What's the Real Story Regarding Mechanical Vs. Electronic Access Control?

March 1, 2017
Although access control systems comprise our industry's highest growth market, they are not completely replacing mechanical locks. Most applications still require a mechanical lock override in the case of a power failure or system error.

In reviewing what has been written before about this topic, the preponderance of articles imply that, if you provide locksmith services and don't migrate to electronic access control (EAC), your business will wither and, ultimately, your family will starve. If you are internal, such as a facility manager, your bosses will become unhappy and, ultimately, your family will starve. Perhaps, there is a modicum of truth to these articles but the results aren't quite that drastic.

The Real Story

"You may already recognize that mechanical locks and keys are not always enough to keep a perimeter secure," points out Minu Youngkin, integrator marketing manager for Allegion. "But, not every door has to be a controlled entrance nor is it always necessary to have 100 percent,  24-hour monitored control. The good news is that a reliable and secure EAC system does not have to be complicated to be effective. Moving from a mechanical security system to an electronic one offers a host of benefits, including a higher level of security, less risk of illegally duplicated credentials (keys), a simpler and less expensive method of replacing lost or damaged credentials and the ease of programming locks instead of rekeying them."

Thomas Schulz, ASSA ABLOY EMEA marketing and communications director agrees. "Swapping mechanical locks for EAC upgrades a door's security in an instant. Smart cards eliminate key management headaches, as well as security risks posed by any lost mechanical key, an all-too-common occurrence, something 86 percent of (our) survey respondents also worried about."

Adding to the consensus, Scott Lindley, president of Farpointe Data, says, "Most importantly, more and more end-users that formerly asked our integrators and access control manufacturers for keys are now requesting keyless or EAC. As the pricing of EAC continues to fall, mechanical access control will ultimately be commercially used only to secure access/egress points where security is not very important.

"Here's why," Lindley continues. "Only EAC lets end-users deploy applications such as -

  • Physical credential administration
  • Visitor management administration
  •  Provisioning or access privileges assigned
  • De-provisioning or access privileges revoked
  • Segregation of duties
  • Parking permit administration
  • Property pass administration
  • Compliance/governance reporting and auditing
  • System troubleshooting and maintenance
  • Alarm correlation and response
  • Emergency communication and notification
  • Video analytics applications (people counting, behavior tracking, etc.)
  • Identification
  • Time and attendance
  • Logical access
  • Supplies check-out verification
  • Charge privileges at various locations, including the cafeteria
  • Document printing and
  • Biometric template storage."

Marketing Hype? Just the Facts, Ma'am

One might expect representatives of the leading EAC credentials and readers companies to shine a good light on EAC. However, it is important to note that each also highlighted that mechanical access control would continue to have a role to play. Let's review what a neutral research organization, one of the largest and most respected, IHS, has to say.

According to IHS, the increased popularity of EAC systems has been contributing to the market growth of electric strikes and electromagnetic locks, each of which is forecast to outperform mechanical locks through 2017. From 2012 to 2017, global revenues for electromagnetic locks and electric strikes grew at compound annual growth rates (CAGRs) of 6.9 percent and 7.8 respectively. In comparison, mechanical locks experienced a weaker CAGR of 4.5 percent in the same time frame.

This trend towards electric locking solutions is not only impacting mechanical locks but exit devices as well. Globally, standard mechanical exit devices accounted for 70.8 percent of all exit device revenues in 2012 but this number is projected to decline to 69.8 percent by 2017 due to the increased adoption of electrified trim and electrified latch retraction exit devices. Solutions that implement electric locking devices as a means of security will commonly install electric exit devices for egress in order to fulfill a complete access control system.

Nonetheless, although the trend towards access control solutions is driving the uptake of electric locking devices, they are not completely replacing mechanical locks. IHS expects most applications still require a mechanical lock override in the case of a power failure or system error. Thus, access control is only limiting the growth of mechanical solutions in the medium-term, not necessarily replacing them. What does this mean?

Overall, IHS finds the trend towards electric locking solutions to be active on a global level. While growth for mechanical locks is expected to be somewhat limited due to this trend, the global mechanical locks market is still projected to have healthy growth in the medium-term. In terms of revenue, when comparing the markets for exit devices, mechanical locks and electric locks (strikes and electromagnetic), IHS estimates that about 71 percent to be mechanical in 2017.

A main reason is that, for many end-users, the cost of an online EAC solution remains cost prohibitive, so these customers must continue to rely on mechanical solutions. Although EAC solutions remain expensive, more end-users are seeing the value of being able to control access rights securely and efficiently, monitor door status in real time, create audit trails and the ability to lockdown all doors immediately in the case of an emergency.  As a result, electronic access control solutions are still forecast to have stronger growth rates than mechanical globally, both in terms of revenues and units.

Globally, the mechanical locks market is slated for positive growth in the medium-term, with strong construction activity in emerging markets and the BRIC countries continuing to drive demand for mechanical locking solutions. However, more mature market such as the US and Europe, will see more of an impact by EAC systems.

What Does All This Mean for the Locksmith?

"In today's world, security comes down to much more than putting a key in the lock and turning it," Youngkin responds. "While there are some openings where a mechanical key may still be the best bet, in most case upgrading to an electronic solution is the best bet for effective and reliable security. Helping your client understand their credential options and what credential works best will be an important part of planning and implementing their access control solution. Issues to review and consider include -

  • Are they choosing a networked system where issuing and managing card credentials make sense?
  •  Do they need to integrate cashless vending with their credential system?
  • Will they be integrating time and attendance into their access control system?
  • Are the locks being accessed in an interior or exterior location where weather may be a concern?
  •  How deeply will they want to monitor each user's access and movement within the facility?
  •  Does everyone have the same level of security clearance or is there a need for multiple security/access levels?"

"When selecting an RFID card and reader for your customers, there are several things to check," add Lindley. "First of all, make sure they comply with one or both of the two main interface protocols, Wiegand or ABA Track II, so that the cards and readers will interface with a wide range of EAC systems. Also, order readers that support several proximity or smart card and tag technologies/brands. Check to see if the reader electronics are secured with tamper- and weather-resistant epoxy potting. This is important as, often, the readers are outdoors or in wet or dusty environments not suitable for electronics. Look for a lifetime warranty.

"Interfacing with a multitude of apps is very important," emphasizes Lindley. "Remember, the future of RFID is growing each and every day. Today, RFID technology provides us access to our offices, parking lots, hotel rooms, gyms, cars and homes. It is now used widely to identify individual library books and allows the charging of electric vehicles.  And, with the announcement of Apple Pay, it appears we’ll use our iPhone, Apple Watch or iPad to pay in a simple, secure and private way, all making use of RFID technology."

Building on that comment is Paul Bodell, president and CEO of VIZpin Smartphone Access Control, "Everyone wants an access control system they can manage from anywhere, but the only option was a network connected access control panel.  Locksmiths were having a hard time building a profitable business with these because they are very expensive to install and maintain, there were 100 other dealers in their territory selling the same stuff and they lacked the expertise to deal with the local IT networks.

With VIZpin, it takes about 45 minutes to complete the on-line certification training and only takes 10 to 15 minutes to install the door controller, just 4 wires, which also has a built-in Bluetooth reader.  You don’t need an IT network and it’s all done through the app. Best of all, it is a fraction of the cost of a traditional system. Locksmiths are selling a VIZpin remotely managed system for around $1,000/door which really expands the market."

The Bottom Line: Mechanical vs EAC

"Electronic access control is more affordable than ever," attests Youngkin. "And a growing number of building owners and managers are ready to make the switch from mechanical locks to electronic ones. Best of all, locksmiths are in the ideal position to help customers upgrade to electronic locks. Just because a customer wants more technology, though, doesn’t mean they want or need a fully integrated, EAC system. In fact, many just want basic electronic access - just enough technology to do what they want."

Editor’s Note: For an easy to read overview on the types of credentials to consider when migrating to EAC, go to the November issue of Locksmith Ledger and read the article "Access Control Cards & Credentials: The Key to Increased Profits."