Manuel Parra (Xylem): "2020 has created the environment to make digital transformation a reality"
Manuel Parra has developed his career over the last fifteen years around the areas of water, wastewater, software and data, performing various roles ranging from product management to business development and general manager of smart water software. As a result, he has worked with water and wastewater utilities all over the world to address a wide range of challenges, such as reducing non-revenue water through data analysis, simplifying engineering and planning work by using digital twins, and facilitating the work of field teams by applying mobile workforce solutions, to name a few.
Parra enjoys seeing the positive impact that every project has in helping communities get safe and reliable service, which makes him consider each of them as a milestone in itself.
In addition to his work as Vice President of Practice Management at Xylem Inc., he was one of the co-founders of the Smart Water Networks Forum (SWAN), an organization in which he enjoys "working with other water and wastewater leaders to create the space where utilities, vendors, academia, and other professionals can come together to find ways to help our industry."
In this fifth issue of Smart Water Magazine Monthly, we talk with Manuel Parra about digital transformation in the water sector and the approaches a leader like Xylem applies to solve the challenges of water resources management.
We have been talking about the digital transformation of water companies for a long time, but perhaps 2020 can be remembered as the year in which, in some areas, we went from words to actions. How has the pandemic affected the perception and application of digital technologies for water supply and treatment?
The overall perception of digital solutions has evolved significantly over the last ten years. Initially, we saw a “wait-and-see” approach to the incorporation of new technologies by water and wastewater utilities, today it is very common to see terms such as machine learning, digital twins and artificial intelligence forming a part of the water and wastewater language.
Good and actionable data is one of the most important allies a utility can have to navigate current challenges and future uncertainties
If anyone doubted the need for digital transformation before, 2020 has created the environment to make this transformation a reality. The speed at which water and wastewater organizations across the globe have had to react to the pandemic has made evident that the technology used may not be optional and, very importantly, that good, actionable data, is one of the most important allies a utility can have to navigate current challenges and future uncertainties.
Water services have, in general, had an excellent response to the pandemic throughout the world, guaranteeing access to water and sanitation to citizens in circumstances as complicated as home confinement. What kind of technologies have been most decisive in achieving this?
Before we talk about technologies, we must thank every single water and wastewater professional for the job they do every day and how, beyond the use of any technology, they have been key in keeping our water and wastewater services up and running in this very complex situation.
The ability to control and analyse critical equipment and processes remotely, in real time has definitely made a difference
As far as technologies are concerned, automation and control technologies are having a pivotal role in managing this situation by providing direct relief for the stress generated by having to manage water and wastewater services with reduced resources. The ability to control and analyse critical equipment and processes remotely, in real-time has definitely made a difference, especially when dealing with new or aggravated problems, such as the increase in the number of clogging events or changes in usage patterns resulting from changes in our day to day routines, for example.
What is Xylem's strategy to be one of the leading actors in digitization?
Xylem understood early on that the application of digital and data-driven technologies should not be treated as a separate topic but as one of the fundamental pillars that brings value to our customers.
Xylem has strengthened its digital capabilities over the years by adding technology to our portfolio and expertise to our teams. This means that whenever we work with our customers on finding answers to their questions, we always look at data as another asset that they can use to gain insights that can help them achieve their goals while maximizing their expected outcomes.
This data-as-an-asset approach has, for example, saved some of our utility customers millions of dollars when dealing with combined sewer overflows, by allowing them to maximize the capacity of wastewater networks rather than having to build new infrastructure. In other cases, we are helping customers optimize their capital improvement plans by incorporating data analytics so that they can focus their efforts and resources on their most critical and risky parts of their water distribution systems, therefore increasing the impact and rate of return of every expenditure.
I expect to see a growth in technologies that will help prioritize Capex and Opex to help cope with the impacts of the pandemic
A company with Xylem's global presence is one of the best thermometers to know the situation of the industry. How would you evaluate the moment we are in and, specifically, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic? Which markets and geographic areas show more dynamism?
It is clear that almost everywhere budgets have changed, resources have been impacted and priorities are focused on managing the uncertainties associated with keeping essential water and wastewater services up and running in the current situation.
While I think it is still too early to determine the permanent effects of the pandemic on our industry, we have seen an increased interest in the use of data analytics, and in particular how it can be used to gain insights into operations to support managing operational and financial priorities in an unknown environment.
In this context, I expect to see a growth in technologies that will help prioritize Capex and Opex to help cope with the short and mid-term impacts of the pandemic. I can also see how this situation has made the benefits related to decision support systems evident and, as such, there will be more interest in this type of technologies.
Wastewater treatment has proven to be an excellent tool for detecting the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Do you think this is a new market niche that can be consolidated in the coming years?
In my opinion, the growing trends around water and wastewater reuse and recycling will call for a closer look at the quality factor and, as such, the importance of water and wastewater quality monitoring, control and prediction technologies will become more prevalent in the future.
The data-as-an-asset approach has saved our utility customers millions of dollars, for example dealing with combined sewer overflows
A subset of this market surely will be linked to new types of analysis focused on public health and safety. I believe we are just scratching the surface of the possibilities in this area, where detection will be accompanied by prediction and early warning analysis.
Beyond COVID-19, many other challenges are still on the table. One of the most important is climate change adaptation and mitigation. How do Xylem's solutions help in this area and how do you see the water sector evolving in terms of energy efficiency and prevention of extreme events such as floods or droughts?
It is important to understand that there is no silver bullet to solve these issues or a “one-size-fits-all” approach. Each community has its unique characteristics, strengths, and challenges, as a result, we will need to work locally with partners and customers to understand the specific effect climate change is having on their communities. I expect to see technologies evolving beyond mere mitigation and towards predicting the short term and long term impacts of these events to allow faster response and better planning.
In regards to Xylem, addressing these challenges and working closely with our customers and partners to provide solutions that fit each situation is at the core of what we do as an organization.
Today it is common to see terms like machine learning, digital twins and AI forming a part of the water and wastewater language
For example, to help the state of Madhya Pradesh in India conserve water and address its drought, Xylem is providing a smart irrigation system that includes data analytics, controls, and IoT devices to provide water efficiently to 175,000 farmers while increasing agricultural production across 5,150 square kilometres.
We dealt with a totally different situation when Hurricane Dorian left many communities without safe drinking water. In this case, Xylem deployed people with expertise and technologies to accelerate pumping and support urgent disaster response efforts locally.
Regarding energy efficiency, there are multiple examples where Xylem furthers our customers’ efforts. For example, Beijing’s new Daxing airport uses Xylem’s energy-efficient pumping solutions, which include a ground-source heat pump system that in turn generates 10% of the renewable energy used in the entire airport.
Let's talk about talent. How is the profile of workers in the water industry changing? What skills are most in demand? What would you say to young professionals that are looking at getting into this industry?
Although it is true that younger generations are quicker to adopt data-driven technologies, it is definitely not unique to them. In my experience, there is a clear trend towards using data and information to back up individual knowledge, and those professionals open to embracing this trend will be more successful, regardless of whether they are new to the industry or if they have been here for a long time.
Xylem has strengthened its digital capabilities over the years by adding technology to our portfolio and expertise to our teams
For those young professionals looking to pursue a career in water and wastewater, I would tell them that there is no better way to make a real difference, locally and globally, than working in this industry. There are still challenges to be solved, solutions to be discovered and, more than anything, there are still millions of people that can benefit from their drive, passion, and innovation. So I encourage them to reach out to their local utilities, to water and wastewater agencies or companies invested in water like Xylem.
We will need to work locally with partners and customers to understand the specific effect climate change is having on their communities
Finally, how do you see the post-pandemic future for the water industry? Where are we headed?
Although the technical barriers associated to data analytics are decreasing, if we truly want to make data-driven solutions accessible to everyone, we also need to consider alternate financial and business models that help ease access and implementation.
Moving forward, I would like to see the industry and other external stakeholders work together towards the democratization of these technologies by finding solutions to these questions, getting to a situation where the use of data analytics is not restricted only to large organizations but it also becomes a normal practice in small and medium communities.
Getting to this stage is key because, as it has become evident over the last several months, these technologies are a fundamental pillar to build the resiliency levels required to address well-known problems as well as new challenges, so water and wastewater organizations can continue providing a safe, reliable and affordable service.