Randall Majerle is a water industry veteran, closing in on four decades of experience working with and around membranes used to conduct water treatment processes. He has experience in research and development, membrane performance characterization, technical applications support, and quality assurance. Randy has also designed reverse osmosis (RO) systems for both seawater and brackish water applications and has spent 25 years working with specialty chemical vendors within the RO market. Plus, providing technical support for sales departments, developing and presenting training on membrane technology for sales teams, as well as customers, and conducting RO best practices audits, troubleshooting, and performance optimization, Randy’s knowledge in the field is extensive.
Based in St. Paul, Minnesota, Randy has been involved with Pani as a consultant, influencing the platform and product’s development through the insights he’s gathered during his time in the industry.
We sat down with him to get his take on the state of the water treatment industry, where it’s been, and where it’s heading thanks to innovations and modern technologies.
The Water Treatment Industry of the ‘90s
Water treatment is an industry that has simultaneously changed a lot, yet stayed much the same, in the last 30 years. As a critical component of society and infrastructure, it is also an industry that is entrenched in certain processes and technologies that are difficult to alter. Nevertheless, the idea to initiate remote monitoring and data gathering in the sector is not a new one; it’s just one that hasn’t seen much progress made.
Membranes, Monitoring, and More
Randy’s first encounter with the concept of data gathering in water treatment plants came during his time at a specialty chemical company that provided anti-scalants and cleaners for membranes used in water and wastewater treatment processes. The company was keen to find a way to capture remote data in an effort to help customers understand how their membranes were performing.
While the idea was great, the execution proved challenging for a number of reasons. First of all, internet connectivity was just beginning to take hold and the technology behind it was still in its early days. Second, monitoring systems were crudely fashioned and data entry and transfer was still an entirely manual process.
Randy’s company wasn’t the only one with this need and, over the next decade, he saw a number of other players in the water treatment space try to get a remote monitoring system going. However, after a couple of attempts, most initiatives failed due to cost, complexity, and clunkiness.
Time Marches On, and So Does Technology
Fast forward to a couple of decades later and the problem still persisted. Water treatment continued to be an important, if invisible, part of daily life, but the ability to monitor systems, gather data, and provide actionable insights was fragmented at best. Advances in sensor technology, and increased connectivity to the internet around the globe, made some things easier, but an all-in-one solution that was easy to adopt and didn’t cost a small fortune was still nowhere to be found.
Innovations did make a difference, though, as access to data became more widespread, adoption of new technologies became easier, and the focus on water as an increasingly scarce resource became more obvious. In the past five years especially, the need for water savings, cost reduction in water treatment processes (such as RO), and optimization at facilities has evolved to a dull roar as global issues related to climate change have placed a spotlight on the way we all use water.
Industry Insights Affirming Platform Development
Through his established network in the water industry, Randy was connected to Pani’s CEO, Devesh, and the two saw an opportunity to collaborate. Randy’s practical experience working with large industry players was a perfect pairing with Devesh’s vision for where the industry could be if only it made effective use of data and accelerated its digitization using a platform like Pani.
Although the initial product development had already been completed, Randy was able to validate some of the Pani team’s hypotheses about real-world use cases, challenges, and goals that people in the sector dealt with on a regular basis. The Pani platform was refined further to directly address and solve those problems, with an aim to improve and optimize workflows and make a real difference in how water treatment professionals and facilities function.
Complexities of Critical Infrastructures
Water treatment is a huge sector that plays a role in a number of critical infrastructures, including municipal water supplies, industrial processes, desalination facilities, and countless commercial applications. But not all water treatment plants are built equally and the market can be segmented further, depending on which piece of the water puzzle one is looking at.
As with any business, cost reduction is a priority for most facilities, but where cost reductions come from and how effective they are differs greatly across use cases and applications. A desalination plant that treats seawater has different energy requirements and processes than a food and beverage manufacturer which, in turn, has different asset and resource priorities than a heavy industry plant treating brackish groundwater.
Common Operational Challenges
Something that all these facilities have in common, however, are the challenges associated with gathering data about their plant, analyzing and interpreting that data, and then making better operational decisions based on the information collected. Pain points typically emerge when considering:
Membrane cleaning and maintenance schedules
Efficiency and effectiveness of membrane cleaning procedures
Resource recovery optimization
Opportunities for cost reduction and/or energy savings
Regular risk assessment and mitigation to prevent downtime
Of course, there are solutions to address one or some of these hurdles on an as-needed basis, but they are usually manual processes that require dedicated human resources in order to be performed. They are also often fragmented and inconsistent, providing data that can’t be interpreted or actioned easily.
“There are people out there who have attempted to do this. They have their own remote monitoring systems and they make an attempt at providing a process analyst type of evaluation of the data, but the issues are twofold: 1. They have system reliability issues affected by the products and processes being used, and 2. They have some interpretation issues because they rely on human process analysts who often have a limited scope of experience.” Randy explained.
Because of these issues, the data and feedback provided isn’t always timely and, if it is, it is misdirected or unactionable. This results in the facility identifying that there is a benefit to doing this work, but the process is often frustrating and the product(s) used are not comprehensive enough, or easily integrated, to be worth the effort or costs of implementation.
Another factor that plays a significant role is the variability of feedwaters that frequently change due to seasonality, body of water characteristics, and other conditions. An inside joke in the water industry is that it’s 40% science, 60% art and, as Randy and Devesh put their heads together, their goal was to change the ratio in favour of science wherever possible to account for those differences. Both of them saw the gap in accurate, consistent data collection and analysis, with Pani’s developmental direction focusing on enabling prescriptive and predictive technologies designed to empower the industrial worker in making daily operations as smooth as possible.
Solving Operational Problems Using the Pani Platform
Today, Pani’s platform offers a growing number of features for water industry professionals, useful for day-to-day operators, process analysts and engineers, area managers, and plant owners. Pani adapts to each plant’s particular needs, taking into account the variables that water sources intrinsically have, as well as the varying levels of digitization that facilities make use of. By streamlining the path to digital transformation for water treatment plants, Pani aims to accelerate sustainable water practices for operators of all capacities and applications.
The comprehensive features of the platform are delivered in an easy-to-implement software-as-a-service (SaaS) solution that can be set up in a matter of hours. An intuitive dashboard and user experience makes training operations staff at every level fast and simple. A subscription-based model removes capital expenditure barriers and machine learning technology reduces operational expenditures for larger facilities by providing clear paths to optimization through prescriptive maintenance and predictive analytics technologies.
With the help of industry experts like Randy, the team continues to develop the product using real-world knowledge of the challenges that facilities, plant managers, and maintenance staff run into regularly in order to solve operations problems and provide actionable insights through the collection, analysis, and interpretation of plant data.