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Comment: The Rise of the Digital Engineer

As data gathering and analytics tools proliferate across water companies' operations, systems integration - interoperability - is key to maximising their value

by Scott Aitken, Managing Director (Europe), Black & Veatch

It is estimated that digitalisation of construction will lead to annual global cost savings of $0.7 trillion to $1.2 trillion within 10 years. This potential, for digital technology to enhance performance, is not lost on the new generation of water company leaders.

“Embracing digital technology will set us apart from our peers,” Liv Garfield, Severn Trent’s Chief Executive said recently; while appointing the company’s first digital chief officer will, “transform the way we work,” according to Thames Water Chief Executive Steve Robertson.

The lower weighted average cost of capital proposed in Ofwat’s PR19 consultation will make this a particularly difficult AMP, with inefficient companies risking greater penalties than in current and previous AMPs. To gain maximum value in an industry so dependent upon its supply chain to drive innovation, water companies need partners who understand and can realise the potential for digital data gathering, manipulation and analytics to deliver data and insight driven outperformance of financial and operational targets. We are moving into the age of the ‘Digital Engineer.’

Digital data tools enable efficient and optimised asset creation and asset management and vitally - with an even greater emphasis on Totex in AMP7 - enable informed, integrated investment decisions across assets’ entire lifecycle.

Currently the industry favours designs based upon precedent. Digitising asset data, through intelligent process and instrumentation diagrams (iP&IDs), facilitates an iterative design process. We test assumptions in a virtual environment to identify the most efficient blend of cost and asset performance for the real-world. For example determining the optimum integration of a replacement process unit in a treatment plant.

Intelligent P&IDs – which we have introduced on two large-scale wastewater projects - allow the extrapolation of a BIM environment 3D model with 4D (time) and 5D (financial, e.g. unit costs) data - to provide complete project and asset information. This affords the potential to identify opportunities to enhance schedule, quality and health and safety: where, for example, the use of off-site pre-fabrication can be expanded.

Intelligent P&IDs’ benefits extend beyond asset creation, and into operations and asset management. They create digital records for every component of an asset, providing operations with a complete, live, easy-to-access, inventory of the asset base – the root of data-driven asset management investment. We have the building blocks of a digital data model, covering all aspects of an asset, which remains live and interactive through the asset’s lifecycle – which goes to the heart of Totex.

Data is the key to ensuring that water companies’ ever-increasing asset base can meet the needs of customers and regulators. More data, better data and - most importantly - better data analysis, to provide the insights to outperform. Water companies will maximise the value of their assets by maximising their understanding of their assets.

For example our data analytics tool, ASSET360, allows asset performance data to be combined with external data such as energy tariff information, to identify the lowest cost of operation. We have also developed a tool to analyse multiple data points from wastewater pumping stations in order to accurately predict the risk of pollution incidents.

The demand for this kind of support will only grow as data becomes central to demonstrating regulatory compliance or service level reporting; to predicting asset failure and developing risk-based asset management programmes; and central to evidence based decisions for future investment decisions.

As data gathering and analytics tools proliferate across water companies’ operations, systems integration - interoperability - is key to maximising their value. As important as individual technologies is the ability to select, assemble and integrate groups of technologies in the manner that best meets or outperforms clients’ targets. This means starting to move towards a common data environment for water companies, their delivery partners, OEMs, and customers.

We are not there yet, but we may reach this point sooner than later. Data traffic increased by 50% between 2014 and 2015. For a technology to become embedded in everyday life requires a critical mass of circa 100 million users. It took 75 years for the telephone to achieve 100 million users; Pokémon Go achieved 100 million users in 25 days. The speed of the digital revolution can be bewildering, but with the right partners, water companies stand to reap the benefits.

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