Guest Column | April 21, 2016

Is Water 4.0 The Future?

Oliver Grievson

By Oliver Grievson


Water 4.0 is a concept that has recently been raised as the “future” of the water industry …possibly. Apart from being a paraphrase of Industry 4.0, the questions have to be asked: What is it, and what does it have to do with the way the water industry operates in its current state?

To define what exactly Water 4.0 is, we have to look at Industry 4.0 and what came before it — i.e., Industry 1.0, 2.0, and 3.0.

Industry 1.0 – This was the first Industrial Revolution and involved the mechanization of production using water and steam power. Think water mills and steam engines.

Industry 2.0 – In short, think of electricity and what it did for the mechanization of industry.

Industry 3.0 – Think electronics and computers — basically the start of automation within industry.

So what is Industry 4.0?

It is a collective term for technologies and concepts of value chain organization. Based on the technological concepts of cyber-physical systems, the Internet of Things (IoT), and the Internet of Services, it facilitates the vision of the Smart Factory. Within the modular structured Smart Factories of Industry 4.0, cyber-physical systems monitor physical processes, create a virtual copy of the physical world, and make decentralized decisions. Over the IoT, cyber-physical systems communicate and cooperate with each other and humans in real time. Via the Internet of Services, both internal and cross-organizational services are offered and utilized by participants of the value chain.

It is based upon six design principles:

Interoperability – The ability of cyber-physical systems (i.e., work piece carriers, assembly stations, and products), humans, and Smart Factories to connect and communicate with each other via the IoT and the Internet of Services.

Virtualization – A virtual copy of the Smart Factory which is created by linking sensor data (from monitoring physical processes) with virtual plant models and simulation models.

Decentralization – The ability of cyber-physical systems within Smart Factories to make decisions on their own.

Real-Time Capability – The capability to collect and analyze data and provide the insights immediately.

Service Orientation – Offering of services (of cyber-physical systems, humans, and Smart Factories) via the Internet of Services.

Modularity – Flexible adaptation of Smart Factories for changing requirements of individual modules.

The “cyber-physical system(s)” (CPS) element of this can be defined as a system of collaborating computational elements controlling physical entities. CPS are physical and engineered systems whose operations are monitored, coordinated, controlled, and integrated by a computing and communication core. They allow us to add capabilities to physical systems by merging computing and communication with physical processes.

Application To The Water Industry

Industry 1.0 through 4.0 all apply to the manufacturing industry, and for that industry it is relatively simple: something is being fabricated and put together utilizing distinct parts. The water industry is actually quite different; be it potable water or wastewater, it is being cleaned for discharge either to the customer’s tap or back to the environment. In reality, operationally, does Industry 4.0 apply to the water industry or are we trying to force concepts from another industry onto the water industry and creating something that doesn’t quite work?

Possibly, but let’s play around with the design principles briefly and see where we get and see how far the water industry is with the concepts.

Interoperability – The way that I read interoperability is the ability of water industry operators to connect, communicate, and work with the treatment, collection, and distribution systems to find out what is going on and be able to connect remotely. If you ignore the concept of doing this over the internet, it is arguable that we already have the ability to do this through SCADA systems. In some ways you can almost say the water industry has achieved this on large treatment works and, in some aspects, with distribution systems; however, we are nowhere near the interoperability concept on smaller treatment works and collection systems.

Rating: Check-mark (✓) for ‘yes’ least in parts of the industry

Virtualization – A virtual copy of the Smart Factory — arguably a ✓ in the water industry box

We have telemetry systems which at least allow us to see what is going on. ‘Advanced’ wastewater treatment works have process models that control aspects of the treatment works; and in both advanced distribution and collection systems, we even have model-based simulation models. It is certain that the technology is not quite there yet on a company-wide, basis but in pockets in the water industry it certainly works and is in place.

Rating: Not far off

Decentralization – The ability of the treatment works and network systems to control themselves

Again, arguably this already exists. We, as an industry, have elements of treatment works that are more than capable of controlling themselves through monitoring and control systems; we have pumping stations that based upon the signals from level controllers will control pass forward pumps; we have programmable logic controllers (PLCs) that act as control centers for treatment works or individual parts of treatment works.

Rating: A big ✓ …perhaps?

Real-Time Capability – The capability to collect and analyze data and provide the insights immediately

Hmmm... How do you define immediately? Is it applicable to the water industry? Is immediately necessary? This is an area where the water industry can definitely develop in. The basics can be said to be done; we have the ability to alarm out if something is wrong, and even the potential to react to the alarm remotely (on some systems) to repair the potential problem. Under Water 4.0 and the principles of Visualization and Decentralization, the system should, of course, react itself. There is the potential for real-time or even near-time capability (as applicable to the industry), but to be fair this is an area where the water industry could grade itself as “An area for improvement.”

Rating: An area for improvement

Service Orientation – We’re a service industry, so this is absolutely a ✓ in the box …or is it? Well, actually probably not.

  • Water meters are mostly manually read once or twice a year.
  • Customer bills and other customer communications are mostly paper-based and come through the mail, although some communication is through social media.
  • Customer queries are handled over the telephone, although text messaging, social media, and texting to mobile phones are becoming more popular.
  • Customer analytics are rare at best, although with the advent of smart metering this is an area that the industry is actively pursuing and improving in.

Rating: An area where improvements are being made, but generally could do better

Modularity – A flexible approach? Changing requirements? Does this design principle apply? Are we already doing it? Again, arguably the answer is yes.

If you look at some large wastewater treatment works, they design final settlement tanks of the same size, the same shape, and only vary in number. The control systems of an individual tank will be exactly the same as the control system for the tank next door to it.

Some of the water companies in the UK have their control system libraries so that they can take a control module from the “library” and apply it, with a little bit of tweaking, to site requirements.

So has the water industry achieved the design principle of modularity? Arguably, perhaps, but certainly not across the whole industry, and perhaps not if you are going to take a purist view of Industry 4.0 — but from a Water 4.0 point of view, it’s a definite maybe.

Rating: Getting there

Purely going on the design principles of Industry 4.0, we can argue that Industry 4.0 does apply to the water industry and so, as a concept, at least Water 4.0 is a direction that we should be at least moving towards and in parts have actually achieved. However, you can take the individual ingredients of any recipe and put them together in a mixer, but it doesn’t mean that you will get anything resembling sense out of the other end.

Delivering Water 4.0

In nuts and bolts, what does Water 4.0 actually look like from a water industry point of view? For me, it’s a case of going back to basics and seeing what the water industry currently has and what it can do to bring the industry forward to a point where we are at least adhering to the design principles. At least it is the management of the “anthropogenic water cycle” from when we abstract water from the source to when we put it back to the environment and arguably further than that. It is seeing what we want to do, having a look at the technological gaps, and then plugging them. There are examples of where this has been done, at least in part, and these examples are what we must look towards to shape the future of the water industry.

To use the principle of the “Smart Water Network” (SWAN) layers, where are we?

The Physical Layer is the first and most extensive of the layers and includes all of the assets themselves from pipes, to tanks, to pumps. This is the base of the water industry and it must be managed through the use of asset management systems, recording the assets that we have in a consistent way and in the same way across the water industry. Believe it or not, this is an area of challenge in that the nomenclature is completely different across the water industry. All of these assets need to managed in the short-, medium-, and long-term with systems such as Computerized Maintenance Management Systems (CMMS), but potentially Condition Based Maintenance Management Systems (CBMMS)

The Sensing & Control Layer is relatively simple, and yet is probably one of the major stumbling blocks within the water industry. The main reason being, generally within the water industry the requirements of the Sensing & Control Layer have been very poorly specified and has thus allowed the proliferation of the phenomenon of data richness/information poverty. As such, instrumentation has been installed with little or no attached value. This has led to the devaluing of instrumentation as a whole and the inability to extract usable intelligence from the vast amount of data that is collected every day.

If Water 4.0 is to become a true reality in the water industry, then an exercise to define the information that the water industry needs to operate must be completed. From the information requirements comes the data needs, and from this the instrumentation that is required to feed the data needs. At this level, of course, Sensing & Control Management Systems are needed, as well as data validation systems to check on the quality of the data that is collected. It is the Sensing & Control Layer that is absolutely vital if the Water Industry is to deliver Water 4.0

The Collection & Communication Layer is the telemetry system layer where all of the data from the Sensing & Control Layer is collected, while also including PLCs and Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) systems. It is at this level that a lot of the debate will happen in the water industry, and is potentially where the so-called Internet of Things comes into play by connecting instruments with wider system. For the water industry, there are numerous different elements, from the Water Industry Telemetry Standard (WITS) to the existing SCADA and PLC structure. The main concern and the main stumbling block for Water 4.0 is within this layer of the water industry and concerns digital/cybersecurity.

If you say to a communications or telemetry specialist in the water industry that you are just going to connect this instrument up to the IoT, the answer will be a quite secure “never in a million years.” Bring the “cloud” into the mix and you are definitely not going to be successful in your endeavors, and the less said about local communication protocols the better. In fact, the discussion over communication protocols in the water industry is assuredly going to be a debate for many years to come. If the definition of Water (or Industry) 4.0 is to connect to the internet, then it is more than likely in the water industry that it will never become a reality.

The Data Management & Display Layer (Layer 4) and Data Fusion & Analysis Layer (Layer 5) are probably the layers that are developed in some respects, but undeveloped in others. Models of the various aspects of the water industry exist, as do complex telemetry and information management systems. In addition to this are the business reporting systems — SAP, Click, and all of the other management systems, and now all of the Software as a Service (SaaS) systems that are available. On top of this are the various Excel spreadsheets and Access Databases that are almost a prerequisite in the industry. The problem with this is that there are several different versions of the truth, and accessibility to all of these different systems are compartmentalized across the various companies. The result is that the truth becomes the truth depending upon whose information you are looking at.


Water 4.0 — Is it something for the water industry? If so, how far along the path are we?

The quick answers are that it is something for the water industry, and in a large part we have been moving towards it for a number of years. As an industry, we are moving further and further towards a factory approach to the products that we produce, whether it is potable water for drinking, treated water for returning to the environment, or biosolids to be used on agricultural land. More and more, we are seeing product factories — minimization of losses (through leakage reduction) and the maximizing of products that we can produce (through resource recovery). We as an industry are focused on providing the best customer service that we can, hence more companies are metering the water they provide; and in a large number of cases this is through “smart” metering, to work with the customer to provide the best customer service.

Water 4.0, the Smart Water Industry, or just plain efficient operation (in truth, whatever you want to call it) is central to these ways of working, and it is through the development of the design principles of Industry 4.0 that we can deliver the future of the water industry. However, there are some barriers to this approach to take into account and some decisions that need to be made – not on a company level, but in real terms on an industry level as a whole.

The first of these barriers is that of communications protocols insofar as we are industry that is mainly working off analog signals in the main with Profibus on larger plants. The industry seems to be heading towards a future of Ethernet, and in the UK there is the whole direction of the Water Industry Telemetry Standard (WITS) with some heading in that direction and some not.

The second is cybersecurity, which is becoming an increasingly urgent issue. For those talking about cloud or IoT environments, the proof of absolute security is an absolute must. Incidents of hacking of water treatment works which have hit recent news, along with past incidents, only make the issue all the more important. The impact of a hacking incident that changed chemical levels can have serious implications to customers or the environment, and zero risk must be the way forward for the water industry to even investigate this area.

The third is instrumentation and data quality and an end to data richness/information poverty. The water industry has a vast amount of instruments which produce a vast amount of data that gives no actionable intelligence, and in reality needs to move towards an era of simply ‘information richness’ where information is available to the people that need it in an easy and digestible format that provides one version of the truth. This, of course, needs to be accurate, which requires the correct instrumentation to be purchased, installed, operated, and maintained correctly. This is not always the case in the water industry of today, as the value of data and information is relatively low.

Water 4.0 is something that the water industry should be aiming towards. How we get there is going to be the fun part, over what will likely be the next decade or two.