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Blog: Connecting data for efficiency and productivity

Steve Hanslow

UK Sales Manager, Water & Wastewater, Siemens UK & Ire

Steve Hanslow believes that at a time when AMP6 is focussing water companies on total expenditure (TOTEX) driven outcomes, some of the guiding principles inherent within what's known as ‘Industry 4.0’ can be applied to the UK water sector.

The industrial world’s predicted move towards network interconnectivity through enhanced digital-based communications can assist water companies to better manage their challenging asset infrastructure.  In particular, it can drive improved understanding of asset base performance, develop efficiencies, enhance productivity, inform future investment choices and help position strategic market offerings as upstream retail competition really takes hold.

There has been much discussion about the impact of ‘Industry 4.0’ – the term originating in Germany to describe the next industrial revolution leap made possible by the use of cyber-physical systems.  Advocates excitedly highlight the creation of self-organising, intelligence-led, fully optimised digital factories producing highly customised products.  This will be as a result of the computerisation of manufacturing, based on enhanced levels of network interconnectivity and strong digital communication between machines and equipment, which are then capable of producing intelligent data.

While many acknowledge the potential of such a substantial manufacturing advancement (indeed it is now commonly referred to as the fourth Industrial Revolution), it should also be recognised that we are already in the midst of witnessing the influence of digitalisation (and Big Data) within industrial environments. 

This is highly relevant for a UK water sector currently undergoing a sea change.  During AMP6, it is under close scrutiny from OFWAT to be far more customer focused than in the past. The sector is being encouraged to concentrate upon TOTEX and not capital expenditure (CAPEX), so investments are considered within a whole life value context, while also remaining mindful of ongoing compliance responsibilities for water quality and increased supply.

This change of emphasis within AMP6 follows a 25 year undertaking by the nation’s water sector on massive capital expenditure projects designed to upgrade water and sewage networks to an acceptable standard for the 21st century. This undertaking has cost an estimated £100bn to complete.

To satisfactorily deliver a TOTEX-based investment programme, the sector itself readily acknowledges a need to better interrogate and understand the performance of the key operational support system – its ageing and geographically widespread asset base, which encompasses among others, remote pumping stations, large-scale piping networks, waste water treatment plants and reservoirs. 

It needs to do this so it can target future investment choices to deliver improved efficiencies and more broad-based ‘outcomes’ as challenged to do so by the industry regulator. 

Failure in this area will put water companies at both financial and competitive risk, with the regulatory regime intent on seeking evidence that its instructions have been taken on board.  In addition, upstream competition inevitably points to water company retail offerings coming under increased pressure to maintain and grow supply levels.

Data is at the heart of the business

It is clear that asset data sits at the heart of the solution to deliver the better operational understanding being sought.  It offers both short-term tactical answers to managing challenging widespread, remote and legacy asset bases, while also underpinning strategic business decisions that will shape the kind of businesses water companies want to be in the future.

The challenge remains to optimise the current and future delivery and use of ever-increasing volumes of data currently being generated across water companies – including previously untapped measuring sources.  The next step is to convert such data into useful intelligence-led information that can benefit both day-to-day operational objectives and underpin strategic long-term planning. 

This presents a new kind of challenge and one the industry should be looking to tackle in partnership with trusted technology partners.  Data and information strategy influences, among many others, critical areas such as cost control, technology choice, efficiency targets and regulatory responsibilities.  It sits at the very centre of the service a water company delivers. 

Water companies collect huge volumes of data, but I would argue that there is a large degree of mistrust about its validity and usefulness in its present state.  Current high security, and historical data (both on and off site) looking at energy usage, process performance, and water quality to name a few is often delayed coming from distributed assets, before it is then transported and manipulated through various internal stages - all the time reducing overall confidence in the data’s veracity.

Tangible benefit lies in the collection of ‘real-time data’, an information source offering quick and accurate current and past performance indicators.  It comes courtesy of interconnected network technology support that can access, store, manage, visualise and interrogate varied sources of asset performance data volumes from a strategic and business-orientated perspective.  This, by definition, informs management decision-making, minimises risk and, ultimately, drives improved efficiencies across the asset portfolio. 

A good case in point is the ability, for example, to undertake a condition-based asset maintenance programme.  Maintenance work only needs to be undertaken when the asset requires it and is not reliant on an arbitrary or historical timeframe.  Data gathered from the asset, visualised and then scrutinised, can alert management if repair or maintenance is required, enabling them to target appropriate expenditure and investment more accurately and drive better outcomes.

Of course, there is an ongoing debate to be had around what constitutes ‘real time’ for the water sector.  Is it seconds, minutes, hours?  What might, for example, be applicable in the food industry may not be right for the water industry.  But it is this kind of technology-led conversation and collaborative philosophy that we need across the sector if we are to move towards a common currency where technology will aid our shared interests.

Today’s automation technology is already enabling data collection and its strategic use in many other sectors.  It can also help water companies truly deliver asset efficiencies and improved productivity – key objectives that support the delivery of the kind of customer focussed outcomes set by OFWAT within AMP6 and subsequent investment cycles.

Steve Hanslow is UK Sales Manager, Water & Wastewater, Siemens UK & Ireland  

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