Guest Column | September 7, 2021

From Insight To Output: How Digital Solutions Can Advance Industrial Water Management

By Pedro Sancha


Smart water management is not just a moral responsibility; it’s also a business imperative.

Whether in the clouds above us or the digital cloud, water is a crucial component of our lives. From powering and cleaning facilities that manufacture our phones to rinsing the wafers that make up semiconductors, water is fundamental for the continuation of innovation and technology. And we can, in turn, harness digital insights to help ensure that businesses across all industries use water efficiently.

Today we face increased urgency to change the way we use water, as rising industrial water use continues to contribute to the world’s growing water stress and scarcity challenges. According to the World Resources Institute (WRI),1 if nothing changes, the world will experience a 56 percent freshwater shortfall by 2030, an increase from the 40 percent shortfall projected by the UN in 2015.2

While many companies are aware of the need to change the way they use water to future-proof their operations, they often have trouble embedding it into their business planning and operations. According to an Ecolab and GreenBiz February 2021 survey of 93 companies with revenues of at least $1 billion,3 only 38 percent of respondents stated that water is a strategic corporate initiative that is proactively managed across their operations. This is due, in part, to the fact that the current prices of water often do not reflect its true cost, which incorporates the operational, reputational, and regulatory risks associated with water in the facilities’ regions in addition to the dollar amount.

It is almost impossible for companies to create a plan when they don’t understand their current performance and how it could be improved. In fact, in that same survey, only half of the respondents were currently using measurement tools to track water progress.

Understanding Water Performance Can Advance Sustainability Goals And Cost Savings

Without insights and analytics that empower organizations to act quickly to reach optimal water performance, enterprises stand to lose billions of dollars in asset, water, energy, and operating efficiency.

Greater visibility into water use across operations allows companies to identify inefficiencies and change behavior to help optimize operations, which leads to real progress on water-related sustainability goals, from the enterprise level to individual facilities. By understanding the quality and usage of the water throughout a process on a global scale, organizations can then reduce the amount of water used in total and increase the amount they reuse and recycle. This, in turn, reduces net consumption and helps lower carbon emissions, since so much energy is used to heat, cool, treat, and move water. And the best part is that the resulting optimization also delivers cost savings, which more than offset the investments in water technologies. Using digital technologies can enable companies to advance sustainability, profitability, and performance at the same time.

Measurement Can Be Time-Consuming And Complicated

Water treatment systems are dynamic and complex, and companies may not track water performance and progress because the manual data collection and analysis process is often tedious, resource-intensive, and difficult to execute consistently across sites. And that’s why digital analytic tools are game changers.

Intelligent digital services enable real-time insights and response, providing visibility into water usages at the enterprise, site, and asset levels. Businesses can efficiently use these insights to pinpoint where water is being consumed across connected assets and processes within their facilities, set enterprise-wide benchmarks, and strategically target improvement efforts to help maximize water savings.

Let’s take an example from the brewing industry. Say you run a global network of 100 breweries, and across your sites, you use an average of 3 hectoliters of water per hectoliter of beer. But at one site, you use only 2 hectoliters of water per hectoliter of beer. You’d want to be able to use that plant as an internal benchmark. And you might see that a competitor needs to use only 1.8 hectoliters. Capturing performance at the enterprise- and site-level and working with a third-party evaluator can help businesses understand how to drive those results using best-in-class insights, practices, and solutions.

A Customized, Local Approach Can Drive Enterprise Performance

This ability to pinpoint performance at the site level also can help an organization make scalable progress on its water-use goals. Individual facilities play a key role in an overarching water management strategy: While water targets and goals are typically set by sustainability and corporate responsibility teams, 95 percent of respondents in the Ecolab-GreenBiz survey said that facility-level teams are responsible for achieving these targets.

A common pitfall for many organizations with multiple sites is not looking at individual site performance and setting one-size-fits-all water reduction targets for all locations. Because sites operate within unique watersheds and weather conditions or may manufacture products that use differing amounts of water, this could lead to targets that are too high for some locations and too low for others. Unlike greenhouse gas emissions targets, which can be set at the global enterprise level, water use needs to be solved within the context of a local watershed. Understanding site-level performance and surrounding factors can help businesses set localized targets for unique facilities, which allows them to make efficient progress on targets without sacrificing performance.

Optimized Water Management Helps Protect Your Business

Smart water management is not just a moral responsibility; it’s also a business imperative. Optimizing water use is key to building resilient and efficient operations, and it protects business assets. For instance, predictive insights and real-time alerts can help protect facilities against operational disruption due to water quality and quantity risks. Features such as real-time monitoring, advanced alarm notifications, and 24/7 oversight enable alerts to users as out-of-spec conditions occur, enabling faster responses to address leaks and other issues.

And optimizing water use can help organizations operate as responsible members of their communities, ensuring that they are not taking more than their fair share of water and resources within a watershed. Rather than using and dumping water, we need to invest in solutions that mirror the natural water cycle, focusing on reducing, reusing, and recycling. With water scarcity putting more people and communities at risk, businesses are wise to be at the table, building trust in their commitments and supporting their local environments and communities. Future water allocations, and even permission to operate, could depend on it.

Supporting businesses to gauge the effectiveness of their water management plans and improve their water footprints with insights and analytics is more important than ever as we face a widening gap between freshwater availability and increasing demand from industry. Understanding the role of water in operations and opportunities to reduce use is critical as companies progress on their sustainability commitments and operations resiliency in the face of climate change and water stress.



About The Author

Pedro Sancha is the Senior Vice President and General Manager for the Industrial Digital Group at Ecolab.