Open-access content Monday 11th November 2013
Access control equipment is experiencing a period of digitisation. Here, Grant MacDonald explains what digital locks mean for facilities managers.
11 November 2013
During the last few years we've seen a rise in the popularity of standalone electronic digital locks as a means to control access within buildings.
Entry-level mechanical locks have been on the market for many years, and increasingly, these are now being replaced with electronic products that have more advanced programming features - allowing them to be used as an alternative to the more expensive wired systems.
With digital locks, access is gained by punching numbers into a keypad, negating the need to use or manage keys. Key management can be a major consideration for facilities managers, as keys often get lost or stolen.
Simply replacing a key does not necessarily regain 'control' of the lock. To do this, a new key cylinder should be fitted - which can be a very costly and time-consuming process if keys are lost on a regular basis. By comparison, if the code on an electronic digital lock is compromised, it can be changed on the door in seconds. It is for this reason that we have seen an increase in their popularity and in the breadth of applications.
Traditionally, FMs turned to expensive wired, card-based access control systems if they required a lock with sophisticated features. However, over the years battery-operated digital locks have become increasingly capable.
For example, it's possible to connect an electronic digital lock to a building's alarm system. This will automatically free the lock so the door can be opened without the code in an emergency situation. Electronic digital locks can also be connected to a release button to allow staff to 'buzz' in a visitor. This feature can be useful in a reception area of any building that uses an intercom system on the front door.
An important consideration in selecting a digital lock is the convenience of programming the access codes. Advancements in technology have significantly influenced the way in which access codes are changed on digital locks. For example, to change the access code on most mechanical locks you have to remove the lock from the door. With an electronic lock, you don't have to - the codes can be programmed via the keypad.
It is now possible to specify electronic locks that can be programmed via a PC by using software to change the access codes, and then uploading the new settings to the lock via a USB stick.
This feature can save a significant amount of time and also makes it much more likely that the codes are changed on a regular basis, especially if an FM is responsible for updating and controlling the access codes for tens or hundreds of digital locks on a large building complex. All the access codes and programmes can be viewed on the computer, giving the FM clear visibility of how, where and when access permissions were set up and used.
Inbuilt audit trail
A digital lock with the ability to record audit trails can be a useful analytical tool for industries where the protection of high-value assets or sensitive data is high on the agenda.
For example, it may be necessary to closely control access to rooms where medicines or drugs are kept. Here access is likely to be restricted to only a handful of staff, each one with an individual access code for the digital lock. In the event that items are unaccounted for, data from the lock can be downloaded using a USB stick and then reviewed. The digital lock logs each of the access codes used, allowing the FM to see who has entered the room and at what time.
The digital lock will also register any incorrect code attempts. If a high number show up on the data from the audit trail, then it could be that the lock has been tampered with. As the lock has an ID number, it allows the FM to easily identify vulnerable areas.
Another innovation improving the way in which digital lock access permissions are controlled is the ability to issue codes remotely. A secure web-based application allows a unique time-sensitive access code to be generated for an individual or group of electronic locks, usually issued from a remote location. This works by configuring the locks prior to dispatch with a unique matching algorithm to the web-based software, which allows the software to predict the access code on the installed lock at any given time.
This feature enables FMs to grant temporary access to machinery or equipment, so that authorised personnel can gain access unaccompanied. This might be, for example, where access is required for routine or one-off maintenance purposes. Here the FM can arrange for an engineer to visit the location and, using the application, generate a code for the engineer to gain access. The code can be sent via an SMS text message or email to the engineer's mobile on the day the access is required. Using time-sensitive access codes is a more secure way to grant access, as the code will not work outside a designated timeslot.
The software also allows the engineer to request an access code via an inbound SMS message and the code is sent back instantly. This may be useful if urgent access is required.
Technology advances continue to enable improvements in the performance and capability of standalone electronic digital locks, making them a cost-effective alternative to wired-access systems. Further development of the programming features will extend the scope of electronic keyless locks and their ability to serve new markets.
In the future, new ways of controlling digital locks - such as using near field communication for smartphones - will add to their usability and help the products secure an even bigger share of the market.
Grant MacDonald, managing director at Codelocks