This morning I walked along a stone wall circling a hill as far as I could see. To my right was an expanse of green fields, bordered by forests that framed the horizon. The path I took this morning was well traveled. It was, in fact, along an aisle of the IBM Thomas J. Watson Research Center. Many famous scientists, dignitaries, and world leaders have walked these halls of local field stone and uninterrupted glass.
Architected by Eero Saarinen over a half century ago, this iconic structure is still the vibrant epicenter of the world’s largest industrial research organization. Throughout the last five decades, this building has facilitated famous achievements and longstanding worldwide patent leadership. Saarinen believed that some of our best thinking is done with nature as our inspiration. His design embraces the forested landscape and natural stone with bold and sweeping lines that infer the endless possibilities of the human mind. I settled into one of his womb chairs in the library looking across a floating stone table into the green pasture to capture my thoughts for this article on paper.
The TJ Watson Research Center is located in Yorktown Heights, New York. It has played a lead pioneering role in the evolution of IBM, but, like its location, maintains some distance from the day-to-day operational units. Its shepherding, however, is felt around the world with extended research facilities that have embraced the growing global nature of our business.
The building and much of its furnishing, including the chair I am sitting on, have remained relatively intact for the last five decades, which is significant given the transformation of the IBM corporation since this building’s capstone was put in place on April 25th, 1961.
That transformation has affected everything within and without the structure itself while the foundational beliefs of IBM, like the very foundation of this building, remain intact.
The building houses a vast collection of tools and laboratories for close to six hundred PhD’s who work here. A formidable supply of electrical power as well as over 15,000 different chemicals and toxic gases are available. There is also an on-site nitrogen-generation plant, a helium-delivery system, an oxygen system, and a wastewater-treatment plant.
How does a building, designed before the IBM 360 system, keep up with the demands of bleeding edge science? I took a trip into the almost Harry Potter-like world of this building to find out.
Between the numbered corridors and hidden behind almost-invisible locked doors, another surprise awaited – the utility cores that efficiently provide water and gases to the building’s many laboratories. This core is a long and narrow alley with all manner of conduits and supply feeds. Who could possibly work in such a space? Apparently there is a wizard called ‘the plumber’ who has been tinkering in these spaces for longer than anyone in the building can remember.
Behind the back of the building, I went through an accordion-style access gate and down a set of steel steps into multiple large rooms that were filled with massive equipment. The vibrations, temperature, and sounds of these rooms let you know you are in the heart of the building.
It’s hard to appreciate boilers, chillers, condensers, fuel tanks, and electric stations until you stand next to (or under) them. Back in the days of punched cards and magnetic core memory, the chillers in this building were powered by steam and massive amounts of air exhaust were drawn out of the building by belt fans. The speed of the fans was adjusted by using different belts, each of which was changed by hand. Waste was pulled from the building from large skips on a daily basis.
Today the science and tools, which IBM is using for smarter planet offerings, are also transforming buildings like this that we live and work in. Manual controls and gauges have largely been replaced with digital switches and smart sensors. Energy management, sustainability, grey water applications, and carbon foot printing have supplanted prior practices that were based on the idea of unlimited resource. Recycling at this site has reduced waste to the point that only one container for two weeks is all that’s needed.
It takes good architectural “bones” to accommodate such change with only minor surgery. Today boilers are run far more efficiently and chiller towers are able to operate 3000 hours a year on free-air cooling. Research staff are working to further increase the efficiency of free-air usage by using the BlueGene supercomputer for weather prediction, while solar experiments are conducted on the building grounds. Facility engineers have developed and acquired software to run every aspect of the building inside control rooms that resemble computer-driven command centers.
IBM’s new smarter building solution leverages the experience gained from managing buildings like this one. Coupled with the IBM software stack, building management business partners, and global services, IBM is well poised to continue this advance for the next 100 years. Operations, space, and energy management are combining into one holistic, highly automated system. Building data feeds are being aggregated, filtered, and correlated to produce work orders and actions based on policies and rules that are programmed into the system. Data from the buildings is being captured in databases for analytics and mash-ups for different role-based dashboards.
Smarter buildings will be holistically managed and optimized to integrate well with other buildings, and with smarter systems like smart grid and smart water. They leverage technology and processes to create a safer, more productive, operationally efficient building that is also environmentally responsible for the planet.
The very science and research that the TJ Watson Research Center was designed to inspire and faithfully deliver over the last 50 years is now being leveraged to make this building smarter. In turn, the smarter this building becomes, the better job it will do facilitating the pioneering work which is conducted that has been a hallmark of the IBM Corporation.