Frank Obenaus Leader Focus
Wastewater Digital Solutions Europe

Frank Obenaus: Giving wastewater a digital facelift

Friday, 16 August 2019

German water utility Emschergenossenschaft Lippeverband is on a mission to connect its 59 plants for wastewater treatment and more than 900 plants for water management to a centralized SCADA system, as part of a digitalisation push. We speak to Dr Frank Obenaus to find out more.

A thirst for water treatment knowledge

A civil engineer by training, Dr Frank Obenaus has always had an interest in water plant operation, with “the practical combination of mechanics, mathematical formulas, biology, chemistry and physics always proving very attractive”.

After finishing his PhD in 2000, Obenaus relocated to start working for major German water company, Emschergenossenschaft Lippeverband.

Starting in the field of technical controlling, he “learned how to describe the efficiency of plant operation in technical and economical figures”. After switching to the research department for a few years, he then moved into the operation department in 2005.

Here he spent five years as a leader of an internal service unit but also overseeing operators in the field.

Today, Obenaus is the business unit manager for operation at the utility, overseeing the vast network of 59 wastewater treatment plants, 387 pumping stations and associated infrastructure such as stormwater treatment plants, sewers and watercourses.

Emschergenossenschaft Lippeverband is investing €100 million annually over the next decade as part of an infrastructure improvement programme.

This includes significant investment into improving its Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) system to connect and control the multiple facilities inside the water management system.

Below is a sample of the interview conducted by Aquatech Global Events:

Tom Freyberg: Given your responsibility overlooking the operation of the entire utility, tell me what digitalisation really means to you?

Dr Frank Obenaus: From my perspective and first, digital transformation is the most relevant process of change in recent decades with regard to work organization and management.

From a technical point of view digitization means for me the connection of previously independent individual systems and on that way the possible creation of new benefits for water management in our catchment areas.

It gives us, for example, the opportunity to introduce models much more in the daily operation than we could in the last century. This is because the technical ways are much simpler and because data is much more available, which in turn is due to the influence of digitalization.

From my background, I first had my first contact with this specific topic more than 20 years’ ago. At that time, most of the effort went into the technical integration of the model in plant operation. And now I see this field has made a comeback, because it's much easier to implement these models into plant operation than it was decades years ago and we can focus more on the benefits for the plant operation.

For me, digitization also means using artificial intelligence to gain much more than before from the multitude of data gained during operation.

Tom Freyberg: Digitalisation has always been there but now it's becoming more fashionable. But the element of getting data, of seeing the modelling of the plants has been there from when you started, right?

Dr Frank Obenaus: You're completely right. Digitization has always had its place in plant operation. Today, sometimes it looks like a kind of fashion. But technology also has changed a lot. We know about the right standards. We have more powerful computers. We have very simple technology to implement a model in the SCADA system; this is much easier nowadays. So it's both. It's a comeback because technology makes it possible, and yes, it's a consequent development, not only in our wastewater business, also in the industry all over the world.

Tom Freyberg: There has been a push in recent years from the German government, from a regulation point of view, to be more pro digital, to have better data and better modelling systems. Is this still the case?

Dr Frank Obenaus: There's still a push from the government, from the Ministry of Economics, for example. They introduced, together with the big industry associations in Germany, what we call that ‘Industry 4.0’. This is the overall label in Germany for digitization developments.

And it was first mainly pushed by the manufacturing industry in Germany, not the water business. And I think this was one of the main drivers also, for the water business. We started with our developments and the first ideas on digitization in that time, it was 2014.

Emscher region aerial picture

Tom Freyberg: In light of this, how would you see your utility operationally, Emschergenossenschaft/Lippeverband, when compared to other German utilities? Are you leading the way, or do you think you are par for the course when it comes to this area of operation?

Dr Frank Obenaus: Since then, I wouldn't say that we are leading the water business in the whole of Germany but we see ourselves in a leading role together with other utilities, for example, the water utilities in Berlin (Berliner Wasserbetriebe) or Hamburg (Hamburg Wasser). They also have good initiatives, good new ideas for technologies regarding the water businesses. There are also other companies, but together with them, we see us in a leading role of water business in Germany, regarding digitization.

Tom Freyberg: When we last spoke you mentioned a project to bring together SCADA data from multiple treatment plants. Can you give me an update and some of the operational results on this project?

Dr Frank Obenaus: Yes, I mentioned our project in centralization using SCADA (Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition) systems, when we talked the last time. It's on its way: we have the first 20 plants connected to that system. But they're still more than a few hundred left, so it's probably too early to say something about real benefits for operation.

We are still in the start-up phase, and still have to solve some infrastructure tasks. For example, we need to have a second server location, for having enough redundancy, before we go to a deeper implementation of that system; before we add a bigger number of plants to that system.

Regarding the implementation of models in the operation of our sewer system, we started with sub-catchment areas in the east - one located in the catchment area of the river Emscher, one in the catchment area of the river Lippe. Regarding the Emscher catchment area, this is the fourth, or third, of the overall Emscher catchment area. First of all, we start with the concept in that sub-catchment area but our idea is to introduce the model-based control for the whole catchment area of the Emscher and in perspective also for the catchment area of the Lippe.

This is the second main project in addition to a variety of smaller projects we want to introduce in our daily operation. Starting with the concept, but then we know how to go in full operation. And we see the first benefits as the result of the first pilot projects. We reached more than a 10 per cent reduction in chemical oxygen demand (COD), regarding the overflow from the sewers into the rivers. And so, there's a big benefit for the receiving waters especially when we then integrate the operation of the treatment plants in that concept.

Tom Freyberg: That’s an encouraging result. There’s a third component to this as well, correct?

Dr Frank Obenaus: Yes, this third main activity looks at the different service opportunities, which our contractors are offering nowadays. Service opportunities regarding better maintenance for our measuring devices, or pumps, or the power plants.

One contractor after the other is offering us these ideas regarding the data which come from different devices. And one contractor after the other goes into new fields of services. They offer data evaluation regarding the specific data from the devices, up to the point to a full service, which can be an opportunity for our future.

Not for every part of the plant, but probably for measuring devices, or other components on the edge of our core business. We are now at the point that we have to decide in which field of these service we can go deeper in the future.

Tom Freyberg: Would you say in your many years at the utility, is this the start of the change, or do you think this is just part of the evolution of water treatment? As we know, water utilities have such a great responsibility that they are reluctant to take big risks when it comes to changing things, because if they get something wrong, it can be very wrong.

Dr Frank Obenaus: It's a bigger change from my point of view, and the risk is very clear. When you’re at the end, you can have the idea of a plant which is only supervised by the utility, and the rest is a service offered by the different contractors.

I see that risk and I think that as a water utility, we need to know and be very clear, where our responsibility ends and where the responsibility of a contractor should start. When you look at our specific responsibility regarding water delivery, or wastewater treatment, you're completely right.

But as you see in other fields of industry, there are so many developments in processes that are data-driven. When we look at Google, or Amazon or other companies, the companies who have the data at the end, have the biggest influence on business.

So I don't know exactly to which development this will lead. But I see the risk in this development, and I don't think it's only in evolution. It's a bit more from my point of view.

Tom Freyberg: Well, they say data is the new oil, right?

Dr Frank Obenaus: Yeah, that's it. In Germany, we had one of these start-ups and they say data is the new Coca-Cola.

Tom Freyberg: The new Coca-Cola? Not heard that one but I understand it. So looking ahead, final question, where do you see these projects going - do you think all of these plants will become connected?

Dr Frank Obenaus: I see all plants in one big model of the catchment area. I see a centralized controlling point. All the data comes in a very transparent way, the operator sees what is going on inside the system, in the overview but also in detail.

In the future, I expect that we will have a more centralized operation, regarding the operation we have today. There will still be relevant mechanic and electrician work that will remain on the plants but we will have a more centralized operation than we have it today. And we will have the whole catchment on one big monitor, and we will have much more knowledge about the huge amount of data than we have it today. And hopefully we can spend more time in evaluation and data analysis than in just doing some reports.

Nowadays, many hours go into just producing the reports and we don’t have enough time to analyse the data. And this amount of time will increase hopefully, in the future. Data science for example, will give us the opportunity just to have a look at the high-quality data.

My expectation is that it will make our work much easier to handle these huge amounts of data we already have today. And this is probably a vision of the plant operation of the future pursuing the overriding goal of achieving the maximum benefits for the water bodies.

Tom Freyberg: Despite this centralisation, more data and ability to see in detail what’s going on, people are still going to remain at the heart of the process?

Dr Frank Obenaus: I think there will be a higher need for a more complex understanding of processes. So probably we need more. The qualification of a process engineer will include a better understanding of what is happening inside the processes of the plant and the interactions inside the water cycle.

For mechanics and electricians, these works will still be required but activities will focus even more on the core components required to plant operation and their networked and automated operation. So I see also but to other details for the electricians and the process technicians a shift to a more deeper process understanding.

For example, which control algorithm leads to a lower discharge into the river? And what effect has this lower discharge to the river quality? I think we need to go more in this more general understanding of processes in plants and waterways and, as a basic requirement, openness in dealing with changes in our entire work environment.

Dr Frank Obenaus will be speaking more about the digital developments in Emschergenossenschaft Lippeverband at the Aquatech Innovation Forum, taking place on November 4.

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