Manufacturing operational challenges abound in all industries. Water and waste water are no exception and share some common challenges. Unlike many manufacturing organizations which operate for profit, the water and waste water industry consists of two main types of entities: government-run and cost centers that operate in private companies. The processes themselves are outwardly simple: filter the water, then biologically and chemically treat it. The chemistry involved makes this challenging. The biologicals make it an art form. However, the business model is inherently problematic because the drivers are different between the two types of entities.

Strategic planning for water and wastewater infrastructure investments and transitioning the operation and management of existing assets to incorporate new advances in technology is critical. Challenges and issues the industry must address include:

  • Aging infrastructure, increased demand for water supply, and impact of climate change
  • Inadequate and/or ineffective wastewater infrastructure in many parts of the world
  • Obtaining funding for large projects during periods of tight budgets and economic uncertainty
  • Privatization and public/private partnerships (PPP) require efficient transition of legacy systems to meet new demands from all stake-holders
  • Increasing concern for physical and cybersecurity
  • Increasing demands placed upon the aging, shrinking workforce and associated loss of knowledge, experience and skills
  • Energy costs, which may account for a large share of overall operating costs.

In the developed world, the mission of the water and wastewater industry is:

  1. to treat and transport high-quality drinking water at affordable rates in a reliable and sustainable manner and
  2. to collect and treat wastewater and storm runoff.

The industry faces significant issues, and municipalities are challenged to maintain operations. Infrastructure maintenance competes with other government programs for attention. As a result, infrastructure is failing dramatically, and it will cost even more to rebuild in the future. The U.S. EPA announced in 2013 that ensuring safe drinking water for Americans in 20 years will require a $384 billion investment in infrastructure alone. The industrial side has similar challenges because water treatment is not associated to a revenue stream. Instead, it is a cost of doing business; if they could avoid it, they would.

In many cases, information management systems and networks in the water industry are isolated. Control systems are not integrated with business systems. Divisions and departments operate independently. Business and operational analytics are not in place. Decisions are often made based on experience and “tribal knowledge,” rather than current data. Tactical approaches and fixes are employed, instead of strategic planning and decision making. As a result, organizations focus their limited resources on reacting and mitigating, rather than anticipating and preventing issues and incidents.

Organizations also must be able to attract a modern workforce capable of deploying the latest Smart Manufacturing technologies, and provide these technologies to its workers. Currently, many of these processes are operated by experienced baby boomers that make up about 50 percent of a total workforce, but are approaching retirement age. Operational technology and its application are complex and losing on-the-job experience to retirement has a major impact on quality operations and uptime. Organizations must engage in knowledge capture and management, and the incorporation of new workflow processes. A new workforce, mostly consisting of millennials, needs and expects new tools and modern workflows to meet the challenges of flexible, agile production. Workflows guide users in their day to day tasks ensuring uptime and repeatable quality, facilitate collaboration, and reduce paperwork, enabling the digital transformation of these plants. For example, mobility allows secured access to any information from anywhere. Central operation and maintenance centers allow participation of remote experts in problem solving. The result is improved efficiency in operations and maintenance tasks, along with improved work conditions for a new dynamic workforce.

How a modern OT/IT infrastructure helps address these challenges

Employing digital transformation concepts in key operations can enable better water and chemicals management operations. Digital technologies enable the collection of information needed to document evidence of proper treatment and to detect causes of wasted chemicals, energy, and water. The resulting increases plant productivity, reduces water waste, energy and overuse of chemical treatments; and the ability to document operations for better reporting. Predictive analytics and demand forecasting – being prepared for the halftime surge from a national sports event, say, or a major rain event in the forecast – can save operating costs and prevent outages or spills.

None of the industry challenges addressed with modern technologies can be deployed without the convergence of operations technology (OT) and information technology (IT). This has led to a rapid learning curve for both IT and OT groups. The side effect of OT/IT convergence has meant that IT personnel often have to learn what terms such as “real time,” “non-stop,” and “deterministic” mean in the operations context, and OT personnel are rapidly discovering the advantages of leveraging the latest IT-based approaches. This convergence helps address the change in expertise, increase overall equipment availability, and improves data flow because legacy automation assets often need IT technology to be connected to the Cloud or to act as edge devices. Continuously available real-time or near real-time data is essential for any water and waste water organization to provide safe water on demand. This OT/IT convergence trend increases integration and provides better information flow to and from all assets, including legacy automation systems. It also contributes to the ease of adoption of cloud computing and Big Data applications that help eliminate unscheduled downtime.

OT/IT convergence also helps enable edge control, which is a converged control architecture that gives facilities the critical capability to manage their assets on premise as well as from the Cloud based on their particular needs. This includes connected control platforms with remote access, advanced automation, and operator override capabilities. Local control and firewall protection for cybersecurity are also available to maximize the benefits, especially for mission-critical applications. Edge control applications can be deployed for energy monitoring, equipment automation, and process automation systems that provide monitoring, control, and safety management.

Facilities deploying a simpler OT/IT infrastructure can reduce both technical and business risks by deploying solutions that are easier to maintain by operations and maintenance personnel. OT/IT infrastructure enables a very reliable integration of disparate equipment and system information for end-to-end production visibility and traceability, along with automated data collection for efficiency and analysis. A flexible and robust OT/IT infrastructure is also the easiest path to address both existing application needs, as well as leveraging digital transformation to meet business challenges. In summary, a modern OT/IT infrastructure is essential to help water and waste water facilities address their processing challenges and make a positive impact to their quality, safety, and cost reduction.

More info regarding this topic can be found in a joint ARC Advisory Group and Stratus Technologies webcast entitled: “How to Address Industry Challenges in Water and Wastewater with Modern Technology”. Click here to view the recording.