they’re asking him how this will work and why this doesn’t work. He doesn’t know. He really should be going to an electronic security company and getting advice and have them sit with him so they can provide information. Anyone who has to bid [EAC hardware], even if they’re not going to handle it, should include information for someone who does know how to make it happen.”

If a company is taking on a job after someone else has worked on it—replacement work, for example—knowing who in the management or building ownership has information on the type of security system on premises as well as who did the work and how to contact them is also beneficial, so that any potential problems with the work can be addressed before work starts. The key, as in most aspects of any job, is communication on every different level.

All the different levels of communication and dependency that EAC could and should produce, it will also change the landscape of the industry in other ways, as well.

“It’s opened up some new opportunities with a certain customer base. Things are getting a bit more simple and people who were not prone to supplying access control can feel more comfortable doing it because … the more it’s around, the more people are comfortable with it and glass and glazing companies are not afraid to dabble in it, whereas they would have run away in years past,” says Hammond.

Now the question arises for companies who have yet to embrace the electronic access control trend: when an EAC request comes knocking, will you answer or run away?


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