(Click here to view article in digital edition)
Technically, the water industry is well set up to take advantage of a digitalised world. The industry is wrapped in telemetry, with PLCs and SCADA systems capturing more data on temperatures, pressures and flows than they currently know what to do with. While today’s sensors and controls generate an abundance of data, there is often not enough analytics done to turn it into usable information, creating a scenario of data richness/information poverty. We need the right information, with the correct accuracy, to the right people in an easy and digestible format.
Presently, most data flows in one direction. Companies are reluctant to connect to the IoT and the cloud to bring on stream, say a pump or compressor, in another location as system demands change.
Taking advantage of this technology, however, lets them work in an optimised and efficient way. For instance, remote operation helps avoid the need to send an engineer to site, saving considerable time and costs. But the reluctance to control an asset remotely is the biggest mindset change needed.
The quandary facing the sector is that to improve efficiency, they need the ability afforded by the IoT to respond to changes in demand in real time. Additionally, having immediate, real-time access to the condition of all assets, provides the clearest picture yet as to what is likely to fail and when. The cost savings through predictive maintenance planning is enormous.
The industry is certainly not short of innovations. There are many companies out there offering a huge portfolio of “smart” devices and disruptive technologies that give deep insights into asset conditions.
Take, for example, the humble low voltage (LV) induction motor. There are hundreds spread throughout the water and wastewater industry. Traditionally it has been too expensive to monitor the condition of each LV motor on an individual basis. Most are run until they fail, before being swapped out, maybe with a new motor or one that has been rewound.
Now, however, ABB’s smart sensor attaches, without wires, to the frame of the motor. By converting regular LV motors into intelligent, connected machines, the smart sensor enables advanced maintenance planning that will help businesses to cut costs and boost productivity. Predictive analytics based on data from the solution can reduce downtime by up to 70 percent, extend motor lifetime by as much as 30 percent and cut energy consumption by up to 10 percent.
The device picks up data on vibration, temperature and other parameters. On-board algorithms interpret these parameters and relays information about the motor’s health, via a smartphone and over the internet, to a secure, cloud-based server. It is this last statement that fills the industry with dread.
Because the water sector is critical infrastructure, the industry needs a real sense of security that no one is going to break in. For instance, if a site is suffering over- or under-pressure and depends on cloud-based information to control it, what happens if an intruder intercepts the data stream and over-speeds the pump? This is a real concern that was expressed to me recently.
Even though our products – whether a smart sensor or a variable speed drive (VSD) – are designed from the ground up and categorically meet cyber security regulations, we need to make a concerted effort to demonstrate this to the industry.
That is the challenge facing all companies hoping to sell new technology into the water sector. They must ensure that the technology is demonstrably robust. If a device can be controlled from an outside source, you need to unequivocally prove how the technology works and, more importantly, when it won’t.
New breed of engineer
One of the biggest barriers to innovation in the water industry is the lack of personnel that truly understand the implications of the technology. The water industry has traditionally employed mechanical, hydraulic and process engineers.
But we need to get to those people who see the wide-ranging implications of smart technology for their business. The water industry is struggling to recruit the teams skilled at evaluating these technologies. The lack of such teams runs the risk of poor technology choices.
For instance, I am aware of an anti-ragging technology that has been sold to one water utility. Ragging is where debris becomes tangled around the impellors and causes the pump to slow down or fail.
Before the right technology is selected, there are many considerations, some of which will need consultation with the pump maker to ensure that the pump can be run in reverse for short periods during the cleaning cycle.
It is a case of reaching the right people in the industry with the technical understanding so that they can compare solutions with other third-party alternatives. For example, the ragging solution I mentioned earlier was costly and not required as the functionality was present in their VSDs. Yet many within the water industry do not realise this.
When situations like this arise, you can see why the industry becomes wary of innovation. As another example, part of my job is to sell energy efficiency and productivity improvements, primarily through installing VSDs and highly efficient motors. Yet we face some barriers. There are those who do not want to make changes to the system unless it fails. The utilities do not get fined for using energy, but if an application fails and consents are not met, then fines are incurred. Then there are those who do not fully understand the impact a VSD can have on their business.
A VSD is linked to 80 percent of what a water utility does – moving water. It controls the speed of pumps, aerators and blowers. It can be the catalyst to an efficiently run plant. But often there is no budget to install this efficient device, because the plant is running inefficiently. It’s an opportunity missed. It’s an issue because the utilities have finite funds. Where they have not been able to look at things in the most efficient way then they are already leaking funds to inefficiency. Leaking funds to inefficiency is money you can’t spend on development. So how do you break this vicious circle? Utilities don’t have the budget to install an efficient device because they are running inefficiently.
Germany recently suggested expanding the principles behind Industry 4.0 with the idea of “Wasser 4.0” or Water 4.0: the digitalisation and networking of automation and monitoring systems and the introduction of smart technologies in water and wastewater treatment. Yet it recognises that the biggest challenge is finding tomorrow’s engineers, today.
Water 4.0 provides a great platform to show to younger people why a career in water is worth pursuing and to instill a sense of purpose and value for water engineering. However, the skills required are not traditional 'engineering' skills. Data analytics and statisticians are needed to create algorithms and analytics logic to use the data effectively. Electrical engineering graduates are being replaced by data analytics engineers.
The industry must be more effective and better co-ordinated at encouraging more young people to take STEM careers, through both apprenticeships and university. It needs to take the lead and invest in training and development.
We need to change the perceptions of engineering as a profession, educating not only the young but parents, teachers and the wider population about the great career opportunities and experiences on offer.
Not only do we need to find these IT, software, network and data analysts of the future, we all need to learn their language. Everyone from manufacturers, OEMS to MCCs need to upskill and build a dialogue. A dialogue that reassures them that connecting equipment, like VSDs, to the internet is not just a totally safe and viable option, but unavoidable if efficiency improvements and resilience targets are to be hit.
Water networks were originally constructed with capacity built in for expanding populations. However, such is the pace of growth that the spare capacity is being absorbed. So where traditionally we had a duty-assist-standby pumping system, that would cover any additional capacity demands, today this is used in a duty-duty-assist formation. If any one of these pumps fails, then the water utility cannot meet its customers’ demands.
Quite simply, the additional spare capacity has not grown at the same rate as demand. Conscientious environmental stewardship has meant that the infrastructure options available to utilities have been reduced.
Conversely, there are some forward-thinking water companies which are connecting their catchment areas; there is a water superhighway under development, aimed at connecting the different regions. This will help reinforce the network.
One of the biggest challenges facing the world is water scarcity.
My hope is that one day we have a dual-feed water system: one that distinguishes between grey water and drinking water. When so many people globally are dying because they have no access to clean water, to see people watering their gardens, flushing toilets and washing cars with drinking water is such a waste of a resource which is expensive to find, treat and move.
Building developers, governments, water utilities and local groups need to work together and make houses and factories of the future more self-sufficient and less dependent on the mega treatment works that exist today. This would entail a diverse and localised access to water where communities are responsible for their environment, including water use and treatment. The impact of this approach would be far reaching and, dare I say, see a shake-up of the current water utility approach.
Print this page | E-mail this page
Discover the future of engineering today
Download a copy of our digital magazine