Guest Column | January 11, 2023

Water Systems Get Smart With Digitalization

By Dominique Verhulst


Utilities can more confidently commit to digital transformation once the benefits, as well as the elements critical to its success, are understood.

Three days. That’s the amount of time, on average, that a human can live without water. There’s no doubt that the supply dynamics behind how we get our water are complex. Still, it should be cause for alarm that, by 2030, global demand for water is projected to outstrip supply by 40%, according to the World Economic Forum.1

Water utilities need a flexible and dynamic solution to the longstanding challenges that many face. Digitalizing operations with Industry 4.0 and Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) technologies can provide that way forward.

But realizing this digital future won’t be easy. Digital solutions require careful architecting to avoid adding more complexity. However, making the move to digitalization can be transformational. Let’s take a look at how.

What’s Stopping Change?

There are three reasons why water utilities are struggling today, and they are significant.

Unpredictability. The availability of raw water from sources such as rainfall, wells, rivers, and lakes is constantly changing. At the same time, customer demand and service requirements fluctuate. And there is increasing social pressure around sustainability and conservation. Utilities must embrace these variables, which isn’t always easy.

Cost efficiency. For decades, utilities have been forced to “sweat their assets” — essentially, make their past investments in infrastructure last as long as possible. Chronic underinvestment poses a real threat to water quality and availability. Many are also facing significant water loss and associated wasted energy required for its production and distribution.

Visibility and control of utility assets. For some time, utilities have built solutions specifically to address individual use cases. The result is a patchwork of fragmented and often proprietary operational systems, a diversity of end devices, and immense system complexity.

It’s tough to introduce a successful end-to-end solution at scale when faced with customized communication protocols and approaches to device discovery, communications, security, management, diagnostics, analytics, and enterprise integration. Even utilities that want to be innovative are stifled. There seems to be no obvious way to embrace new technologies and meet evolving business requirements.

What Can Digitalization Offer?

The answer lies in giving staff and customers easy access to a simpler, faster, and more flexible way forward.

Imagine employees empowered by key data — the kind of data that can predict issues, automate operations, and optimize systems. This enhanced situational awareness is foundational for more informed decision-making, streamlined processes, improved network operations, and accelerated response times.

Picture an environment where more open, flexible systems are deployed to deliver efficient, standards-based visibility and control, automating water management with the help of virtual information and contextual overlays. And smart water applications are deployed across the operations lifecycle — for leakage control, pressure management, water efficiency, reuse (greywater, rainwater, and effluent), water conservation, and demand management.

Data extended to customers works in a similar manner. Now, customers have timely access to consumption data that can help identify water leaks, appliance inefficiencies, and opportunities for conservation.

A digital transformation can help utilities to innovate and adapt, as well as dramatically change their relationships with their customers.

But these advances can also bring serious headaches. A utility may end up with added complexity if it does not have the right architecture to support it — an architecture that is backed by artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning to drive virtual asset operations with automated self-calibration, operation, and sensor-to-sensor communication.

Why An Open IIoT Architecture?

With the proper architecture, the result is total operational transformation. Optimize the whole lifecycle of water by connecting water resource management, operations, and citizens with supply, distribution, wastewater, and irrigation systems.

This creates more intelligent assets and provides a more holistic management approach that delivers new operational efficiencies and improved water quality, alongside a more environmentally sustainable system.

As such, utilities should look for these four specific features in their digital transformation approach to have confidence that it will work:

  1. A standards-based, low-power wide-area (LPWA) wireless communications network. This standardizes connectivity between devices and networks and creates a flexible, cost-efficient, and sustainable system.
  2. Common, open datasets to enable holistic analysis across different devices and systems. This enables an end-to-end view of operations.
  3. Flexible, open, standards-based digital platforms that automate and optimize operations. This enables the rapid development and deployment of new services, applications, and business models.
  4. Vendor-agnostic device management. This lets utilities freely use any device, seamlessly integrated into a common data management and analytics system for unified operations and optimal efficiency.

These are critical elements in driving intelligent digitalization and interconnection of all systems and hardware. This is possible through advances in the Internet of Things (IoT), which is now industrialized (IIoT) for larger-scale networks and applications in mission-critical environments.

Now a utility’s physical and digital realms can be synchronized, resulting in two transformational benefits. First is pervasive digital automation, which supports sensing and control with real-time communication and analysis. Second is augmented IIoT solutions, which enable contextual analytics, device security verification, and data privacy, as well as automated device management and control to simplify how devices are deployed and managed.

Lifecycle Water Management Is Inevitable

What an open IIoT architecture gets right is the end of proprietary systems and data silos that are holding utilities back from meaningful change.

More open, flexible digital systems deliver efficient, standards-based visibility and control, meaning that a utility can automate water management by augmenting data with virtual information and contextual overlays. Utilities will see productivity increase. They can quickly adopt new technologies to stay relevant and create more flexible, collaborative, and adaptive business processes.

Rapidly evolving technologies around sensors, communications, water efficiency, information management, analytics, automation, recycling, and wastewater management can improve the utilization and viability of water networks.

Additionally, utilities can see, understand, control, and automate operations better with AI and machine learning. These two technologies drive virtual asset operations that self-calibrate, operate, and communicate with other sensors.

With global water demand projected to increase 20% to 30% per year by 2050, according to the United Nations,2 what utility doesn’t want to transform to this new digital reality?

The Technology Behind Smart Water Networks

With the introduction of IIoT solutions, utilities can approach water management in a more holistic manner and accelerate their transitions from conventional operational approaches to smarter, more adaptive networks.

New open, standards-based LPWA communications and flexible open digital platforms are enabling low-cost, ubiquitous access to low-power IIoT sensors and data. This is enabling a new era of innovation within the water industry and driving significant change, letting operators automate and optimize operations, providing new services, and supporting new applications and business models.

Cellular network narrowband (NB) IoT is maturing, and now delivers the benefits of cost efficiency and enhanced battery life.

The 3GPP standards-based NB-IoT service offers the required coverage, scale, and extremely low power draw. This delivers economies of scale that enable improved and cost-effective IIoT capabilities. Consequently, it’s being used with many meters and sensors. With solutions based on a licensed spectrum, it has low interference, quality of service (QoS), and security, while providing standards-based connectivity. This, in turn, creates more flexible, cost-efficient, and sustainable operations.

Forward-Thinking Connected Digital Water Strategy

Transitioning to an open IIoT operations architecture is the best way forward for utilities to accelerate their sustainable efforts, as well as adapt to the shifting availability of raw water and fluctuating customer demand.

Industry 4.0 and IIoT technologies facilitate a data-driven approach that can empower water utilities to enhance business operations via automated and optimized systems, while cost-effectively adding value to customers.

In this digital future, more open and flexible digital systems paired with cellular, standards-based, low-power, wide-area communications will deliver greater visibility and control, allowing utilities to automate more water management.



About The Author

Dominique Verhulst currently heads up the Global Energy Practice at Nokia. Leveraging Nokia’s full portfolio of fixed, mobile, IP & optical, applications & analytics, and professional services products, Dominique and his team provide complete end-to-end solutions for the utility, oil & gas, and mining industries. He is the author of the “Teleprotection over Packet Networks” e-book and co-author of several publications from the University of Strathclyde. He has over 30 years of experience in the telecommunications networking industry, holding senior sales and marketing positions at Nokia, Alcatel-Lucent, Newbridge Networks, Ungermann-Bass, and Motorola.