Articles & Case Studies


Posted: Monday 19th September 2011

With many predicting the opening up of a competitive water market - possibly within the next 10 years - the water industry is set for a radical overhaul and a new, unchartered operating landscape. Demanding and sophisticated consumers will almost certainly use cost and service benchmarks to decide who they want to supply their water service – behaviour already witnessed in other key markets such as gas, electricity, financial services and even mobile phones. Water supply is the last of the great monopolies when it comes to choice for businesses or members of the public. In light of this potential shake-up to the structure of the water supply industry,

Andrew Reeks from Siemens Industry Automation argues that water companies can use the benefits of data intelligence and automation technology to increase business understanding, improve operational efficiencies, optimise existing infrastructures and help management teams prepare for the day when they may well have to embrace market competition in its truest sense.

The water industry is at the beginning of a significant period of change as all suppliers prepare for an increasingly competitive environment. In the future, businesses and eventually consumers may well have the freedom to freely choose who supplies their water, and although decisions have yet to be finalised on this, it is perhaps sensible to start early preparations for the opening up of the water market for the benefit of commercial and residential users - in the same manner experienced by other key areas such as electricity and gas suppliers.

In the short term, potential business customers looking at an open market may well ask themselves such questions as: Who offers the best water service? Who can solve my problems? Which company offers best value? What else could my water supplier do for me? Such businesses, along with future discerning customers will increase pressure on water companies to exceed the standards set by their competitors - a key element in this will be to make better and more efficient use of the current asset base. In addition the water companies may well seek to innovate further and diversify into other service areas.

Against this background, there is a central need for water companies to embark upon a journey to gain a deeper understanding of their business across a number of key areas – all of which will be essential when it comes to operating in a more competitive environment. These could include ensuring consistent quality control, a proven security of supply, tighter cost control, better plant optimisation and increased business intelligence to enable management to undertake key strategic decisions on such areas as pricing and future investment.

But before the journey can commence you have to know where you are starting from. Investment in technology to deliver valuable real-time data to enable a holistic picture to be formed, alongside a plant optimisation strategy (enabled through technology) can help management teams at water companies position themselves to be able to meet competition head on - when that time comes. Indeed, it could be strongly argued that even if the water market is not ‘opened’ there can be no downside to a better understanding of your core business (processing and delivering water) and how it operates.

With planned capital expenditure concerning potential new water treatment plants limited, and the reality of financial pressure associated with supporting an ageing infrastructure, water companies, in many cases, will have to rely upon existing assets when it comes to competing in any future new world. Optimising the performance of such assets is going to be key in driving a competitive position and delivering value.

Thinking for instance about the performance of water treatment plants and understanding the many competitive factors companies will face should force the water industry to seek leaner, fitter, more optimised plants in the future. Such plants will need to deliver the service required by regulators and users, but with a tight control and understanding of the processes involved to provide consistent quality and security of supply. This is allied to cost control so that any new competitive landscape driven by price can also be accommodated. Intelligence-led data and automation technology will be central to achieving such objectives.

A simple plant model on how to optimise performance through technology and turn data into valuable information embraces three key levels – a management system, an automation system and the asset itself. The management system sits at the top to meet external regulatory reporting responsibilities and drive internal strategic decision making in order to inform investment, operational and maintenance decisions for the asset below. Sitting between the two is the automation system. This will automatically drive the flow of data and information from the asset to the management system and vice versa, and as such is the key component in delivering operational efficiencies and plant optimisation.

The technology support system can be utilised in many forms on a typical plant to deliver real value for companies. For instance, technology through an automation system can set-up unmanned operations on assets, enable remote intervention for geographically- difficult locations, help develop preventative maintenance programmes to cut costs and plant downtime, provide key analysis of historical trends, and deliver better risk management. Such examples can be linked back to the overriding objectives that will enable water companies to compete - namely better management of existing assets to ensure consistent quality and security of supply, and managing the costs associated with that supply.

A current and typical water treatment works architecture will have a management information system and local HMIs linked to flow, level, valve positioning and drive components. This typical set-up is often at the mercy of existing telemetry links and limited data transfer capability meaning the full potential for process understanding and plant improvements is not being realised. While limited information may be available in such cases, nonetheless the full benefits derived from an alternative integrated automated approach are not obtained. Such a scenario will become increasingly problematic as the water industry landscape alters drastically over the coming years.

The potential for optimisation of plants is not a pipedream and can be delivered now through an integrated strategy backed by automation technology. Taking the previous atypical example of a treatment plant, an alternative architecture could utilise the benefits of a top level enterprise SCADA system linked to a process fieldbus network which would seamlessly link all the levels to deliver real asset optimisation. From the over-arching SCADA management information system through a convergence of telemetry control and local SCADA via a Profibus network that linked intelligent instruments – flow meters, level measurement, valves and variable speed drives – suddenly the new integrated architecture is delivering a flow of real-time data, information and intelligence up and down the automated system and gives management the knowledge on which key decisions can be based.

With a challenging future ahead – whatever market decisions are eventually arrived at – water companies should be starting to address some fundamental questions that go to the heart of their operations. In a potential new world where you have to compete to attract and keep customers, what are water companies doing about it? What should they be doing about it? True optimisation of existing plants will be a key driver for this, and integrated automation technology across the asset will be the gateway towards data and intelligence gathering and a more strategic management approach to achieve optimisation In essence, without data you don’t have the right information, and without information you can’t make the right decisions.

Technology can help fulfil this. It can alleviate, in many cases, the need for substantial capital expenditure and ensure that water companies can improve the performance, operational efficiencies and potential of the key assets they have now in order to compete in the years ahead.

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