Advances in technology have revolutionized the way people and societies function, contributing to widespread access to information, more efficient processes, and, ultimately, human progress. But adjusting to an ever-increasing technological world can take time and the path forward is not always well-defined.
For water processing facilities, it’s especially challenging to know which upgrade or investment to prioritize and when, particularly as the demands on water infrastructure and supply increase. There are a number of factors to consider that are plant-dependent, such as capacity and age of the infrastructure, use case, operational team experience, and level of instrumentation, to name a few. External factors like population growth, government regulations, and a changing climate also play a significant role in operational costs and risks. With such a range of competing priorities and various solutions available to address one, some, or all of these, it’s difficult for water professionals to know which direction to head in.
In our experience working with customers across industrial applications, municipal water and wastewater treatment, and brackish or seawater desalination plants, adopting digital technology solutions can provide effective help quickly. Whether it's their first foray into the digital journey or if they’ve been on the path for some time, we’ve seen how the Pani platform has worked to guide facilities and their operational and managing teams to understand where they’re at and where to go from here.
Digital Technology for Water Treatment
There are three main phases to adoption of digital technology in the water and wastewater treatment space: digitization, digitalization, and digital transformation.
While the naming convention is a little confusing, following these phases can provide a map for how to improve efficiencies of both people and processes. But first, let’s get a better understanding of what these three terms mean.
Phase 1: Digitization
The first phase is adopting digital technology solutions that can help turn manual processes for data capture into automated processes. This is called digitization, defined as the conversion of analog information into a digital form that can be processed by a computer. This is the foundational piece on which the rest of the journey builds upon.
By simply having the data captured by operators walking around the plant with pen and paper in hand turned into digital data, their ability to understand that data and the ability of process analysts and engineers to access and analyze that data already becomes exponentially more accessible and efficient. Decision-making can become faster, multiple “sources of truth” can be gathered in one since source, and the right action can become clearer. Because the operational team is saving so much time on the initial data capture and analysis, they have the ability to proactively address other issues before they increase risks and costs. Once data capture and aggregation are taken care of, the second phase, digitalization, comes into play.
Phase 2: Digitalization
Digitalization as a term is less straightforward and can be more complex and costly to implement. Digitalization is “when data from throughout the organization and its assets is processed through advanced digital technologies, which leads to fundamental changes in business processes that can result in new business models and social change,” according to SAP.
For water treatment and wastewater processing facilities, the implementation of this phase can differ from plant to plant, depending on the level of instrumentation. The ability to have a live network connection through the concept of the “industrial internet of things,” known as IIoT, to certain systems such as supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) and programmable logic controllers (PLC) is a key factor. Some plants may not have these systems installed at all, while other plants may have them, but not have a live network connection enabled to allow for real-time automated processing of the data they capture. This live connection requires a gateway device, such as a Flexy router, to link the internal plant’s systems and data to an external universal network known as the Cloud.
Facilities that have sensors installed to measure things like flowrate, pump speed, and water quality metrics such as pH level, conductivity, turbidity, salinity, biological oxygen demand (BOD) and chemical oxygen demand (COD), ammonia nitrogen levels, and others are ready for digitalization to aid in making changes to plant processes and team workflows. These changes materialize as information that’s secure, yet widely accessible across both onsite and offsite team members, enabling remote monitoring of the plant’s performance and unlocking the ability for every level of the team to measure and track key performance indicators (KPIs) over time.
Together, access to and proactive engagement with all of the data generated by a facility becomes easier and faster so that team members are able to interpret and make decisions based on that data in more efficient and accurate ways. Oftentimes, though, the amount of data that is generated can still be an overwhelming challenge to process, even with the additional help of computers doing some of the work, so the problem is not totally solved.
Reaching phase two often depends on the amount of investment that a plant can make into their instrumentation and systems, as well as the appetite that team members have to adopt and use digital tools in their day-to-day work in order to get to phase three of the journey, a full digital transformation.
Phase 3: Digital Transformation
The last phase in a water or wastewater treatment facility’s digital journey is found under the umbrella term of digital transformation. A digital transformation is a continuous process as new technologies and business models continue to emerge, evolve, and be adopted. In most contexts, this phase is primarily driven by external forces. For water processing plants, it touches on many aspects of the operation as priorities shift within and outside the infrastructure to take changing customer demands and business needs, as well as government regulations and the evolving climate crisis, into consideration.
Digital Twin Technology
However, we can better understand a plant’s progress in their digital transformation if we add another concept into the mix, the “digital twin.” To simplify a complex concept, a digital twin can be thought of as a digital equivalent or reflection of a physical entity, such as a water treatment plant.
As seen above, each physical asset, sensor, and process in the plant is replicated in the digital sphere using the data that is generated through that particular component. This digital version can then be used to run simulations that test different parameters and setpoints, providing recommended adjustments for better operational outcomes.
Why the Water Sector Needs a Digital Transformation
There are multiple values that can be gained as a facility goes through their digital transformation. One is through the actionable insights that a digital twin can provide, identifying what’s happening and where for faster root cause analysis and resolution of issues. The other is in knowledge management.
It’s becoming more obvious across industries that the next five to ten years will see a significant reduction in the workforce. In water processing, the wave of change is already cresting and the biggest gap in experienced operators is expected to hit by mid-decade. The need for operators will remain constant, but there is an evolution in how today’s and tomorrow’s operators have to go about their daily tasks in order to get the job done.
As predictive and prescriptive maintenance information comes into effect through adopting digital technologies, plants will have to optimize their processes and workflows to mitigate the impacts of risks like high turnover. More inexperienced operators will have support tools to help them make better decisions using the latest available plant data. Additionally, knowledge transfer between retiring staff and new staff can be streamlined so that it doesn’t get lost as this transition occurs.
While remote monitoring tools are now becoming the standard at many facilities, the need to solve for common operational challenges like membrane cleaning and maintenance schedules, optimization of resource recovery, regular risk assessment and mitigation, and identifying opportunities for energy savings and operational cost reduction remains. This need is only intensifying as climate change accelerates the speed at which humanity needs to adapt. Adopting tools that can provide predictive and prescriptive analysis using a plant’s historical data and current information will be the key.
Adapting and Adopting Digital Technology at Water Treatment Plants
Digital technology is a relatively new and simple solution that can be implemented in hours and days, not months and years. It’s also a lower-cost solution that can provide returns on investment rapidly and can show the best path forward for water processing facilities when it comes to the more expensive repairs, replacements, and retrofits.
To prepare for this evolution of water treatment around the world, facilities should look to incorporate the three phases of the digital journey, from digitization through digitalization to reach a full digital transformation, sooner rather than later. Tools like Pani are already available on the market today and can help facilities plan out their staff and resources better, optimize their processes and workflows to reach peak efficiency, and work towards prioritizing plant upgrades whenever feasible.
Contact our team to learn more about how Pani can accelerate your plant’s digital transformation or get started today.