The Drive towards Digital Transformation in AMP7
It seems that everywhere you go in the Water Industry somebody is talking about Digital Transformation. 5 minutes ago, it was Water 4.0, and 10 minutes ago (it seems) it was “Smart Water”. These are all very well used buzz words that the industry is destined to think about for a short-term and then promptly forget. In reality, as an industry, we have been hit by a number of different concepts for different technological aspects for many years. For almost as long we have had a term for all of this: “widgets.”
However, widgets don’t sell and what water companies need are solutions to the challenges being faced, i.e. technologies that will solve a problem; more of a focus on application rather than technology.
So, let us go back and define what the “concept” of Digital Transformation actually is. 10 years ago, the SWAN Forum developed the SWAN Layers diagram. The diagram is loosely based on a combination of the Purdue Model and/or the Open Systems Interconnection (OSI) model of Information and Communications Technologies (ICT) system that was developed in the 1970’s and 1980’s. In the SWAN Layers model there 5 layers:
Layer 1 – physical infrastructure
Layer 2 – instrumentation & control systems
Layer 3 – communication
Layer 4 – visualisation
Layer 5 – analytics
The model itself is a technologically-based model which is layered and there is an argument that it should be a pyramid reflecting the fact that the layer above cannot work without the layer below, i.e. there is no point monitoring a pipe with instruments if the pipe isn’t there.
Layer 1 is an area that the water industry is very good at but it is from Layer 2 onwards, and its application to Layer 1, that the key to the Digital Transformation of the water industry really exists. It is in these areas that the industry has traditionally had challenges in its application. An example of this would be the infamous phrases that are used in the industry like “Data Rich” and “Information Poor”, mainly due to the vast collection of data and doing very little, at least proactively, with it. Layer 2 is key to the application of Digital Transformation as without data the whole concept fails to exist. The data that is collected must be of good quality and must be of use for it to lead to information (and information that is useful) which in turn leads to situational awareness. Consequently, the industry can understand how the systems, as a whole, are operating enabling informed decisions to be made. If the data at the heart of this is wrong then the industry will suffer from the phenomenon highlighted by the 1950’s American Army mathematician, William Mellin, “Garbage In Garbage Out.”
All of this is the technological solution; and underpinning the Swan Layers are the elements of people and processes. The technological solution is worthless if there aren’t people who understand, operate or maintain it. However, if a process is followed that identifies the need for information, then the data is valued and utilised. With the value of data comes the need for business processes, which leads to data maintenance and validation.
From this we can derive the first step that any company, especially the water companies, should take in order to Digitally Transform. This first step is not technologically based but is in fact people-based since it is rooted in stakeholder engagement. It is the identification of informational needs of organisations based upon various business processes in terms of regulatory and financial drivers. These include, most importantly, aspects of compliance, operational efficiency and customer service.
So, where is the industry right now with its Digital Transformation?
Some areas are actually quite far advanced for both political and financial reasons, with the most developed solutions around smart water networks which help the water companies to manage both non-revenue water and per capita consumption. Programmes of meter verifications and maintenance are commonly delivered by external specialist companies, and are utilised by the leading water companies to make sure that the data is correct. This enables identification of areas of unusual consumption using Direct Memory Access (DMA). More innovative companies are taking the Dynamic DMA approach as well which relies on instrumentation to manage the system along with a high-end platform for data visualisation techniques. Advanced Pressure Management of the system to limit losses is also commonplace; it is a solution that in reality covers Layers 2 – 5. These are the successful technological solutions that have been delivered as part of the “Smart Water Industry.” Moreover, Smart Water Meters, together with techniques such as social engineering, are also delivering savings across the industry with reductions of 15-18% non-revenue water and an 8% reduction in PCC noted in case studies.
It is important to note that the concepts of Big Data, Internet of Things or even Digital Twins have not been mentioned. They have their application and in fact Narrow Band Internet of Things (NB-IoT) is likely to become a part of the industry in its niche in the future as are communications technologies like 5G, Radio and Satellite. However, they are part of Layer 3 which facilitates the concept as a whole. They are vital pieces of the puzzle but they are just one part of a much wider picture.
The barriers to the adoption of Digital Transformation
The first barrier is understanding the application of Digital Transformation. The application has been understood for non-revenue water and potable water distribution systems and the technology is well matured with the value case well understood. Regulatory drivers within the UK are pushing the water companies past the previous concepts of the Economic Level of Leakage and driving the industry towards considerably lower levels of leakage. It’s an intelligent step forward, due to the water resource challenges within the industry; a megaliter of water saved is more valuable than a megaliter of water supplied. It causes delays in the investment in critical infrastructure such as reservoirs that will eventually be needed. Where to next? Where can we apply the technological solutions to address the challenging applications that the industry has? It is a big question that the industry will have to work together in order to identify the applications and advances that are needed in terms of the technology, people and processes.
Meet the Digital Transformation in the current international discussion
The subject of Digital Transformation has been widely discussed at a variety of events with a particular emphasis in the past year. It will be discussed extensively in 2020 at the Water & Energy Exchange and the International Water Association Digital Water Summit (Bilbao, Spain | 27-30 April 2020) both being hosted in Spain in Spring 2020.