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Water industry making a big splash on digitisation

Just like most supportive industries, water is usually invisible until something goes wrong. However, with so many new challenges like digitalisation, cybersecurity and sustainability crowding in, the industry is having to stand up and be counted on how it is addressing these issues. To provide some much-needed experiences and insight, the Water/Wastewater Industry Forum and its panellists took a comprehensive look at all sides of these topics on the opening day of Automation Fair in Chicago.

Historically, water utilities have been slow to adopt new digital technologies fearing uncertainty in their value propositions and a lack of support and guidance from oversight bodies. Fortunately, this behaviour is changing. Global regulators and policymakers who play a key role in setting standards for technology adoption are recognizing the proven, game-changing results from real-world digital innovation – and they’re taking action to seize the opportunity.

At the same time, technology providers across the water industry have been accelerating the use of digital to differentiate and scale current offerings. “As the water industry continues to embrace these technologies, digital platforms will next emerge with the potential of true industry transformation,” Eric Bindler, senior research director at Bluefield Research says. “Companies will need to change, strategies that delivered value for customers will shift to new strategies orchestrating value across platform participants. These platforms will first play out on company-hosted cloud servers bringing interoperability within the platform ecosphere, but then will be built on public blockchain environments that bring data ownership, transferability and interoperability across all platforms.”

Today, the digital water market is one of the fastest-growing segments across the global water industry, growing three to four times faster than traditional mechanical or non-digital solutions. According to Bluefield Research, the total global spend on digital water technologies and services will scale at an 8.8 per cent CAGR from $25.9 billion in 2021 to $55.2 billion in 2030, for a cumulative ten-year total of $387.5 billion.

According to Bindler the evolution of digital value creation across the water industry, like other industrial markets, has played out first with smart and connected products, then has moved to intelligent systems. “As these first two waves progressed, cloud computing also evolved allowing the flow of massive amounts of data to be processed through software applications and artificial intelligence/machine learning,” he adds. “More recently, concerns about cybersecurity and the cost of transferring large amounts of data have brought the emergence of edge control, which essentially redefines traditional controllers like PLCs and RTUs. Edge control brings together OT and IT in a single solution capable of logic, data management and analytics.

The need for mature and scalable digital platforms

The water sector has traditionally lagged behind other industries in adopting digital technologies. One of the primary factors is that urban water infrastructure around the world was built 50-100 years ago. As a result, the assets that constitute these infrastructures often keep data in silos, making system integration and interoperability a major challenge. Also, utilities have been extremely conservative in adopting new technologies until they have been repeatedly proven out given the low acceptance of technology not delivering on its value proposition in such an essential industry as water supply. Fortunately, with the Internet of Things (IoT), technology companies can now leverage cloud-native platforms to seamlessly integrate new capabilities and help build a sustainable digital water utility for the industry to see, trust and scale. Concurrently, policymakers and global regulators are also pushing for digital transformation.

“Recently, support for digital adoption has been accelerating around the globe, as utilities, commercial users of water and regulators increasingly recognize the powerful financial and sustainability benefits of digital solutions,” Bindler continues. “Accelerating the adoption of digital solutions is not enough to drive the step change needed across the water sector. That is where digital platforms come in. Digital platforms play a key role in our economy, either disrupting established markets or creating altogether new industries. These platforms typically bring together more than two stakeholder groups (participants) who connect or transact with each other and leverage online workflows to solve an industry or participant pain point with high transparency and low friction.”

Managing growing pains 

To handle the combinations of these challenges, the forum’s panellists shared details of their current projects and operations. Jason Wirtz, controls technician in the public works department in Sioux Falls, South Dakota explains that they are presently undertaking a $215 million plant expansion to expand its capacity from 21 million gallons per day (mgd) to 30.1 mgd because the city has grown so much. “Because of this we need to do more digital data capture to find more leaks and act on other issues,” he says. “We spent $136,000 per year on supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) system software licensing and hardware over the last three years, and we expect that budget to increase by $20,000 per year over the next three years.”

On a similar expansion path, Mark McKinney, director of cyber and physical security at engineering consultant Tetra Tech, reported it is developing a cybersecurity program for the drinking and wastewater systems relied on by one of the top ten metropolitan municipalities. “We started by assessing their controls environment that has about 300 HMI screens and sought to stabilise their processes by adopting standard procedures and technologies, which could also help with their skills shortage due to retirements,” he says “Next, we will further standardise with a technical refresh of their master plant and modernize by refraining from using end-of-life equipment.”

Though most utilities have not standardised on a particular cybersecurity standard yet, McKinney reported that many will likely implement a version of the well-known North American Electric Reliability Corporation Critical Infrastructure Protection (NERC CIP) procedures and recommendations soon. “The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has also published some steps for cybersecurity, so we’ll probably use some of them as well,” he adds.

Desalination and system integration

From a global perspective, Fritz van Rooij, operational technology manager at IDE Technologies, reported that it is facing similar difficulties and opportunities at the desalination plants it installs for clients in China, Israel and elsewhere around the globe. “We are constantly innovating to optimize system integration, introduce autopilot functions and increase the flexibility and efficiency at our plants,” he says. “We have been incorporating digital-twin models of centrifugal pumps into our SCADA systems for two decades. They compare physical performance against virtual to analyse performance degradation, virtualize pump flows at various speeds that aren’t feasible for physical flowmeters and let users optimize efficiency.”

Van Rooij added that IDE also employs digital twins to manage the restoration of all-important reverse osmosis (RO) membranes and expects to save $0.5 million to $1.5 million at the Carlsbad Desalination Plant over the next five years by extending the life of its RO membranes. “These digital twins test the long-term effectiveness of various maintenance policies before physical implementation,” he explains.

Back in the United States, Jeff Krawczyk, vice president of sales and business development at system integrator Commerce Controls (CCI), reports that it completed an upgrade, digital transformation and sustainability project that included 144 motor control centres (MCCs) that are networked to their starters, soft starters, and variable frequency drives (VFDs). “We are responsible for putting the systems together and connecting the OEMs,” he says. “For a water treatment plant in southwest Florida, we have cybersecurity in place, such as firewalls and DMZs, and they do internal network traffic monitoring.”

Secure transformation to-do list

To overcome the obstacles of achieving digital transformation, Wirtz reports that public utilities must also convince the budgetary authorities in their municipalities of the value of digitalising to collect more and better data to improve future decision-making. “We spent 15 years on SCADA and collecting data from every well and lift station, but the question is: How much has to be spent before benefits are seen?” he queries. “Once we get the data in, we make better decisions, and it gives people the seed of an idea that they want more. Once this process gets started, it is fun to see it grow. It is also crucial to get IT and OT together and secure management buy-in. After these relationships are established, everything gets easier.”

Krawczyk reports that digitalisation, cybersecurity, and sustainability efforts are even altering how projects are conducted by end users, systems integrators, contractors, and suppliers. “In the midwestern United States over the past three to five years, we are moving from the usual design and build process to a progressive design and build process, in which all parties including OT are involved much earlier, and we all work more alongside each other,” he explains. “In this way, end users learn they may want the Cadillac technology, but they understand they can settle for the Chevy.”

McKinney added that these tasks can be performed more securely, and the accuracy of their data can be confirmed by running two devices and matching their readings. “This is also how digital twins let users model the behaviour of their systems,” he adds. “We’re seeing more effort on pulling accurate data because it enables better models.” He explains that the US Department of Homeland Security previously listed water/wastewater as 12th on its list of the 16 critical infrastructure industries, but recently moved it up to third place. “Water/wastewater never used to get proper guidance from the government on cybersecurity,” he says. “We only got safety and quality guidance. Now, water utilities are seen as having government-funded deep pockets, and that’s what threat actors go after. Consequently, governments are looking more closely at reliability and resilience, and there’s more to protect water/wastewater systems from end to end.”

He adds that a small water utility north of Tampa, Florida, recently had a cyberthreat get through its SCADA system and dialled its sodium-hydroxide level up past what was safe. Luckily, the utility’s operators saw the change and dialled it back to a safe level. “This incident was reported to the government and police, but it was clear evidence of an intrusion and showed many utilities that they need to look more closely at building in protections,” he concludes. “The EPA’s guidelines leverage the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), but we’re also likely to see more requirements at the state level.”

Successful sustainability

Just like achieving cybersecurity, the panellists reported that sustainability can also be accomplished if a practical approach is used. “We are fortunate in that we started working on sustainability years ago,” Wirtz says. “We spent on instrumentation, fibre-optic networking, and live data collection, but not all at once, and found we could increase our maintenance predictability. It was a hurdle, but it was doable. This allowed us to stop running electrical equipment during high-demand periods and run when costs are lowest.”

Krawczyk concludes that sustainability consists of the three Cs—contractors, consultants and community. “Many communities are getting better educated and engaged about sustainability, which is pushing contractors to be better problem solvers and reach out to system integrators, so we can all work as a team,” he says.

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