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Alejandro Zarzuela of Acciona: "The first impact of digital transformation is on the way we work"

  • Alejandro Zarzuela of Acciona: "The first impact of digital transformation is on the way we work"
    (Photo: Pablo González-Cebrián/Smart Water Magazine)

About the entity

The water business of ACCIONA concentrates on water treatment and reverse osmosis desalination, a technology in which it is the world leader.

Innovation is part of the DNA of ACCIONA Agua. Through its technological centre, the company applies the most advanced technologies in its different areas of activity; in addition, human capital is the company's main asset.

Alejandro Zarzuela, Technical and Innovation Director at ACCIONA Agua, describes the projects the company is involved in within this area.

Question - Mr Zarzuela, we would like to know in detail the role that you have as the Technical and Innovation Director at ACCIONA Agua.

Answer - Briefly, within the Technical and Technological Innovation Area we find the research, development and innovation (RDI) of ACCIONA Agua, the Knowledge Management of the company, the implementation and emergence of innovations, as well as technical support to the engineering taking place in our projects.

Q - You are responsible for the technological centre of the company, located in Barcelona. Which activities are carried out in those facilities? What is your role within ACCIONA Agua?

A - The technological centre of ACCIONA Agua, located in Barcelona, is under the direct responsibility of Jorge Malfeito, Director of RDI, and I am the ultimate decision maker.

ACCIONA Agua is involved in the whole water cycle, so our projects encompass multiple areas, which we have grouped into three.

In the area of effluent treatment and reuse, we have finished the LIFE RAMSES project, to optimize anaerobic treatment as a pre-treatment to biological treatment in the water line, achieving very good results. We are working in the LIFE CELSIUS project, to implement anammox processes in the water line; concerning sludge treatment, we are working to optimize anaerobic processes through the use of sustainable additives, obtained within the facility itself.

Finally, out portfolio in this area also includes projects to improve reuse treatments such as forward osmosis and anaerobic membrane reactor (AnMBR) processes.

In the area of desalination, we are working in the H2020 "INTEGROIL" project, dealing with water treatment and reuse in the Oil&Gas sector, both in the design of different types of treatment as well as in digital technologies that support decision making to adopt an optimal treatment based on the type of water to treat and the desired quality.

In terms of improving pre-treatments in desalination plants, we are focusing on applying new concepts and equipment, and on new lines of reverse osmosis processes. In the LIFE DREAMER project, we are working on the implementation and evaluation of high conversion processes in desalination.

The third area of work entails providing support to all business areas, from the point of view of modelling, testing, tests in the pilot plans we have designed and built, as well as carrying out analytical work and assays in our lab, membrane autopsies, process definitions, etc.

We currently have more than 50 intangible assets, counting brands and patents, which we apply in our projects

Q - Thinking about the topic of Smart Water, which projects are currently under way at ACCIONA Agua?

A - We have recently finished the project ‘SMARTWATER4EUROPE’, where, together with some partners from the Netherlands and England, we have implemented measuring equipment and its respective monitoring using prediction algorithms, with excellent results. We are implementing these results in the services we are responsible for.

In parallel, and within what we are starting to know as Water 4.0, we are working in the areas already known, such as Business Information Modelling (BIM), applying it to all of our projects, Internet of Things (IoT), Big Data, Artificial Intelligence, etc., but with practical applications, focused on our business. The support of the Innovation Department of the ACCIONA Group with the Startup Accelerator, with intra-entrepreneurial actions through I’MNOVATION and with the Digital Innovation HUB, is crucial.

As a sample of this commitment, in the next few months the operations control centre of ACCIONA Agua will be finished, where, as well as connecting the facilities we are responsible for in O&M, some of the digital initiatives that we have developed and are developing, in particular in the field of prediction and Big Data, are applied.

Q - ACCIONA Agua is committed to the development of their own technologies, dealing with water treatment, reuse, and desalination. Which are the most significant ones?

A - We currently have more than 50 intangible assets, counting brands and patents, which we apply in our projects. Essentially, they address the challenges that come up in our daily work, from treatments to reduce ammonium in the return line using NIPARMOX anammox bacteria, ULTRADAF specific flotation equipment, ACTIDAFF filtration, to equipment to measure pressure in reverse osmosis, INTERAP, to measure fouling, FOULINDEX and FOULDETECT, etc.

These technologies are applied in our projects, and already have strong references.

Q - In which sectors are these technologies currently applied? In which geographical areas?

A - As I mentioned, we apply these technologies in our projects.

Currently we have a presence in more than 25 countries, with ongoing projects, and in some of those we have permanent offices, building synergies with the other business units of Corporación ACCIONA Infraestructuras.

Therefore, it is in those countries where we apply our technologies. This includes from the desalination plants we build in the Middle East, Australia, etc., to the waste water treatment plants in Mexico D.F. or Vancouver, or the drinking water treatment plants in Australia, Canada or the Philippines.

The human factor is our capital, and for a few years now we have been investing in knowledge management

Q - Innovation is therefore one of the pillars that underpins the adaptation of the water sector to the digital revolution. How is this paradigm change transforming the business model of ACCIONA?

A - We work in a very competitive market which is constantly evolving, where innovation has always been present. With the lower cost of access to data management, which is the real revolution, new scenarios which before were only a possibility have unfolded and are now a reality.The first impact of digital transformation is the way we work; as an example, we have our efforts to adapt our engineering technology to the BIM technology.

The first impact of digital transformation is the way we work; as an example, we have our efforts to adapt our engineering technology to the BIM technology.

In addition, the application of digital technologies has meant that the ICT department, which before had a support function, has become an active part of our business, contributing innovation. This involvement is key for the digital transformation of the company.

In parallel, new business opportunities have come up, as we can market our innovative solutions in the automation and monitoring business; ACCIONA has created a specific department to deal with this, which has demonstrated to be a highly competitive player in this new scenario. Our developments of digital twin control systems and the remote configuration of SCADA, as well as agreements with companies such as Siemens or Schneider, are achieving excellent results.

Q - The human factor is key in this transformation. How does ACCIONA Agua encourage the adaptation of its personnel to this new scenario?

A - The human factor is our capital, and for a few years now we have been investing in knowledge management with the creation of a specific department with specialised staff. Their job is to compile, store, structure and make available to the entire company the existing knowledge, with the support of new technologies. These technologies allow also collaboration environments that were unthinkable just a few years ago, and that allow us to work on projects in a multidisciplinary manner, from any location, and sharing knowledge.

In addition, the ACCIONA group is focused on technological leadership. The first step has been the creation of the group of Technical Leaders, a cross-cutting group that involves all companies in the group, to share the existing knowledge and obtain external knowledge, as shown by the 1st Symposium of Master Lectures given at the University of Alcalá (Madrid) by world-renowned professionals.

ACCIONA is focused on technological leadership: the first step has been the creation of the group of Technical Leaders

Q - In light of the disruptive future that awaits, what is your vision for the company for the next 10 years?

A - It is difficult to predict the situation in such a distant future. If we think about how our life has changed in the past 10 years with the emergence of the Smartphone or the electric car, for example, the changes we will see in the coming years will be very important. However, I think we will adopt them effortlessly, as we have done up to now.

One of the main changes in our business will be a greater interaction with clients and users, as long as the current trend towards lower costs of accessibility and affordability of new technologies continues. I believe another change will be in the ability we start having with regards to predicting the immediate future in terms of situations of risk, quality and amount of water to treat and supply, maintenance, etc. This is a change in the way we work that will require dynamism.

This greater interaction will be linked to a greater visibility, with more demands and commitments. Data protection and cybersecurity are risks that we need to address urgently in order to facilitate such interaction.

In my opinion, the true digital transformation will stem from the need to transform companies to adapt to these new scenarios and their constant changes.

Digitalisation leads to readiness in terms of obtaining data to extract conclusions and make decisions, and our adaptation must be equally swift, with organizational structures that are increasingly flexible, considering always the need to adapt them to the human factor, knowledge, professional development, etc.

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