It’s no revelation that, whatever problems they create, demanding economic situations can provide an environment conducive to innovation.
We’ve witnessed it throughout the UK process industries in response to the regularly-cited skills and labour shortages – which have at least had the benefit of increasing manufacturers’ interest in promoting greater automation upon the factory floor.
The water and wastewater sectors have not been immune to this. Indeed, additional pressures from the regulator, Ofwat, have meant that they are investing heavily in technological and digital advances.
Climate and population have impacted more, requiring service providers to address a demand that is rising faster than resources. The regulator meanwhile is resisting strongly any attempt to redress this situation with a decline in service or substantially greater expense.
Colin Yates, chief support officer at Manchester-based data capture expert WorkMobile, recently summed up the approach thus: “The regulator is keen for water companies to be looking for innovative ways to monitor their asset health and improve their infrastructure.”
He says that, with all but three of the UK’s registered water companies having been told by Ofwat to resubmit their business plans in line with the regulator’s demand for greater sustainability, “they should be exploring how technology can help them to align their plans with Ofwat’s vision”.
Oliver Pogmore [pictured], sales director at plant specialists AVT Reliability, stresses the challenges for companies which collectively spent more than £150 billion (“an average 40% of turnover”) on new assets and infrastructure from 1990-2018.
“Productivity has undoubtedly improved. But as time progresses and assets age, the task will be to achieve optimum productivity within the constraints.”
Adding to the pressure to maintain and improve is the sector’s susceptibility to reputational damage caused by anything from minor disruption to major issues such as environmental pollution. This means, warns Pogmore, that downtime impacts companies beyond the operational level alone and enhances the need for predictive maintenance in order to mitigate such risk.
Ensuring the regulator’s desired outcomes will be a matter of satisfying four interdependent goals of effective condition monitoring:
- Reduced waste – not only of water but also human and technological resources
- Improved data capture – via automation, Cloud and edge computing
- Better data analysis – Big Data capture, smart analytics, virtualisation/digital twinning
- Faster maintenance – speedier, automated, scaleable and more precise prediction
For water and wastewater companies generally, one of their key sources of wasted resource, not to mention additional cost, is that caused by leakage says Yates: “One of Ofwat’s main aims for the next five years is a 15% reduction in leakage, the equivalent of more than 170 billion litres of water per year.”
Small wonder, then, that among the most noteworthy developments featured at this year’s Blue Tech Forum innovation showcase were two by American companies that focus on using the latest technology to combat leaks and the danger of degrading assets.
Electro Scan Inc, which has an office in London, specialises in sewer-scanning devices, using electric current to detect leaks in non-conductive sewer pipes.
Using a high frequency, low voltage electric current produced by a probe, its technology can check 360° of the pipe wall; the probe assesses not only the existence of leaks but also their size, by determining the amount of electrical current detected outside the pipe. Data can be forwarded immediately to web servers for interpretation, with the analysis visible for the client company.
Multiple web connections mean that diverse data, taking in vibration and oil analysis for example, can be collected and consolidated on one platform, where it can be securely accessed from anywhere in the world via a standard web browser
Oliver Pogmore, sales director, AVT Reliability
Meanwhile, Fracta’s Cloud-based technology employs machine learning to ensure a preventive, pro-active approach to asset management. Again, the benefits are avoidance of leaks but also more precise valve maintenance and improved intelligence on where and why maintenance is required, plus an outline of the true cost of ageing infrastructure.
With US water utilities experiencing a quarter of a million leaks every year and the number of occurrences increasing by 27% in six years, these systems have ample opportunity for testing.
Fracta’s recent enhancement of its focused electrode leak location (FELL) technology can pinpoint leaks to an accuracy of 1cm and measure leak intensity in litres per second.
The benefits in terms of targeted maintenance can be crucial; in one case a utility company had projected an 80% improvement on leak detection using conventional CCTV, dye and smoke technology but achieved just 30%. FELL analysis suggested far greater success would have been achieved by focusing on an entirely separate location.
UK utilities are also getting in on the act. Yorkshire Water claims to be the first major water and sewage firm in the country to pilot the use of smart analytics for leak detection.
Committed to investing £71 million next year with the aim of reducing leaks by a massive 40% by 2025, Yorkshire spent £200,000 on a 12-month trial with the help of Servelec Technologies and Artesia Consulting.
The two companies receive real-time flow and pressure data from rural Hebden Bridge and urban west Sheffield, examining this for disruptions to standard patterns. Alerts to Yorkshire Water aim to ensure leaks are fixed before customers notice the effects.
Central to leak reduction is the ability to obtain data from all points of an operation. The far-flung location of many water assets means this is impossible to achieve properly without automation and digitalised processes and reduced dependence upon fallible humans.
Intimate yet remote
This premise is central to AVT Reliability’s approach, explains Pogmore. Its Cloudbased technology, such as Machine Sentry, allows assets to be managed online, while high-speed wireless connections provide 24/7 real-time monitoring. At its core, the automated digital assistant identifies the smallest change and provides data-driven insight to inform actions.
Adds Pogmore: “Multiple web connections mean that diverse data, taking in vibration and oil analysis for example, can be collected and consolidated on one platform, where it can be securely accessed from anywhere in the world via a standard web browser.”
Excessive vibration offers an example of the benefits. It has a multitude of causes, with solutions of varying complexity and cost. Vibration analysts, meanwhile, are in short supply and their work comes at a hefty price whether they are employed in-house or outsourced.
Turnaround is an issue too: An experienced practitioner will average two hours to evaluate data and recommend a course of action. AVT’s web-hosted algorithmic condition monitoring system offers ongoing, real-time analysis and will cite a single problem or rank four potential causes with their suggested remedies.
While much of the focus will be on leak reduction, the opportunities are extensive. Dutch company LG Sonic, another Blue Tech star, focused on water quality with its new product.
The MPC-Buoy, is a floating, solarpowered system that combines real-time water quality monitoring, satellite data and ultrasound technology to control the growth of harmful algal on the surface of large stretches of water.
Capable of operating over a 500 metre area it claims to eliminate 90% of existing algae and to prevent further growth.
Ultrasound ensures a lack of environmental harm, while solar reliance, easy maintenance and remote operation keep operational costs low.
The human element
The cost implications of Cloud technology are countered effectively by the long-term savings produced, insists Pogmore.
“Cloud technology also removes the need to invest in expensive hardware and does not require highly skilled (and costly) experts to operate it.
Its power consumption is low and storage capacity high. It is also scalable to any industrial setting.”
Not everyone buys the Cloud-focused approach. Stratus Technologies’ head of business development – digitalisation, Greg Hookings, argues in our main supplement feature [see page 7 of our Pumps supplement] that edge computing is an essential component for the legacy assets that predominate in the water sector.
The improvement in data capture and sensor technology will provide us with huge datasets that can be used to help analyse the performance of our network and allows us to predict how extraneous factors may impact it
Kevin Parry, head of data, Welsh Water
Meanwhile, removing the human element from those parts of an increasingly automated and digitalised process where machines and software can do the job better doesn’t mean an end to skills and training investment, cautions Kevin Parry, head of data at Welsh Water.
Speaking before British Water’s agenda setting ‘Data: Now & Beyond’ conference recently, Parry said some organisations must develop further their skills and resources to leverage the capability offered by data and analytics.
“The improvement in data capture and sensor technology will provide us with huge datasets that can be used to help analyse the performance of our network and allows us to predict how extraneous factors may impact it.
“With this deluge comes a need to ensure we have the skilled resources in place to translate this into information to provide valuable insight and the availability of new approaches, such as digital twins, will help us better understand our network.”