Articles & Case Studies

The digital tide: why the water industry must adopt new ways of working

Posted: Friday 5th March 2021

The water industry faces unprecedented challenges from Covid-19 and decarbonisation to delivering customer value which is all being amplified by a regulatory funding squeeze aimed at reducing bills. Water companies must explore new ways of operating if they are to unlock cost efficiencies, this means digitalising processes to work in ‘real-time’ explains Hannah Bailey, Business Development Director at Intoware.

Water companies need to find new ways of working in a Covid-19 altered world and embrace change. But the successful capture of the benefits of digitalisation is a tough call for many so the industry is a little way off the pace compared to other utilities.

Successive Covid-19 lockdowns means water companies are now reviewing their businesses and exploring innovative ways of working to ensure frontline services remain uninterrupted and its workers are kept safe. At the same time, they are also striving to improve service levels, reduce costs and be part of the ‘green’ economy.

In November 2020 the water industry announced its commitment to a carbon zero future by 2030, decades before the government’s legally binding target of 2050. Digital transformation is fundamental to this change as it can unlock the data needed to help streamline asset maintenance and address the problem of water leakage. As by reducing the amount of water being treated, energy consumption and carbon emissions are lowered.

Currently, the water industry uses around three per cent of the UK’s energy – water is one of the most energy intensive sectors in the world.

Unlocking greater value

Water companies have to deal with huge challenges, including high operational costs from asset failure, customer complaints, the risk of non-compliance and provide a covid-safe working environment. So how can the industry better use its resources to improve its service, become more cost efficient and satisfy carbon reduction goals?

Historically a lack of data visibility on leakage reduction has hampered progress until now, digitalisation can provide water companies with the ‘tools’ they need to develop a clear understanding of the network’s infrastructure and how each part performs. It will also help turn this data into meaningful information for preventative maintenance – rather than relying on a reactive ‘find and fix’ strategy.

To meet the challenge of providing greater value, they will need to move away from a reliance on out-of-date paper processes, to proactively managing and automating operations so data can flow in real-time across the entire network to maximise performance and mitigate compliance risks.

When these digital processes are then integrated with wearables, IOT and augmented reality (AR) technologies, it can enhance communication between managers and frontline workers; helping them to prioritise and manage daily tasks and audits while also encouraging greater collaboration and problem solving.

Prior to the pandemic, at Intoware we developed automation platform WorkfloPlus using mobile and augmented reality technology from our partner Realwear to digitise compliance and asset management processes. By switching to digital instructions water companies can build a huge bank of data so they can predict when network failures may occur.

WorkfloPlus ensures better compliance by providing a thorough audit trail of ‘who’, did ‘what’, ‘where’ and ‘when’, by cataloguing every decision point and action so there are fewer errors and at the same time it enables improved productivity.

The speed of change is rapid too, a change to an operational process is sent by WorkfloPlus to all users instantly, providing a “single source of truth”, it’s not sent as a paper trail, so everyone is working off the same version. This means it’s easier to schedule essential repairs, rather than relying on spreadsheets where a single repair could take days to arrange.

A digital field-force

Continued lockdowns have accelerated the digitisation of field operations and reinforced the need for frontline workers to have reliable and easy to use mobile and contactless wearable devices. Compliance, health and safety, asset management and the allocation of work and resource processes have to all be run remotely.

Government restrictions on social distancing requires workers to remain at least two meters apart and safer working practices such as the increase in lone workers to complete jobs guided remotely by experts back at HQ.

All these requirements have affected the efficiency of field operations during successive lockdowns, particularly asset management schedules. Water companies are looking to maintain productivity by embedding digitisation to provide real-time updates for both workers and increasingly customers so they know when a frontline manager is likely to arrive on site.

A company that is looking to improve the efficiency of its field force operations thanks to an integrated workflow solution that provides real-time information for its water meter replacement process is Welsh Water.

Digitising water meter replacement

With over a million domestic boundary boxes across Wales that require locating and changing, Welsh Water Dwr Cymru had been searching for an efficient means of managing its water meter replacement process.

Changing a water meter is a complex process that requires specific steps to be carried out in a certain order. Intoware’s automation platform, WorkfloPlus, was chosen for its digital connected programme as it can quickly and easily transform any paper-based process into a digital format so its field engineers can follow the same digital instructions where ever they are and in any work environment they find themselves in.

Welsh Water now creates custom workflows to better manage the consistency of work completed by its field engineers. Whether its following complex instructions to remove an old water meter, capturing relevant data or recording any unusual aspects and most importantly, ensuring the water is back on without affecting any customers and their usage, while at the same time reducing the opportunity for human error.

Its field engineers also needed to record the condition of any given boundary box and its surroundings since a lot of meters are hidden from sight presenting a potential hazard to the general public. With the added benefit of being able to take photographs of the boundary box cover on their tablets, its field engineers can quickly generate digital work instructions in WorkfloPlus that will automatically trigger the team to come out to the job and make the necessary replacements.

This avoids unnecessary claims and job allocations and has the added benefit of being able to capture the exact time and attendance, which means Welsh Water can gain a more detailed understanding of how long it takes to complete each repair to further streamline its meter replacement process.

WorkfloPlus also provides evidence to both internal and external regulators regarding quality, health and environmental controls, the ability to track and report on the development of this process was simply not possible with the previous paper-based system.

Summary

The reality of maintaining frontline services during the pandemic remains an evolving situation. As workers practice social distancing and the task of maintaining essential assets becomes ever more challenging – digitalisation, remote monitoring and data analytics are a real ‘game-changer’ that can keep workers safe and through real-time monitoring and preventative asset maintenance cut costs and contribute towards a ‘greener’ future.




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