Digital transformation has been one of the industry’s latest buzzwords, but is the water and wastewater industry ready to ride the digital wave? Water & Wastewater Asia (WWA) speaks to Amit Thakare, Technology Consultant for the Water & Wastewater Industry, AVEVA, to find out what digital transformation truly means to the industry, and how industry players can reinvent themselves and hasten their transformation to stay ahead of the curve in rapidly-changing markets.
WWA: You have been active in automation and industry software for over three decades, especially in the water and wastewater industry. In terms of global and regional definitions, what’s the current water landscape like?
Thakare: According to Euromonitor, 70% of the earth’s surface is covered in water, but only 3% is fresh water. The global demand for water has been growing exponentially in the last decade due to growing population and poor water management. Agriculture accounts for over 70% of water usage, while industry accounts for 20%. Water withdrawals will continue to grow by 30% in 2050.
Asia is currently home to 4.5 billion people, who use around 65% of the world’s water supply. Around 30% of the Asian population is already facing water scarcity. In Southeast Asia, more than 140 million people lack access to safe drinking water, while nearly a billion have no access to basic sanitation. These are due to wide-ranging issues like monsoon season, droughts and heavily-populated rivers limiting access to clean water.
WWA: Based on the current landscape, how quickly would you say the need for a digital transformation is growing in the water and wastewater industry?
Thakare: For a start, water operators are required to provide reliable and affordable water and wastewater services, comply with government regulations, and ensure a sustainable operation. In developing countries in Asia, water utilities face major issues like diminishing resources, infrastructure that is largely spread out, low operational capacities and incentive, and lastly a lack of access to operational data to monitor the performance of the entire value chain.
Water utilities therefore require more efficient methods of engineering, optimisation of energy supply, and contextualised compliance monitoring as they seek to expand the availability of water to the general population at an affordable price.
The good news is the Southeast Asian countries are strongly riding the digital wave with initiatives such as Industry 4.0, Indonesia 4.0, and Thailand 4.0. Having spoken to the executives from various water utilities, they are committed to moving forward into the digital transformation paradigm of Water 4.0, taking steps to reinvent themselves by adopting digital ways of working, adding talent, and modernising IT.
WWA: How does digital transformation benefit the water and wastewater industry?
Thakare: Water operators are not exempted from the growing influence of the transformational forces driven by technological advances seen in all sectors to operate in a more agile and innovative manner. Likewise, water utilities need to increase their agility to respond faster to demand, and to make assets safer and more reliable.
Water 4.0 with technology triggers like the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), big data analytics, mobility and workforce collaboration represent new opportunities for significant reliability, efficiency and safety improvements for water operators, allowing them to maximise operational efficiency. Through innovative water technologies and services, water utilities are now empowered to seek an operations-centric view across the entire water chain to fulfil their mission in cost-effective ways.
In a study by McKinsey & Company, utility companies that adopted digital technologies see reduction in operating expenses of up to 25%, and performance gains of 20-40% in areas such as safety, reliability, customer satisfaction, and regulatory compliance.
WWA: What are some approaches water utilities should consider to address industry challenges?
Thakare: The water and wastewater industry is on the cusp of a digital transformational change. Water utilities could transform the operations into modern and efficient workplace by looking into three areas:
Firstly, the available capital for improvements on the ageing water and wastewater infrastructure is diminishing, hence there is an urgency to get more from existing water and wastewater assets. Water operators must seek an overall proactive and predictive maintenance and operations strategy to support key continuous improvement objective.
Secondly, 80% of the capital is invested in the distribution network. Without real-time intelligence on operational performance, network status and customer demand, it is a challenge for water utilities to react swiftly to changes in these conditions. Data analytics for water network management will allow operators full visibility on the impact of planned and unplanned events, through real-time network behaviour forecasting.
Thirdly, when it comes to business agility and optimising the operations, information silos can be one of the biggest obstacles to delivering profitability, and operational inefficiencies make it difficult to align the processes or collaborate effectively. A unified operations centre will allow utilities to transform their business by integrating and visualising all available data in context be it operations, process, engineering, maintenance and financial data.
WWA: How could the water utilities accelerate their digital transformation journey?
Thakare: Digital transformation is the process of building a digital value chain that drives closed-loop operational excellence and unique customer experiences throughout the enterprise. It is an ongoing journey towards continuous process improvement involving the collaboration of people, processes and assets through technology. The overall tactical objective in achieving digital transformation is to create a real-time operational control loop that accurately and efficiently manages your enterprise, based on information and analytics.
Start small in your strategy and adoption. Major investments upfront are not required to begin a digital transformation journey. Consulting services can help the operators to assess the current asset inventory and business operations and chart the overall digital transformation strategy. While pilot projects such as predictive analytics can help the enterprise understand where to make the best technology investments to improve profitability and maximise return on capital.
WWA: What are some examples of successful implementation, when it comes to digital transformation in the water and wastewater industry?
Thakare: For example, 150-year-old water utility VCS Denmark was looking for a means of better water network management, as well as proactive measures for contamination identification and confinement to provide their customers with safe drinking water. The Water Network Management was an immediate success when it was implemented in 2004, and modernises the utility’s contingency planning and enables the expansion and maintenance of their water distribution network.
Seminole County Water District in the USA needed a more mobile way of managing plant facilities and facilitating communication among plant managers. Seminole County has relied on the Mobile Operator Rounds to successfully manage its water management facilities for more than 20 years.
Shifting gears to the oil and gas industry: The Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC) is the state-owned oil company of Abu Dhabi, and is one of the world’s leading energy producers. The ADNOC’s Panorama Digital Command Centre is a fully integrated, real-time data visualisation centre that empowers ADNOC’s to gain insights, unlock efficiencies, and identify new pathways to optimise performance, enabling savings between $60M to $100M through optimised operations. In Southeast Asia, water utilities have implemented the command centre to improve their operations.
WWA: Last but not least, what is your advice for water utilities to embark on the digital transformation journey?
Thakare: Digital transformation does not have to be disruptive, but it has to be now!
Water Scarcity in Southeast Asia, Euromonitor (2019)
Is Asia facing a coming water, International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (2019)
140m in SE-Asia do not have clean water, The Straits Times (2016)
Get smart to avoid a global water crisis, Asian Development Bank (2019)
The Digital Utility: New challenges, capabilities, and opportunities, McKinsey & Company (2018)