The systems now being put in place by companies and other organizations to oversee issues such as security and catering are a far cry from those of just a couple of years ago. Nowadays, we are seeing a stronger than ever integration of key facilities management functions, including organizational control, cashless payments and even car parking.
At the heart of any successful facilities management software is the need to identify individual members of staff, a function that is achieved by providing each person with a unique identifier. This will continue to be the case in the foreseeable future - after all, you have to retain some way of distinguishing between each system user, as this is the only way in which rights and responsibilities can be properly assigned. Of course, this unique identifier can be allocated in several ways. However, the current trend towards card-based systems - especially in certain sectors - will certainly continue.
In fact, although biometrics such as fingerprint and iris recognition show promise, logic dictates that ID cards, especially smartcards, can offer so much more than other solutions. Think about it for a moment. A card-based facilities management program is reliable, easy to operate, initialize and administer, and is potentially far more versatile.
First up, facilities managers have a proven need to maintain up-to-date records of all staff on the premises. This includes temporary and permanent staff, as well as sub-contractors working at the company. The reasons for this are legion but, suffice it to say, it would be a matter of widespread concern should unauthorized members of staff be allowed to roam into sensitive zones such as accounts, IT, and research and development departments.
With a smartcard system, the card itself becomes the information carrier. Therefore, when used in conjunction with the latest software architecture, it can provide an ideal mix of the best characteristics of both offline and online systems, allowing the system to continue operating should network communications fail. Moreover, the open architecture adopted by this new breed of software will enable greater flexibility in the adaptation of products to an individual customer's exact requirements.
Access control is a well-recognized force in the battle to keep buildings safe and secure, and every facilities manager would agree that we should restrict access to sensitive corporate areas. Modern and effective facilities management software should also incorporate a module that can set up separate zones for access to sensitive areas. This ensures that only authorized personnel are allowed to enter specific locations and that, often, they can only do so within certain times.
Just about every facilities manager will hold his or her hand up and say that the issue of car parking is a major headache. Not only is it costly to devote valuable land to car parking, but there are also occasions during the day when peak demand can easily outstrip even the best thought out parking policy. The latest smartcard based systems are already starting to incorporate electronic purse technology, which can help relieve the burden on this overstretched resource.
Because of the sheer number of staff vehicles that the average company car park has to contend with, vehicle administration is frequently a logistical nightmare. Smartcards enable members of staff to be allocated car-parking facilities depending on their role and need. The facility is then added to the microchip within the smartcard, and can be used to operate the barrier or ramp to the staff car parking area. Each smartcard will feature an electronic purse to which credits can be added. This allows car parking to be paid for in advance, using credits purchased from pay stations located in convenient places around the corporate campus. Funds are automatically deducted from the purse each time the card is used.
Such a system can take into account the need for certain company members of staff to leave the premises and return several times during the same day, and can charge the individual accordingly, in line with corporate policy. Also available will be the ability automatically to interface with proprietary payroll software, to deduct agreed and predetermined amounts from staff salaries, which can then be allocated to car parking and other cashless payments.
One of the areas in particular that will benefit from the latest cashless payment capabilities is corporate catering. It has long been recognized that the simple act of handling cash - especially in a catering environment - is fraught with potential for infection and the spread of germs.
By transferring monetary value to a smartcard, and eliminating manual cash-based payment methods at the restaurant point of sale, catering staff and contractors can make a strong contribution to reducing the dissemination of germs. Once again, pay stations, located at key areas within the company, would allow staff members to add value to their smartcards as required. The funds could then be used at cashless beverage and snack dispensers, as well as at the restaurant point of sale.
One of the great advances over the next few years will be the advent of so-called 'rules-based' software. This new approach to software building will allow rules to be written that can control physical access to buildings, determine the use of equipment such as PCs and photocopiers, and decide how value stored within electronic purses can be used to buy goods and services. This enables software developers to create even more flexible solutions to target customer needs better than ever before.
Another exciting development is the likely use of master control units to process all transactions between cardholders and the controlled equipment. Based on the latest technology, these control units will offer superior reliability, combined with enhanced functionality compared to today's systems. Furthermore, by adopting the latest Internet communications protocols, these new systems can even be hosted offsite, by an application service provider (ASP) using a virtual private network (VPN).
So, contrary to popular belief, although smartcard-based software has been available for several years already, we really have just scratched the surface of what it can achieve. Watch this space however because, during the next few years, smartcards are set to bring an even greater benefit to the corporate sector.
Nigel Hope is chief technical officer at Public Access Terminals (www.pat.co.uk).