Guest Column | November 25, 2019

The Drive Towards Digital Transformation

Oliver Grievson

By Oliver Grievson


It seems that everywhere that you go in the water industry at the current time, somebody is talking about digital transformation…or if we go back five minutes, it was Water 4.0…and 10 minutes ago (it seems), it was “smart water.” These are all very well used buzzwords that the industry is destined to think about for a short-term and then promptly forget about. In reality, though, we as an industry have been hit by a number of different concepts for a number of different technological aspects for a good number of years now. For almost as long we have had a term for all of this — “widgets.”

The number of times I have heard people in water companies say “I’m not interested in widgets; I’m interested in solutions to my challenges,” shows that there is a need for a “digitally transformed” industry, but at the moment we need to bring the industry together to understand what the challenges are, what the applications are, and how we can collaborate together to bring around this “transformation.”

Defining The Concept With Layers

Whatever we choose to call it, the original definition of a “digitally transformed smart water industry” seems to be based upon the SWAN Layers diagram, which is loosely based upon a combination of the Purdue Model and/or the Open System Interconnection (OST) model of information and communications technology (ICT) that was developed in the 1970s and 1980s. In the SWAN Layers model there is everything from:

  • Layer 1, which is the physical infrastructure;
  • Layer 2, which is instrumentation and control systems;
  • Layer 3, which is communication;
  • Layer 4, which is visualisation; and
  • Layer 5, which is analytics.

The technologically-based model is layered, but there is an argument that it should also be pyramidical to reflect the fact that the layer above cannot work without the layer below — there is no point monitoring a pipe with instruments if the pipe isn’t there. The water industry has a history of being very good at Layer 1, with decades of infrastructure-based programs of investment. From Layer 2 above, the smart water industry really starts. Layers 2 and 3 is an area that the water industry has mixed results, with good strategy in some areas and challenges in other areas. The importance of Layer 2 is the fact that instruments and sensors are essential to producing the data that is needed to bring ‘smart water’ to fruition, by providing the information that leads to insight and situational awareness. It is through situational awareness that the water industry can understand the performance of the systems that it operates and make informed decisions. What is key, however, is that the data that forms the basis of the informed decision is right, as otherwise we end up with the situation that was highlighted in the 1950s by the U.S. Army mathematician William Mellin, which is “Garbage in, garbage out.”

Underpinning the SWAN Layers are the elements of people and processes, as the technological solution is worthless if there are no people to understand and operate it and no processes to maintain it. The modification that has been suggested is that people and (business) processes be incorporated into the SWAN Layers; in reality, they are part of each and every layer. If we as an industry don’t incorporate a process into instrumentation, for example, then a resistance to its effective use creeps in and the industry ends up in the situation where it is data rich/information poor (DRIP) as the data tends not to be utilized to its full effect. However, if a process is followed that identifies the need in terms of information, the data is then valued and utilized. With the value of data comes the need for the business process, which in turn leads to getting the people in place to maintain the data and the processes to make sure the data is correct.

From this we can derive the first step that any company, especially the water companies, should take in order to digitally transform. This first step is not technologically-based but people-based insofar as it has it roots in stakeholder engagement. It is there to identify the informational needs of the organization based upon the various business processes in terms of regulatory and financial drivers, including such aspects as compliance, operational efficiency, and customer service, to name just three.

Digital Transformation: Where Are We Now?

Some areas are quite far advanced, for both political and financial reasons, with the most developed solutions around smart water networks, which helps the water companies to manage both non-revenue water and per capita consumption. Programs of meter verifications and maintenance are commonly delivered by external specialist companies and utilized by the leading water companies to make sure that the data is correct to enable identification of areas of unusual consumption using district metered areas (DMAs). More innovative companies are taking on the Dynamic DMA approach, which relies on instrumentation to manage the system along with a high-end platform for data visualization techniques. Advanced Pressure Management to limit losses in the system is also commonplace and is a solution that covers Layers 2 through 5. These are the successful technological solutions that have been delivered as part of the “Smart Water Industry.” On top of this, smart water meters, together with techniques such as social engineering, are also delivering savings across the industry with reductions of 15 to 18 percent non-revenue water commonplace, and an 8 percent reduction in per capita consumption noted in case studies. Within the next Asset Management Period (AMP), these techniques, if not already utilized, are bound to start being utilized moving forward in order to address the tough leakage targets that the industry faces.

Note so far, the concepts of Big Data, Internet of Things, or even Digital Twins have not been mentioned. They have their application, and NB-IoT (Narrowband Internet of Things) is likely to become part of the industry in the future — as are communications technologies such as 5G, radio, and satellite — but in reality they are part of Level 3, which facilitates the concept as a whole. They are vital pieces of the puzzle, but they are just one piece of a much wider picture.

What are the barriers to the adoption of digital transformation? The first one is to understand the application. It has been understood for non-revenue water and potable water distribution systems, and the technology is well matured with the value case well understood. Regulatory drivers within the UK are pushing the water companies past the previous concepts of the “economic level of leakage” and are, in fact, driving the industry towards lower and lower levels of leakage by use of technology to enable smaller and smaller leakage areas to be identified. It’s an intelligent step forward as, arguably, due to the water resource challenges within the industry, a megalitre of water saved is more valuable than a megalitre of water supplied as it delays the investment in critical infrastructure such as reservoirs that will eventually be needed. Where next? Flow management in the wastewater system and pollution prevention is an area that is becoming increasingly important and is certainly a future driver that can be assisted by using digital transformation techniques. Construction and operational management techniques using Digital Twins and operational models also figure to be areas of development that the water industry is heading toward.

All of this is going to require the industry to work together in collaboration in order to identify the applications and advances that are needed in terms of technology, people, and processes. It is in the people element where at least some of the barriers exist in terms of the skills availability. It is well known that there is a shortage of engineers, instrumentation technicians, and hydro-informaticians with the specialist skills in ensuring data quality (through instrumentation maintenance), data management, and analytics, as well as having the process knowledge to avoid the situation of finding patterns where they don’t necessarily exist. These are specialist skills that are in short supply and the industry can’t, at the moment, keep up with the demand for these skill sets. As such, there is a strong need for technically skilled people in these areas, which acts as a barrier to implementation.

The water industry does have a desire to digitally transform, but at the moment the understanding of what this means is also crucial. In the meantime, the pressures that are being laid onto the industry to move in this direction through efficiency and tighter regulation is a double-edged sword insofar as the drivers help the industry to move in this direction, but also apply monumental pressure to deliver in a relatively short period of time.

About the Author

Oliver Grievson is the Technical Lead at Z-Tech Control Systems, Executive Director of Water Industry Process Automation & Control, Chairman of Wastewater Education 501 (c)3, and Deputy Chairman of the Sensors for Water Interest Group.

Oliver has over 20 years of experience within the water industry in both the UK and abroad, working in everything from municipal operations to engineering design, acting as a technical and operational specialist. His specialisms include wastewater operations, instrumentation, and the smart water industry. He will be leading the smart water educational sessions at WWETT 2020 and the Smart Water track at the Water & Energy Exchange (WEX) Global Conference, and is serving on the programme committee for the International Water Association Digital Water Summit — all taking part in Spring 2020.