Keith Hays: Digital Twin Hype to Reality
Remote working to digital transformation
Spurred on by economics, resource risk, regulations, and the ongoing pandemic, the water sector is accelerating its adoption of digital solutions.
Most obviously, network and treatment plant operators, as well as maintenance personnel are having to work remotely and rely on virtual management tools.
Beyond this shift to remote work, water utilities are pushed onto a journey of digital transformation.
Water utility managers see the optimisation possibilities they can tap into through deployment of connected instrumentation, visualisations of the data they capture, and analytics of that data to gain insights for decision-making.
This has been in the works for the last decade. It started with upgrades to SCADA systems (supervisory control and data acquisition) and deployment of advanced metering infrastructure.
However, a renewed urgency to digitalise also responds to longer-term needs for resilience, and more informed asset management.
"Responding reactively to main bursts and untreated discharges of wastewater due to storm events won’t do."
Replacing another 0.5 per cent of total pipe kilometres each year based on age won’t do anymore. Responding reactively to main bursts won’t do. And untreated discharges of wastewater due to storm events won’t do.
Network managers have the need, and the tools, to analyse what to replace when, why, and the consequences if they don’t, to take preventive measures that save millions.
Avoiding unused data
The challenge of turning dozens of software systems and the terabytes of data they produce into a coherent management tool has lacked an organising principle, which has led to disaggregated procurement and unused data.
Furthermore, ‘asset management’ has become a catch-all term for any management decision involving a piece of water infrastructure. But incrementally over the last three to five years, digital journeys are finding that organisational driver through a relatively simple concept: digital twin.
One can argue about the definition of a digital twin, the nuances of data sets it must include, but fundamentally it is a comprehensive visualisation of assets that facilitates a number of operational and planning decisions.
These decisions go beyond replace/repair/rehabilitate and assess and can impact shorter-term decisions such as preventing main bursts through pressure management, reducing energy consumption via pump programming, or averting sewer overflows by channelling stormwater more effectively.
An unwieldy deployment
Development and deployment of digital twins right now still often appears as unwieldy, with IT projects for massive water utilities serving millions taking years. These projects are a necessary phase for the value chain around digital twins to mature.
However, one can envision a day in the not too distant future when smaller cities and towns can benefit from digital twins that can be more rapidly developed, with pre-configured means of rolling out key features such as scenario analysis and predictive analytics.
"One can envision a day in the future when smaller cities can benefit from digital twins more rapidly developed."
Time and again, the technology industry has proven extremely innovative in developing solutions to specific operational problems for water utilities. Digital twins address a wide range of problems and often require several steps of transformation along the digital journey before they are viable.
The rate of adoption of digital twins will ultimately depend more on the capacity of managers to grasp the value of this organising principle, and work towards it, rather than the capabilities of the software packages and integrators themselves.
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