The ‘KNX’ factor

KNX Jung touch panel in modern style living space

KNX. Okay, where shall we start… exactly what is it? And what are the benefits to adopting for custom integration companies around the world?

As is so often the case, these seem like simple questions, but once you scratch a little harder you soon begin to wear away interdependent layers, each one informing the one beneath. So, if you don’t already know about KNX, then I hope that what follows throws a little light on the subject.

Internationally, those of us who work in the custom install business have had a jolly old time in recent years, dreaming up new monikers and acronyms that we hope will define what we do with one tidy expression. And the reason for this, I believe, is because we’ve each of us come to where we are today from a variety of disparate angles. This means we each have found it difficult to consolidate and summarise exactly what it is that we spend our days doing. If you look at the global CI industry in that way, then we who loiter within it are to all intents and purposes nomadic in our professional pursuits. Well, KNX is another member of this club, but is one among us that boasts a very strong pedigree.

KNX itself is an international industry standard. It’s a protocol. It’s a language. Not a manufacturer. Not a product. And it is a language that is very firmly from the world of Mechanical and 240v Electrical (M&E). To a large extent, it remains wedded to this.

Going global

Gira e2 knx system control in kitchen space

The protocol, KNX, is a recently defined hybrid of other protocols that have been around for as long as electricity itself. For example, one of the main proponents of the KNX Standard is the German manufacturer Gira, and it’s been making devices that communicate with one another since 1903. The important thing to consider here is that these other protocols, from which KNX has sprung, were all developed across mainland Europe. Subsequently that’s where KNX still finds its strongest market today. Despite many years of development, the standard, as conducted by the KNX Association, has never been universally adopted – until now…

“KNX has seen an enormous uptake in China and India, where building developers and construction companies have been quick to recognise the benefits of having a Regulatory Standard to govern automation systems.”

In recent years KNX has seen an enormous uptake in the developing economies of China and India, where building developers and construction companies have been quick to recognise the benefits of having a Regulatory Standard that governs the automation systems that are being embedded within their projects. Much of the regulation that oversees the new-build market in China in particular, is relatively new and the adoption of KNX is seen as giving a credible European authenticity to the body of work that is being developed in that country. The same is true of India, where such a stamp of approval from a European Authority is considered as giving legitimacy to the projects being undertaken there.

Equally, KNX is gaining a strong foothold in the US where a series of high-profile projects have seen it pick up a growth forecast above 15% over the next three years. Since it was consolidated in 2015, KNX USA has been very active in taking its message out to the masses and has generated a wide-ranging presence at exhibitions and tradeshows right across the country. The results of this effort are being shown in creating a market that accounts for nearly a third of every automation device that is installed in a smart building system in the US today.

Healthy growth forecast (with good reason)

In fact, according to a study by the Building Services Research and Information Association (BSRIA), here in the UK, the growth in the value of the market is currently running at a healthy 20%. Rather surprisingly the leading territory for growth is the UK, where KNX devices accounted for just over a quarter of all Smart Building products that were installed in 2017.

In a bid to provide an illustration of all of this in real terms, I decided to take a quick look at this market and spoke to Paul Kinghorn, who has selling KNX products from his outlet, myKNXstore.com, for many years.

“What we’re seeing here is an upturn in sales,” says Kinghorn. “This is happening mainly through our website. We’re starting to feel that people are taking more notice of the variety of what KNX can bring to a project. When you consider that over 450 manufacturers are now making a range of products that are all communicating across the KNX bus, it gives you a good indication of just how widespread the standard is becoming. It shows just how much KNX has got to offer on an international scale.”

knx system home control on interface of two smartphones and tablet

Kinghorn additionally believes that there are signs that KNX is starting to look outside of its more traditional product-line of predominantly M&E based control modules.

“ABB, for example, is one of the biggest members of the KNX Association in the world, and last year it started selling a server with Sonos as well as a voice control module for the likes of Amazon Alexa, Apple’s Siri and Google Home Assistant.” He continues: “This, to me, is a clear indication that the standard, that has until now all been about electrical interfacing, is now adopting AV. This will broaden the appeal of KNX, as it is going to be dramatically cheaper than what is currently on offer.”

Now, this is where a little forward thinking comes in to play. If, as Paul predicts, KNX becomes more widely associated with audio and video distribution, then one of the largest barriers to the wholesale adoption of KNX-based Building Management Systems (BMS) will have been removed. Previously it might have been argued by design engineers that since people have come to expect AV distribution in new-build projects, why use a BMS infrastructure that doesn’t support such things? Well, now it does. And this is going to be very relevant for burgeoning markets like China and India, where AV distribution is still something new to bring to large-scale developments.

And that’s what I mean by forward thinking. Especially in those territories, if you’re involved in the design and development of a large project that has a two to three-year gestation period, then looking at KNX as an option right now has certainly got to be a strong consideration you’ll want to make.

Mix & match

Something else to consider, which is a huge benefit of the KNX Standard, is its embedded communication protocol. KNX is built around a modular architecture. That means you can buy any lighting control dimmer from any manufacturer you like, providing that manufacturer subscribes to the KNX Standard. You can mix and match products: from lightswitches, to dimmers, to blind relays, to heating and air conditioning controls, to energy metering, to white-goods management modules etc. It’s all fair game.

And the most important thing about this is that each of these modules has its own control software already embedded in it. There’s no need for programmers to come along with their need to reinvent the wheel each time. The software is already written, and it is stored on the actual device itself.

“So, there’s no programming?” I hear you ask in an excited and rather high-pitched voice. Well, not exactly. Let’s be clear: yes, there is a requirement for programming. But it’s much less about programming and more about configuring, and as such is more time-efficient. It is still very necessary for a programmer to need to turn up on site and, armed with their trusty laptop, plug in to the KNX bus somewhere and make sure that what they have programmed off-site is deployed in the way it was intended.

“KNX programming is, I would suggest, 65% documentation and is mostly about the efficient organisation of modules.”

It is a very different kind of programming that is required when compared to, say, a Crestron or Control 4 programme. KNX programming is, I would suggest, 65% documentation and is mostly about the efficient organisation of modules. As such KNX software is far more hierarchical than other types of integration programming.

Finally; the coup de grace of this modular approach is that there is no single point of failure, the power supply notwithstanding. There is no centralised processor that holds and runs any common code set. Of course, where this is the case, if the processor fails – it all fails. KNX does not work in this way. Because each module on the DIN-rail bus has its own mini-processor, then if one module fails, it’ll only stop supporting the product to which it is assigned. And to fix it all you need to do is replace it, not reprogramme it – which of course makes service and maintenance a lot more feasible.

So, the signs around the world appear to be very positive for KNX. It’s a strong offering – properly regulated, light on failure and easy to program and maintain. All of that coupled with a market revenue expected to double, and reach something approaching $30bn by 2021, why would you not be looking at KNX as a control infrastructure? It’s certainly food for thought wouldn’t you say?

Cliff is a long-standing AV industry professional who has been involved in programming creative automation systems for nearly 20 years. He’s a fully accredited Crestron Master programmer who was, in fact, employee number one at Crestron UK all those years ago. Cliff left the programming company he founded, Oxberry Limited, in March 2017, and has since then been busy in a design and consultancy role at a variety of London-based AV companies. A lifelong interest in the written word has led him to writing for several magazines within the AV industry and beyond for publications dedicated to yachting and the music industry.