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Opinion: Collaborating will be crucial after PR19

A collaborative approach to innovation must sit at the heart of PR19 strategies, writes Tim Edwards

Tim Edwards, Associate Director at Clancy DocwraTim Edwards, Associate Director at Clancy Docwra

By Tim Edwards, Associate Director, Clancy Docwra

As water companies prepare their responses to the next control period, the wider industry needs to make sure it’s bringing innovation to the table.

The publication of Ofwat’s PR19 strategy at the end of last year has laid down the gauntlet for the industry: to secure best value for customers by delivering against the four central themes of customer service, network resilience, affordability and innovation. In September, operators will respond with their own methodologies to continue to drive a forward-thinking and progressive water industry.

The next few months will be crucial and there is an important role for the wider sector – the contracting supply chain – to feed into these strategies. By drawing on expertise in live environments, and championing the best ideas being brought to the industry, collectively we can meet the challenges set out under the price review methodology. 

Harnessing the power of data

Most critically, data – combined with the use of artificial intelligence (AI) platforms to process and model it – holds the key to better performance. Our sector is not renowned for being technically advanced: something that was thrown into sharp focus earlier this year in headlines around the use of divining rods to identify leaks. However, by drawing on cross-industry best practice, there is a huge opportunity to transform the way we maintain and renew our networks.

One of the greatest challenges and opportunities to make a difference through the use of AI is around leakage, addressing the 3.1 billion litres of water that are lost every day in England and Wales. As we know, ageing infrastructure, varied design standards and inconsistent record-keeping poses a big headache for operators looking to identify, remedy and even pre-empt costly and wasteful leaks.

By gathering and analysing the data we do have through machine learning, we can start to understand how, why and where leaks occur. 

Critically, this approach relies on combining data – including information on historic leakage, location, material composition, age and geography of an asset – with our own expertise as water experts.  By bringing together the best technology and latest tools from technological innovators with an in-depth and implicit understanding of field-based experience, we can establish intelligent machine learning platforms that are bespoke to the sector. 

Boosting productivity in the field

In the context of a growing skills shortage across the industry, this approach has the ability to streamline resources and boost the productivity of technical teams. Currently, a typical water region across England and Wales can see labour costs of up to £10 million per annum to manage leakage.  Based on Clancy Docwra’s work with our technology partner Dootrix and using Microsoft’s Azure platform, we predict that AI has the ability to half this cost through more efficient use of resources.

To meet the challenges of PR19, this AI-driven productivity boost also needs to be supported by wider innovation in working practices, including better communication between on and off-site teams for faster decision-making. We have recently rolled-out a new live video and audio streaming tool – eviid – on one of our key contracts, to do just this. The system, which is held across our mobile platform, enables site teams to seek second opinions, customer approvals and technical advice remotely – meaning that jobs can be undertaken or closed quickly to cut costs and free up resource for other projects.

The use of a digitally connected workforce also creates a virtuous circle, whereby more and more data can be collected and aggregated to inform future works programmes. In turn, this can also be supported by the acceleration and commoditisation of Internet of Things (IoT) technology, enabling data collection from the network itself through the use of sensors to build an ever-more accurate picture of our water infrastructure and the interventions required to optimise its performance.

Investing in innovation

Delivering these tools must be a collaborative process, whereby water operators and their supply chains work together to identify the platforms and practices that they need to meet their objectives for PR19. Across the industry, we’ve been seeing some excellent examples of this approach, with providers including Anglian Water and Northumbrian Water embarking on innovation events and hackathons which invite teams to contribute new ideas.

The advent of PR19 now provides further impetus to the whole sector to work closely together to meet the challenges and priorities of the next control period: identifying and investing in the tools and ways of working needed to deliver a more resilient, modern network.

-PR19 and collaboration will be topics discussed at the WWT Water Industry Asset Management Conference on May 10. For further information and to book your place visit: https://event.wwtonline.co.uk/asset

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