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"At Idrica, we are committed to long-term digital sustainability"

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A leading company specialising in water cycle management, Idrica unlocks the value of technology to accelerate the digital transformation of water utilities.

Jorge Helmbrecht, Business Development Director at Idrica, analyses the current state of affairs in the water sector, banking on digital sustainability as an essential element of a complete digital transformation.

Published in SWM Bimonthly 18 - June 2023
SWM Bimonthly 18

What are the main water management challenges?

I would say that there are four major challenges in the sector: mitigating water scarcity, which has been exacerbated by the effects of climate change, and improving water availability in a sustainable way; access to sanitation for all; guaranteeing the quality and good status of water bodies; and always considering the water-energy nexus.

The digital transformation is not only about technologies, but also about processes and people, which are essential for success

Those challenges have three common denominators: infrastructure, management and technology. The existence, maintenance and efficient operation of infrastructure requires continuous financing and long-term public policy guidelines, not only in times of drought or floods. The correct integrated management of uses and resources is another of the basic pillars to be reinforced, with the improvement of control and monitoring tools in all areas: from hydrometeorology, control of discharges and the status of water bodies at the basin level, to information on the different uses at the municipal level.

Finally, the application of new technologies plays a fundamental role in overcoming the challenges of the water sector and achieving efficient and sustainable management.

  • A digital approach must help us be efficient, solving specific problems, but also with a long-term vision to achieve digital sustainability

What role does technology play in these challenges?

We can highlight several technologies of relevance to the water cycle. Following a "hydrological" path, I would start with the technologies used to manage and monitor water resources. Spain was already a pioneer in the 1980s with the implementation of an automated hydrological information system (SAIH) and since then it has continued to innovate, concerning sensors, SCADA and communications infrastructure, as well as the use of specialized software for hydrometeorological forecasting, up to the present day with the latest generation of early warning and decision support systems, such as the one Idrica provides through the Xylem Vue Powered by GoAigua platform.

At the regional or municipal level, and in relation to uses such as urban or industrial consumption, we should mention the technologies that exist for treatment plants, both for drinking water and for wastewater treatment. There are examples of continuous innovation in recent years, including ultrafiltration, desalination, reverse osmosis, new advances in biological treatment, nanotechnology, etc. In terms of applications, we may highlight the optimisation of processes in plants (both drinking water treatment plants and wastewater treatment plants) with the help of advanced algorithms and the use of AI, as in the case of the Unified Plant Management modules in the Xylem Vue Powered by GoAigua platform.

One of the most important links in the digital value chain is the integration and unification of data from multiple sources

In drinking water and sewer networks, I would emphasise technology aimed at finding leaks, such as the use of tracer gas, analyses using satellite images or the well-known "smart balls" that travel through the pipes for acoustic leak detection, among others. Also worth mentioning are the implementation of smart meters and new communication protocols, such as the inclusion of 5G-NR technology in real-time remote reading, an area where Idrica is also a leading company. In terms of sewer networks, I could mention the growing use of sensors and computer applications with mathematical modelling, systems to optimise sewer cleaning to avoid overflows due to blockages, and monitoring the presence of viruses and other substances in the sewer network to optimise management.

Finally, I would say that, in all these areas, through the Xylem Vue platform powered by GoAigua, Idrica offers game-changing solutions to accelerate the digital transformation of the sector.

What is digital transformation and how is it done?

The digital transformation involves the integration of digital technologies and allows us to improve operational processes in the water cycle, using innovative technologies such as AI, IoT, advanced analytics, etc. Part of this process positively affects the organisation itself, making it more efficient and focused on improving user experience and satisfaction.

On the path of digital transformation, the first step would be to obtain data, and for this, I would start with instrumentation, communication and storage of the recorded information.

The second step, and I believe one of the most important links in the digital value chain that is not working in many water utilities, is the integration of data from multiple sources (sensors, ERP, CMMS, GIS, etc.) and its unification or standardisation into a single format that would then avoid duplication of information and lack of interoperability between the IT systems that require such data.

Without a doubt, the agreement reached with Xylem allows us to play an even more relevant role in the digital transformation process

Once the information has been integrated and standardised in a data lake with a single data model, it is possible to advance to the next step, the third one, where Big Data, advanced analytics or Machine Learning techniques are used to extract value from the data and transform it into useful information to make decisions and take actions that allow us to be more efficient in the use of resources, such as leak detection, predictive maintenance or intelligent operation.

Phase four, monitoring, control and visualisation of the information, has traditionally been performed from the data measured and stored in a SCADA (skipping steps two and three), but the existence of other data sources such as an ERP or GIS makes it more convenient to face this stage after all the existing information has been integrated and after applying advanced algorithms that most modern systems allow.

Finally, the use of mathematical simulation models, their correct calibration and their connection in real-time to the boundary conditions allow us to reach the last stage, known as Digital Twin, which allows continuous simulation and analysis of what-if scenarios to optimise operations.

To conclude, we see that the path of the digital transformation of the water cycle must be based on a data-centric architecture that allows the interoperability of existing systems. In any case, we must never forget that the digital transformation is not only about technologies, but also about processes and people, which are essential for success.

  • At Idrica, we help other companies in the water sector to successfully navigate this transformation path

What is digital sustainability and how do we achieve it?

The traditional concept of digital sustainability is based on using digital tools to be more sustainable environmentally, socially and economically. However, there is a newer concept, based on the sustainability of the system used by any company in the process of digitalisation over time, avoiding the obsolescence of existing systems, which is why we say that at Idrica we are committed to long-term digital sustainability.

We must be aware that technology is in constant change. Such is the innovation and the pace of change, that we have to somehow keep in mind that any system we implement to help us transform our company and go digital by integrating data, must be sustainable over time and endure, even if we have to update the instrumentation, change sensor suppliers, update the SCADA or install a new ERP.

New technologies play a crucial role in overcoming the challenges of the water sector and achieving efficient and sustainable management

For this to happen and for our digital strategy to be sustainable over time, it is necessary to build a data-based architecture, where it is possible to integrate and unify information in an agnostic way regardless of its origin, even if it changes. It is precisely the second step I mentioned earlier on the path to transformation where the key to digital sustainability lies. In our Xylem Vue platform powered by GoAigua we call this system the "Smart Water Engine", which is the agnostic engine that integrates and standardises information and facilitates interoperability between existing systems, avoiding the well-known "spaghetti architecture" that is fostered by the information silos that exist in many water companies. The system is modular, so that we can aggregate or extract data from different solutions by adding modules independently.

Another concept to take into account is scalability, understood as the adaptability of resources to the growth of the company itself or of the areas it manages, whether in terms of infrastructure, hardware or data.

In short, the key to long-term digital sustainability is to have a system that is agnostic, modular, scalable and with an architecture focused on a single data model, which facilitates the interoperability of systems, breaking down the current information silos and thus increasing the efficiency and optimisation of operational processes.

What is Idrica’s role in this digital transformation?

Our experience is undoubtedly an advantage, as we are a company born from the digital transformation experience of more than 15 years of a pioneering water utility in this area, Global Omnium.

During this long process, we learned that a digital approach must help us to be more efficient, solving specific problems of our processes, but also having a long-term vision that allows us to achieve digital sustainability.

At Idrica, we help other companies in the water sector to successfully navigate this transformation path. There is no doubt, moreover, that the agreement reached with Xylem allows us to play an even more relevant role in this digital transformation process through a much more solid offering, represented by Xylem Vue powered by GoAigua.