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Digital advancements in water

  • Digital advancements in water
    Full water cycle. Credit: Bentley Systems

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Bentley Systems
Bentley Systems is the leading global provider of software solutions to engineers, architects, geospatial professionals, constructors, and owner-operators for the design, construction, and operations of infrastructure.

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Does the future of water utilities include digital twins? In a historically risk-averse industry, going digital means embracing digital twins, open environments and integrated workflows.

Introduction – Digitalization in water infrastructure continues

As a water utility, you are facing a range of problems in your efforts to provide reliable, resilient, and affordable water systems. Some of the most common concerns are rising electricity prices, aging assets and infrastructure, increasing water scarcity and loss, growing urban populations and shrinking rural ones, and extreme weather events resulting from global climate change, including hurricanes, floods, and droughts. Fortunately, there are similarly wide-ranging solutions to many of these problems, from public-private partnerships to conservation awareness to smart water technologies.

Additionally, utilities are advancing digitalization to address some complex challenges. You may be collecting electronic data in unprecedented volumes, such as output from smart meters, sensors, and various types of inspections. Yet, you may still struggle to use that data to support better decisions, in part because of insufficient digital technology to improve processes. The digital movement represents an opportunity for you to change how you work by more effectively leveraging data, but it also represents a risk.

Without a way to effectively use data to address real problems, you may find yourself drowning in data while thirsting for insight

“Good data is fundamental to good decision-making. But often, utilities struggle to effectively use the data that they already have and the data that they routinely collect because it is isolated in disconnected IT solutions, spreadsheets, and paper records,” says Gregg Herrin, Vice President, Water Infrastructure at Bentley Systems. “Without a way to effectively use data to address real problems, you may find yourself drowning in data while thirsting for insight. To address this, digital twins are a powerful strategy that many water utilities are beginning to adopt.”

A digital twin is a virtual representation of a physical asset, process, or system. For a water utility, a digital twin can be continuously updated with virtual operational data from supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems, sensors, meters, and other measured sources, creating a real-time model that can be used in operations. A digital twin dynamically changes based on the data that it receives, allowing it to mature and yield valuable information that is not generated by a traditional static model—and that capability can drive business decisions.


Digital twins provide accurate, reliable data that you can use to perform what-if analyses and make informed decisions throughout the lifecycle of a water system—from long-term system vulnerability and capacity planning to immediate performance monitoring and emergency response.

The concept of a digital twin can be used at different scales, from an individual component like a pump or valve, to a subsystem like a water treatment plant or other facility, to an entire utility network. Digital twins can be useful in every phase of the asset lifecycle, from planning and design, to construction, to operations and maintenance. Also, digital twins can be useful to many different types of people, including engineers and designers; operators; and a range of stakeholders, including individuals inside the utility—such as executives—or outside the utility—such as the public.

As many industries have seen during the COVID-19 pandemic, there is greater need to have a resilient workforce as well. Even though water utilities are considered essential services and, in that sense, can still have staff go into the office to support water utility operations, this shift to making data available from anywhere becomes increasingly important. The emphasis for the water utility is on the accessibility of the information in the field to investigate and assess issues, as well as respond quickly.

A digital twin dynamically changes based on the data that it receives, allowing it to mature and yield valuable information

The result is an intelligent, connected digital infrastructure model that supports planning, design, construction, and operations for smart water networks. Digital twins of water systems provide accurate, reliable data that you can use to perform what-if analyses and make informed decisions throughout the lifecycle of a water system—from long-term system vulnerability and capacity planning to immediate performance monitoring and emergency response.

“Digitalization will serve as a lever to integrate with other globally recognized response patterns to modern threats – I call this the 4 big D’s,” says Richard Vestner, Senior Director, Digital Solutions, Bentley Systems, “It is where decarbonization, decentralization and democratization add to digitalization. Collectively and across industries, actions in these areas can mitigate negative impacts of observed megatrends that destabilize natural ecosystems and lead to a loss of resilience. New strategies, thought-out solutions and services that improve water quality and availability are required now and digital twins have the potential to play an essential role in building sustainable and holistic solutions.”

You may wonder if this is just hype or is real. The short answer is that it is very real, but engineering firms and operators are at different levels of maturity. Uncertainty of the unknown is uncomfortable. Additionally, it may be uncomfortable to change the status quo. Some users have provided the advice that you must think big, but prove small, and then scale. Here are a few great examples of innovations in projects and operations.

Innovators in water, sewer, and stormwater projects


The team used ProjectWise and Geo Web Publisher for the GIs environment and used OpenFlows for Hydraulic modeling. Credit: NJS Engineers.

India’s Guwahati water and sewerage department wanted to improve coverage of the potable water supply by 70%. However, previous manual hydraulic design methods were error-prone and inefficient. NJS Engineers India was tasked with delivering modern, intelligent water infrastructure, but had to overcome technical, coordination, and engineering challenges, as well as high pressure concerns. To manage and share data among over 100 firms, NJS needed to establish a connected data environment. The team created a digital GIS environment that helped save 2% in planning and construction costs, reducing drawing production by 60%. Then, with hydraulic modeling, they were able to identify and develop solutions for the high-pressure distribution system, saving 6% in overall project costs. This digital twin created for the project helped promote lifecycle asset management. NJS delivered a fully digitalized water supply system, improving visibility and standardizing business processes that are expected to reduce operating costs.

NJS delivered a fully digitalized water supply system, improving visibility and standardizing processes to reduce operating costs

With team members in Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom, Hatch was responsible for the design and construction of a new tunneled outfall that will send treated wastewater from the Ashbridges Bay Treatment Plant into Lake Ontario. They needed design applications that combined computer-aided design and engineering analysis for the estimated CAD$ 350 million wastewater outfall project. They also had to minimize costs while considering the underwater soil and environmental features. Hatch’s engineers predicted the geological boundary conditions below the lake to steer significant design decisions. They collaborated across several time zones in a connected data environment to keep the project on time and under budget. They delivered a high-quality design by using digital models and structural analysis, conserving CAD$ 25,000 in resource hours. They also saved more than CAD$ 45,000 on paper and printing, as well as consolidated their design team to save more than CAD$ 350,000.


The team collaborated across designs improving both process and the project outcomes for a project that is almost entirely out of sight. Credit: Hatch.

Shenzhen Water Group wanted to build an internationally renowned smart water project that crosses buildings, transportation facilities, and pipelines, supplying the future Nanshan Water Treatment Plant and benefiting 1.5 million people. They hired POWERCHINA ZhongNan Engineering Corporation Limited to create high-quality, ecological 3D designs of the raw water pipeline. Their models were also required to apply to the project’s full lifecycle and last a century. To achieve these goals, POWERCHINA ZhongNan knew that they had to use a collaborative design platform to create digital twins for analyses, quantity calculation, and simulation. By creating digital twin models of all components, the team was able to reduce design time by one month, saving CNY 4 million. Simulation guaranteed accurate design and reduced labor and material waste by 20%, lowering energy consumption.

POWERCHINA ZhongNan used a collaborative design platform to create digital twins for analyses, quantity calculation, and simulation

A massive construction project for a river pump gate involves many engineering disciplines, contributing service teams, and relocating and installing underground pipelines. This new access to the sea is meant to reduce frequent flooding in Shanghai. The short design timeline and vast amount of work made Shanghai Water Engineering Design and Research Institute realize that, instead of using traditional methods, they needed to generate a 3D reality model while simultaneously importing BIM models into finite element analysis software. The project was the first in which they would apply BIM technology to all aspects of design and construction. Shanghai Water Engineering Design and Research Institute improved the 3D models by working collaboratively and efficiently in a connected data environment, so all disciplines could simultaneously design components of the project. They uncovered several construction process collisions using Bentley’s BIM applications, reducing rework, cutting costs, and shortening the building schedule.


POWERCHINA ZhongNan created digital twin models of all components. Credit: POWERCHINA ZhongNan.

Innovators in water operations

DTK Hydronet Solutions was hired as the engineering consultant to deliver Dibrugarh’s water infrastructure network, providing continuous pressurized potable water to all 25,391 houses in the region of Assam, India. However, it was impossible for them to work with conventional file sharing methods and conduct hydraulic studies within the stipulated timeframe. Additionally, the network had to address non-revenue water (NRW) concerns. DTK needed to establish a connected data environment and digitalize engineering workflows and asset management. DTK completed the entire design in 50 days, saving 40% in design time and 15% in inventory costs. DTK analyzed over 100 operational scenarios, resulting in a smart water system that will limit NRW to no more than 15%. DTK achieved a paradigm shift in digital engineering practices, resulting in improved water asset and risk-based management.


ProjectWise and OpenFlows helped teams develop a GIS cloud-based platform to manage information and perform hydraulic modeling. Credit: DTK Hydronet Solutions.

Because a portion of the population does not have proper sewage coverage or access to clean water, the Brazilian government wanted to fast-track coverage by encouraging investors to build or operate current plants. However, handing over asset information for publicly operated and managed facilities proved difficult because of disorganized information. Aegea, a private group of water and sewage utilities, was looking for an integrated approach and recognized the need for a collaborative, digital twin solution. The result was the BRL 20 million Infra Inteligente Program that combines BIM and asset management, transforming water asset lifecycle data into understandable 3D models that contain specifications and real-time access to asset operations. Aegea plans to save millions by switching from reactive to proactive maintenance, which will extend the life of their assets.

The Infra Inteligente Program combines BIM and asset management, transforming water asset lifecycle data into understandable 3D models

When SABESP wanted to reduce water losses in São Paulo, Brazil, they relied on insufficient methods, potentially causing customer dissatisfaction and revenue loss. They realized during their study of the city’s Cursino supply sector that to develop informed, valid improvement proposals, they had to overcome old infrastructure, irregular topography, demand increase, and data collection. They also recognized that identifying critical areas and inadequate pressures, as well as analyzing renovation alternatives, required developing digital twins. With a digital twin, they could transform their asset database into a dynamic hydraulic model of the water supply for the Cursino sector. The digital twin solution is expected to yield operational benefits that are estimated to save close to BRL 850,000 per month (once the project is fully implemented) in recovered water volume. It also serves as a benchmark for improving water supply services to other areas of the city.


With Bentley applications the team combined project delivery information and asset management. Credit: Aegea.

Águas do Porto (AdP) improved the entire urban water cycle in the city of Porto, Portugal by commissioning a smart water management platform (digital twin) called H2PORTO based on Bentley applications. By unifying the data produced by formerly siloed systems, AdP has improved the accuracy of the data produced from sensor readings to nearly 99%. It included the following: water service interruptions fell by 22.9%, number of sewer collapses decreased by 54%; repairs for pipe burst and sewer and service connections improved by 8.3% and 45.5%, respectively; volume of non-revenue water dropped by 3.5%; integration of real-time data and producing information available to teams in the field produced operational gains of 23%; and remote access to H2PORTO allows technicians to update digital twin information while in the field, resulting in operational gains of 23%.

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