DIGITAL TWINS: Better-informed decisions, better outcomes

The Bentley Systems’ Year in Infrastructure Conference went digital for the first time ever in 2020. At this virtual platform, Water & Wastewater Asia spoke with Gregg Herrin, Vice President, Water Infrastructure (Bentley Systems) to find out how Digital Twins enable water utilities to visualise infrastructure assets across the entire asset lifecycle, track change, and perform analysis to optimise asset performance.

Why is the Digital Twin important to water infrastructure projects? 
The whole concept of the digital twin is that it is an accurate representation of your system that you can use anytime and for any purpose. You can take combinations of information from technologies such as GIS, operational technologies like SCADA and engineering technologies like hydraulic models, and combine it to get more insights and understanding, and to make better decisions. 

 The important thing isn’t about just having a Digital Twin for its own sake. It’s having a Digital Twin to make better operational decisions on how to handle an emergency when it comes up; better maintenance decisions about whether or not a pump needs to be serviced or replaced; or better planning decisions about how your system is going to handle population growth or climate change. These are decisions every utility needs to make and the Digital Twin can help with every area of your system and every area of the life cycle. 

So how do we build it? You can start with pretty much anything you have. Most utilities have some sort of GIS, SCADA system or billing system, hydraulic model or other sources of data that they currently use. You can start building from that. The process of the Digital Twin is really more of an ongoing thing. You can start with what you have and just start connecting it in ways that can help you get better information from it. 

So a water company does not need to be digitalized in order to have the Digital Twin?

There are different levels of it that are available. If you look at Águas do Porto in Portugal, they have parts of their Digital Twin telling them things like their SCADA signals might be malfunctioning, information about what the water quality is like on their beaches and what’s happening in their sewer systems, and information about where their pipe bursts or leaks are. That same information is available to their field technicians so they are accessing the digital twin information from their mobile devices; as well as to their customer service representatives, so when somebody calls in and complains about something, the customer service person is able to look at the different aspects of the Digital Twin and understand if it’s an expected problem or something they need to investigate. 

Not every utility needs to be at that point in order to get benefits. Anything that someone can do to start connecting information between different pieces of technology is going to result in a better outcome than if they didn’t have it. So even like connecting a GIS to a hydraulic model, that’s going to have benefits just in terms of having more accurate simulations of what’s happening. 

Has the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the use of Digital Twin? 
Around the world, people who have been adopting digital technologies are in a better place to handle situations that nobody expected such as a pandemic for a year. I think it’s only going to increase. Utilities that have had success because of this are going to accelerate their investments in digital toolsets. Utilities that have been struggling because they do not have remote access or the ability to evaluate these things might see this as a wake-up call.

What do you think water companies can do in order to remain resilient in this economic crisis?

One of the biggest things that we see is a lot of utilities have more uncertainties about what their capital budgets are going to be for the next several years. 

As the pandemic hit, there’s a lot of impact on unemployment rates that has had an impact on people paying their water bills and so on. That means water utilities aren’t sure exactly how much money they’re going to be bringing in in the next year or how many of their bills from the last two quarters will actually be paid. 

And that goes back to the beginning of our conversation about decision-making tools – the ability to try different things digitally and find out what works and what doesn’t. What has the desired outcomes and what doesn’t and then use that to prioritise the needed works to be done. 

I believe we’ll actually see an increase in the amount of effort going into digital tools like hydraulic modelling and an increase in things that start to bring these systems together for larger decisions around capital spending and more. 

Any more words for our readers?

There are probably two things that I would love everybody in the water utility to think about and to know about. One is I hope it’s clear to everyone that a few years from now, a Digital Twin will just be part of the normal operating procedure, just like how everybody sees GIS as part of their toolset. It will be more common to have a Digital Twin than not have a Digital Twin. 

The second thing I want everybody to know is that it’s not a scary thing. You do not have to do it all at once. You can take the parts you have now and start connecting them in a way that you can use them better and then grow from there. 

You do not have to do this as one huge scary project. It is a process of going digital which will be constantly evolving and to solve problems better and better. So people can get started now, they don’t need to wait for some huge initiative to get going. 

About Gregg Herrin, PE, VP, Water Infrastructure

Gregg Herrin is vice president of Water Infrastructure, where he leads the team responsible for Bentley’s hydraulics and hydrology applications. He joined Bentley Systems in 2004 when Bentley acquired Haestad Methods, a pioneer in the hydraulics and hydrology software industry. He has served in a variety of roles focused on the combination of engineering technologies and data systems. Herrin earned his Bachelor of Science in civil engineering from the University of Vermont, and he continues to maintain his professional engineering license. He is the co-inventor of five patented technologies and has been the editor or contributing author for numerous publications.

To learn more about the Digital Twins, register for the webinar which will take place on Tuesday, 24 November 2020: