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Smarter water: How digitalization is driving innovation at NI Water
Digital Strategy

Smarter water: How digitalization is driving innovation at NI Water

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Kenny MacIver — July 2020
From sensors and VR to big data analytics and robotics, advanced digital technologies present a huge opportunity to water companies. Ronan Larkin, director of finance and regulation at Northern Ireland Water, highlights a digital journey aimed at dramatically enhancing the organization’s efficiency, productivity and customer focus.

Through its 24 reservoirs, 23 water treatment works, 1,600 pumping stations and 43,000km of pipework, Northern Ireland Water delivers 575 million litres of water to its customers every day — while also treating, cleaning and recycling 340 million litres of waste water and returning it into the environment. By the nature of that work, its asset base — built up over 200 years and valued at £8 billion ($9bn) in rebuild costs — is both largely physical and widely dispersed across the region. 

But like utility companies everywhere, Northern Ireland Water (NI Water) is embracing digital innovation with great ambition, as fast-advancing technologies open up the potential for new and more effective ways to run its operations and deliver a vital service to its community of almost two million people.

The early stages of that digital transformation are becoming visible across much of its activities. But, from the perspective of Ronan Larkin, director of finance and regulation at NI Water, that momentum will be driven by one fundamental — the vast and increasing amounts of data available to the organization.

As he highlights, the water industry is no stranger to innovation and the accumulation of data. “Our civil, electrical and mechanical engineering is second to none. And the industry has also been fantastic at gathering data through the telemetry, remote sensors and SCADA systems installed across its assets. So even today we have lots and lots of data,” says Larkin. “However, the stage is now set for companies and the sector as a whole to make much greater use of all that data and the innovations that are fuelled by it.”

“Northern Ireland Water's Silent Valley Reservoir=
Northern Ireland Water's Silent Valley Reservoir

A business driver for that is the fact that the strategic challenges for the water industry have moved a long way in recent decades. Under both regulatory and societal pressure, water companies can longer be seen to be complacent about the precious resource they work with.

New imperatives“This an energy-intensive industry. Processing, pumping and distributing water, and then taking waste water, recycling it and returning it clean to the environment means the industry is a huge user of energy,” says Larkin. Indeed, NI Water is the largest consumer of electricity in the whole of Northern Ireland. “In light of the climate emergency, that is no proud boast,” he adds.

I Water is also conscious that it needs to make maximum use of the raw material it handles. “We extract water from reservoirs and underground sources, take that into our treatment works and turn that raw resource into clean, safe drinking water, distributing it out through a huge network of pipes. So the challenges are around how we make the optimum use of that clean water and prevent wastage through leaks due to ground movement or aging pipes, in a network that has been put in and renewed over the past 200 years.”

“Northern Ireland Water's Duncrue water treatment center=
Northern Ireland Water's Duncrue water treatment center

From energy conservation to service efficiency, water companies such as NI Water are now looking to digitization as the route to addressing some of these challenges. And Larkin predicts: “This is going to be the next big piece of evolution in our industry.” 

Mixing it upAt the heart of that evolution is a move to an intelligent water network. “We have very good fundamental IT systems in place at NI Water — for capturing and analyzing financial information, for example, and for monitoring the data coming in from our base of dispersed assets,” says Larkin. But such resources would be much more valuable if integrated, he says: “Where we go next is enhancing the value of our data by smashing it together.”

He points to one fruitful initiative. “Recently, our team merged our core financial information with data from the water treatment and distribution network. As a result, they could see much more detail about what it costs to deliver water around all the different parts of the network. They could understand the complete dynamics of getting water from the source upland to the treatment works and, ultimately, to the farthest house on the network. That not only helps us deal with efficiency challenges, it inevitably leads us to think about better approaches.”
Digital instead of IT strategySuch initiatives are part of a wider agenda. NI Water’s Digital Strategy, first launched in 2017, is designed to get every part of the organization engaged in the opportunities of digital — something that is still at the early stages but which will ultimately deliver major benefits, argues Larkin


s part of the energy challenge, for example, NI Water is progressively adding metering across its asset base with a view to cutting electricity consumption. “By monitoring electricity as it hits different parts of a large treatment works, for example, our analytics team can understand our energy usage patterns and work out how to optimize those.”

Could the organization be treating water at less expensive times of the  day; at what point should it be pumping excess water into stores?’ are just two of the kinds of question such visibility is enabling.

The organization may be at the beginning of a journey but NI Water wants its employees to be inspired by such potential insights. “We want people to ask: ‘If we did something differently would that create a better outcome in terms of cost or customer service?’” says Larkin. And that curiosity has to be widely felt, he emphasizes. “Of course, the C-suite and the data team can get excited about it but we want to get that on the front line and right across the organization so everyone can input and show us better ways of doing things.” 

That kind of information already flows from the mobile devices of its 450 operatives as they respond to customers’ water supply issues or inspect and repair assets. But the aim is to integrate all the information from the operating environment (from field teams, sensors and elsewhere) with customer services information. “We’re at the very early stages of this, but the aspiration is to bring together all of the expertise that currently sits among disparate teams into an Intelligent Operation Centre so we have systems that are common, intelligent and predictive,” says Larkin.

“Northern Ireland Water: Insight for a mobile workforce =
Northern Ireland Water: Insight from a mobile workforce

“Today we might have customers calling to tell us about a problem. Where we want to get to is where the assets or the network are telling us about a certain situation before it starts to impact customers, allowing us to alert those in the affected area.”

Having been informed about the nature of the problem by sensors and armed with all the knowledge of previous issues in that area,  the operations center will be able to dispatch the appropriate team and supporting resources. “Rather than waiting to respond to a wave of customer calls about their water being shut off, NI Water can let them know the status of the issue as it unfolds, providing information via messaging or our website,” says Larkin.
Customers’ firstThat signifies a big shift in business thinking. “In the past at Northern Ireland Water, we might have regarded ourselves as an operations-based or an assets-based company. But our strategy today is to put customers at the heart of everything we do,” says Larkin. “So whether it’s designing a new asset, setting up customer call services or getting information in from the field, we're thinking about that from a customer perspective.”

Key to such a vision is the application of predictive maintenance across the whole supply chain, from the large-scale reservoirs to the pipelines running to customers’ homes. With that smart environment “instead of reacting to something, you're predicting that it might happen and carrying out planned interventions. It changes the dynamic. Our operatives aren't disrupted, our network isn’t disrupted and, most importantly, our customers aren't disrupted. Even better, it might actually be less expensive for the business to do it that way.”

“Across all sectors, companies are setting as their purpose ‘to have a positive impact on society and the environment.’ There is no better game to be in than water today.”

“Northern Ireland Water’s Ronan Larkin =
Northern Ireland Water’s Ronan Larkin

But the strategy is not just about how NI Water treats its community of customers but about how they perceive its actions.

“The water sector is all about natural capital, taking resources from nature. How it does that is, rightfully, a much more important focus for the public than it was 30 or 40 years ago,” says Larkin. And technology has a big role to play in ensuring the exploitation of that natural capital is judiciously managed.

The focus on respect for the natural environment represents a great opportunity, says Larkin. “Across all sectors, more and more companies are setting as their purpose ‘to have a positive impact on society and the environment.’ Given the nature of NI Water’s business — fulfilling the needs of the community to thrive with clean water and sanitation, and then removing contaminates and returning that water into the natural environment — in my view, there is no better game to be in today than water.”

That provides NI Water with a compelling recruitment proposition, he says — both for skilled individuals and partners who share a similar sense of purpose.

“Today’s younger generation tend to judge a company on what it does and how it behaves,” he says. “When you add that to the opportunities for the water industry to harness the digital revolution, we’re looking at the chance to build in-house skillsets in areas such as data science, digital twins, modelling, VR, while also partnering with companies who are experts in those spaces already.”

And he concludes: “David Attenborough’s Blue Planet, the climate change emergency, the UN Sustainable Development Goal for Clean Water and Sanitation for everyone: the narrative about water has never been clearer and technology teams have never had a better opportunity to be part of that.”

First published July 2020

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