The German water industry is embracing its digital transformation. We speak to Dr. Richard J. Vestner, Board Member of the German Water Partnership e.V. (GWP), a network of about 350 private and public companies from the country’s water sector, that has recently established a working group WATER 4.0, in order to play a leading role and further develop its competitiveness in digitalization.
Question: Firstly, we would like to know briefly your career path and your current role in the German Water Partnership.
Answer: I am a Civil Engineer with a PhD in advanced wastewater treatment. After leadership positions in the German Army and in Business- and Infrastructure-Consultancy, I joined DHI in 2014 and my last position was a Group executive board member and Chief Digital Officer. In 2014 and 2018 I was elected as a Board Member of German Water Partnership (GWP e.V.), where I am active since its foundation in 2008, first leading a Regional Section, later initiating and leading the Water 4.0 Working Group. This stems from my experience with digital services and products to make better and faster data-driven decisions in the industry.
I strongly believe in the mission of GWP, which is networking to promote international water business. In the home country of Industry 4.0, the German water industry has the knowledge and solutions to transform the water sector through a holistic Water 4.0 approach, which addresses culture, organization and technology and deploys design-thinking and agility. Under the umbrella of GWP our members form interest groups and create convincing holistic solutions combining existing proven elements.
Personally, I am intrigued by the H2O Digital Twin technology that together with a large range of analytics will bring automation to the next level, which are autonomous, learning water systems.
The German water industry has the knowledge and solutions to transform the water sector through a holistic Water 4.0 approach
Q: The German Water Partnership was founded in 2008, with what goal?
A: GWP is a water sector network that brings together around 350 private and public companies, as well as trade associations and institutions from business, science and research. Since its foundation in 2008, the initiative to promote the German water industry has been supported by the five Federal Ministries of the Environment, Research, Development, Economics and the Federal Foreign Office.
The main goal of GWP is to establish German expertise and quality worldwide and to position German water competencies in international markets. Thus, integrated and sustainable approaches meet the problems and challenges of water management all over the world and the use of innovative German technologies and German know-how is being improved globally.
Q: What do you think are the main challenges the water industry currently faces?
A: The big topics are driven by the impacts of climate and demographic changes, both causing stress to our legacy infrastructure. To secure clean water availability, avoid or mitigate water-born risks and create a sustainable water-cycle will demand new, more flexible and adaptable solutions which must be adjusted to our current systems.
From a water quality perspective, we are facing restrictive requirements with regards to microplastics and micro pollutants like pharmaceuticals. This goes far beyond an end-of-pipe solution, so the water industry not only has to provide technical solutions but has to engage with politics and the public to establish sustainable changes in legislation, awareness and behaviour.
However, if we equip and upgrade water and wastewater treatment plants with advanced technology, then these additional costs lead to the challenge of further securing the price stability for clean water.
And finally, we notice an aging workforce in the sector and the challenge to recruit blue- and white-collar workers with the appropriate skills. Digitalization is partly an answer to this, because as in other sectors, the water industry is creating new exciting jobs. Vice versa, this requires continuous education and training.
I would argue that Germany has commonly achieved a Water 3.0 status
Q: How can digitalization contribute to overcoming the current challenges of the sector?
A: Well, I believe there are lots of opportunities and I will only name a few.
First, there’s still a huge potential to use water-related data and create actionable information. We are already experiencing more, even smaller and cheaper sensors for all kinds of parameters, hence data generation is ubiquitous. This is an excellent condition for transparency and efficiency and will enable data-driven decisions based on scenario analysis with simulation tools.
In combination with real-time modeling, new possibilities for forecasting, predictive maintenance and automation can arise. This in turn has a positive impact on operational performance and expenditures and strengthens resilience of infrastructures.
A fairly new digital approach for the water sector is the Digital Twin within a Cyber-physical Water System. In the final version this will very soon lead to self-adapting and self-learning applications, giving relief from repetitive tasks, reducing risks and increasing efficiency by pro-active control.
Finally, digitalization addresses young and digital-minded people or attracts talents with new job profiles. We can improve the connectivity and reputation of the water sector by digital marketing and raise the satisfaction with water services with a better customer experience and new business models.
Board members of GWP
Q: What would you say are the latest trends in digitalization emerging in Germany’s water sector?
A: The German water sector is already highly digitalized. I would argue that Germany has commonly achieved a Water 3.0 status: local networks with embedded sensors, off-line computer simulation, SCADA and data management, even connected with ERP systems is broadly implemented.
However, there’s no reason to be complacent, as the above-mentioned challenges show. Driven by a fragmented landscape on the supply and demand side, stand-alone solutions still dominate the digitalization trend.
There’s a heavy push for Building Information Modeling (BIM) right now to overcome silos, and public authorities as well as consultants and suppliers are investing in this multidimensional methodology. We increasingly observe public-cloud-based services for the water industry in Germany and some utilities are experimenting with and applying Machine-Learning tools to detect water losses or predict water quality parameters, for example.
Further, there is a growing understanding of and need for connected elements and systems, supported by standardization and common interfaces. The water sector can benefit and learn from the Industry 4.0 approach and evolve towards a holistic and sustainable Water 4.0 application. Partly the same industry suppliers and vendors are involved and offer their products and services to the water sector.
The water sector can benefit and learn from the Industry 4.0 approach and evolve towards a holistic and sustainable Water 4.0 application
Q: What sectors adopt digital water technologies more rapidly. And why?
This is a matter of digital strategy, maturity and commitment. You can find public water bodies and authorities with a clear understanding of the value deriving from digital tools and concepts following a digital strategy. And there are plenty of private sector players that develop, experiment with and apply digital water technologies.
We’ve had positive experiences with private end-users who have freedom and motivation to early deploy new digital technologies. I am talking about shipping-lines and harbours, for example, or energy suppliers. Their business environment is rather volatile, their operational success is more dependent on instant monitoring and evaluation of operational and customer data and KPIs. Further early adopters typically have a high degree of outsourced IT, which make it easier to upgrade or change IT architecture.
However, for rapid adoption I recommend simple and transparent services to start with and then scale. We still have effective existing solutions and systems with high customer satisfaction. These have to be carefully augmented with understandable intelligence and smart applications. This requires sensitivity and good communication when you launch, but also the willingness to experiment.
Q: These digital solutions, however, can be vulnerable to malice. What is your opinion on cybersecurity for water companies?
A: This is for sure an absolute necessity if we want to establish digital technologies. Water infrastructure belongs to the critical and vital infrastructure and we must protect this from any kind of cyber-attack, misuse or breach. My observation is, that there already is a big awareness for cyber-security, and sometimes dealing with this can superimpose the reasons to embrace on digital transformation. The truth is, we need both resulting in secure and safe digital innovation.
Q: GWP is currently working with the Institute for Flow Mechanics and Technical Acoustics at Technische Universität Berlin on a Digital Twin project. Can you tell us a bit more about the project?
A: The Digital Twin at a test bed facility at TU Berlin, working in an R&D context, will publicly demonstrate the possibilities of this concept for the water-sector. GWP has served as a facilitator to bring several complementing GWP members together who have contributed to the various elements of a Digital twin - hardware and software - and create this use-case.
The University is an optimal environment to show-case and promote this approach, as it offers a brand-neutral interdisciplinary cooperation, education and training facility. Not least because we know, that we must invest in improving public and professional digital skills.
I expect digital water technology in the future just to be an integral part of our business
Q: Lastly, what do you think is the future of digital water technology?
We will go through a broad public discussion of digital value-creation and ethics: Where does it make sense? Where do we want this to happen? Who’s owning the data? What is the best focus of automation? How can we integrate ‘no-collar workforce’ and train our employees?
But once defined, I expect digital water technology in the future just to be an integral part of our business. I expect mass-application of advanced-sensors, powered by a consistent IIoT-connectivity, seamlessly controlling actuators in water infrastructures to ensure adaptability, efficiency and risk-reduction. This will be enabled also by edge-computing and 5G, allowing complex systems to learn from real-time data with Augmented Intelligence, like Machine Learning. The end-customer will benefit from a great user-experience with mobile devices and the water sector will create interesting new jobs and new ways of working for its employees, using AR/VR.