Earlier this year, we hosted our second webinar focused on the topic of how to evaluate digital solutions and artificial intelligence (AI) tools for water treatment process operations.
The panel was moderated by Director of Product at Pani, Jason Nichols, and featured three industry experts:
Scott Branum, Principal Technologist & Fellow, Digital at Evoqua Water Technologies,
Giancarlo “GC” Barassi, Desalination and Reuse Market Manager at Aquatech International,
Nizar Kammourie, Chief Executive Officer at SAWACO Water Desalination
During the 45-minute session, the panel covered a few important questions around what to look for when adding digital tools to help with water process operations management. Panelists also shared the tips and tricks they’ve learned in their own organization’s digital journeys with attendees.
Key economic drivers for digital transformation
A number of motivators are causing treatment facilities to embark on or accelerate their digital journeys. According to our panel, key economic drivers for digital transformation of water treatment process operations include:
Reducing operating costs
Improving workflow and process efficiency for more sustainable operations
Improving safety, process reliability, and business resiliency
Providing better tools that support change management and facilitate ongoing education of the labour force
“So we have four things in mind. Number one, like any operator, like any private utility, we need to have cost reduction. This is absolutely [needed]. Number two, you cannot have cost reduction without improving your efficiency. And number three, we need to be ESG compliant, we need sustainability. This is important. And number four, we need to be [working] in a safe environment.” -Nizar Kammourie
Nizar explained how ongoing education for operators and managers is a priority as older institutions and infrastructures need to keep up with changing demands and needs.
Giancarlo highlighted another critical need that he sees as driving faster digital adoption.
“One of the drivers is process reliability – that I’m confident that the plant will produce the amount of water I was supposed to produce. Without process reliability, I have no revenue. Without revenue, I can’t run a business of selling water, especially in BOO contracts. So process reliability, for me, is up there with energy efficiency. I can’t optimize a plant that doesn’t run.” -Giancarlo Barassi
Scott added manpower resiliency as key to the digital transformation as well. With the labour pool becoming smaller and experienced operators retiring en masse, institutional knowledge transfer is often lost and newer operators need more support to continue running ageing plants well.
“To me, digital transformation, it’s one of the key tools that must be leveraged to face this growing crisis. You know, businesses can’t hire and train enough employees, much less retain them when the average pay rate at Walmart is $17. Digital transformation is about institutionalizing tribal knowledge, automating lower value work with software as much as possible, and implementing AI to compensate for workforce lack of experience. Digital transformation in that scope is about business resiliency and relevance at its most basic level.” -Scott Branum
Preparing a water treatment facility for digital transformation
Of course, digital transformation is not like a light switch that is flicked on and then there is light. It requires forethought, time, and planning to move from point A to point B with as little disruption as possible.
There are various aspects to consider when taking on a digital initiative at a water or wastewater treatment plant, both for owner/operators and for contracted service providers. These questions can help teams assess their facility’s digital maturity to match the types of tools that could assist in achieving production, performance, and/or sustainability targets.
The panel’s advice included:
Identifying which opportunities or problems the solution should address
Creating a digital transformation roadmap that sequences implementation steps
Quantifying value by connecting it to existing business needs or goals
Addressing cybersecurity and integration concerns between different data collection systems
Getting stakeholder buy-in and preparing for workflow changes
Establishing the right key performance indicators (KPIs) for analytics or insights provided by solution(s)
Understanding how the solution will (or won’t) evolve as the operations team and facility continue on their digital journey
Our panelists and host all agreed that stakeholder buy-in and change management are often overlooked, but are incredibly important parts of adopting a digital solution and gaining value through it. Without doing this work up front, progress can be bumpier than necessary and the solution could initially cause more problems than it’s meant to solve.
While physical safety is a concern, cybersecurity is another factor that needs to be considered when transmitting critical plant information across systems and tools. Job security is a common talking point as well, especially as advances in AI tools continue.
“It is important to understand what kind of analytics and insights the solution offers to improve decision-making and making that clear. That’s the added value – the enablement and empowerment you give to operators to make better decisions. Sometimes people have asked me whether AI is going to replace operators. I don’t think it’s going to replace operators. In fact, it’s a tool and, again, a tool that enables and empowers operators to make better decisions. […] Instead of being tactical in how you run a plant, you are more strategic, so you basically spend more time thinking about doing improvements than putting out fires around the plant.” -Giancarlo Barassi
How operations teams get value from digital solutions
With a topic as nebulous as “the value of digital solutions,” it can be difficult to correlate and quantify that value effectively. Measurable units like cost ($/L), water lost or recovered (L), energy consumed (kWh/L), or greenhouse gases emitted (CO2e) can focus quantification efforts to define value, but there are many qualitative improvements that digital solutions also provide which are valuable in their own ways.
Examples of these include timely monitoring, faster analysis, and forecasting capabilities for future resource planning, as well as running simulations without changing plant controls, to move from tactical to more strategic operations. While monetary amounts are harder to pinpoint here, value is derived from increasingly efficient operational processes and workflows.
By using captured plant data to plan ahead, operations teams unlock the ability to be proactive instead of reactive.
Managing the expectations of various stakeholders and thinking through the resources required from each person or team will help in defining goals and assessing which tool(s) are best fit to address them.
This process may also identify missing data points that require instrumentation upgrades or unrealistic deployment timeframes so that digital initiatives can be set up for success and time to value can be drastically reduced.
“We adopted AI for what we call ‘enhanced monitoring and control.’ Once you have enhanced monitoring and control, you have increased transparency, so everything is there, on time. So all the modus operandi of the teams – procurement, operations, maintenance, relationship with stakeholders – it's there. Enhanced monitoring and control will help you with increased transparency and this will also help you with better decision-making.” -Nizar Kammourie
In summary, defining goals and thinking through which actions are needed to gain intended value, as well as who will be taking those actions, are the necessary first steps to successfully implementing a digital initiative. Working backwards from there will help identify data and transparency gaps that need to be filled using this new tool as the same source of truth across the operations and management team.
Lessons learned through implementing digital initiatives at water treatment plants
The panel also provided some of the lessons they’ve learned in their own implementations of digital initiatives, highlighting how value aligned with initial expectations or how those expectations had to change along the way. These lessons included:
Getting organizational alignment at crucial steps along the journey
Doing the change management work required to transition existing company cultures (internally for owner/operator facilities, as well as externally for service providers working with customers)
Actively addressing training of the labour force and education of other stakeholders throughout the process
As an apt conclusion to the session, Scott wrapped up nicely with the statement that “AI […] is the mountaintop... you’ve got to begin your journey.”
Thanks to our three panelists for the insights they shared during this webinar! For more of the conversation, find the full recording of this session on YouTube or read the recap from our first webinar, focused on similar topics from a food and beverage production perspective.