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Time to invest in water automation? How to tackle 5 operational technology challenges

May 15, 2024

By Kevin Johnson, Pete Perciavalle and David Wilcoxson

Innovative wastewater and water automation systems can improve performance, reduce risk, and save money

There is no shortage of challenges facing managers, plant operators, and automation specialists for water and wastewater utilities today. That’s where operational technology comes in. With smart, innovative water automation systems in place, organizations can leverage capital expenditures and improve utility performance, resilience, and compliance.

What is operational technology, or OT? Well, let’s compare it to information technology or IT. Organizations have IT systems that connect people to processes and tools. Think of word processing programs, billing systems, spreadsheet software, and other programs. IT helps with the productivity of that labor force.

OT connects people with assets and machinery. In the case of the water industry, OT helps us focus on producing clean water or cleaning wastewater. Typical components of OT in water include distributed control systems, supervisory control and data acquisition servers, and open platform communications servers. It also includes control programming for pumps, valves, conveyors, digestion, and aeration. OT’s priority is to keep water automation systems running, prevent any loss of production or treatment, and maintain regulatory compliance.

Operational technology and information technology don’t need to be separate.

IT and OT don’t have to be separate. These days, it’s important to be aware of the fusion between IT and OT. You can use that fusion to take care of important cross-business functions for your utility.

We’ve spent decades working in the OT space, and we’re preparing for a big shift. Things are changing in OT, and we’re fascinated to see the innovation, opportunities, and challenges to come.

In this blog, we’ll talk about five key OT management challenges that utilities face and how to address them. This will improve your utility’s performance. We’ll also talk about how to assess your current operations to identify gaps and optimize assets and processes.

1. Lessen system obsolescence

The typical approach that many utilities take with OT burdens them with the risk and upkeep of the OT environment. OT system obsolescence starts on day one, so utilities must deal with system hardware upgrade costs, licensing costs, warranty, and spare part inventory.

But there’s another way. As an analogy, let’s look at buying a car. One method, like the traditional OT approach, involves buying large pieces of the vehicle and then assembling it yourself. If, however, we treat the OT system more like purchasing of a car from a dealer, then we can negotiate things like cost, warranty, maintenance, and part replacement.

Treat your OT system like an asset. It’s the same way you’d view your car, house, or treatment plant. Think of your OT system from a life-cycle standpoint, instead of just looking to the next 6 or 12 months.

A programmatic operational technology approach makes operating expenditure costs more predictable.

An effective OT agreement can include warranty, repair, and replacement contacts to keep the system up to date. It can also include more than a decade’s worth of competitive and predictable pricing, a clear understanding of data ownership, and other benefits.

It’s important to put thought into the technological components of your water automation system. But it’s even more vital to get that commercial agreement right.

We worked with the City of Los Angeles’ Bureau of Sanitation on a project that mitigated system obsolesce and reduced risk by applying this OT agreement approach. Up front, we saved $120 million in OT system capital costs by helping the utility to negotiate the agreement. We also avoided risks like technology obsolescence and price gouging in the future. And we included a system refresh, which was built into the agreement. After 13 years, the whole water automation system was refreshed. So, the OT system is kept up to date, which removes the burden from the utility.

2. Bring down operating expenditures

What’s another challenge? Capital expenditure spending typically raises operating expenditure (OpEx) costs.

It’s important to take a programmatic OT approach. This optimizes OpEx costs and makes them more predictable. You’re able to bring down both the operations and maintenance expenses and make it more consistent, which lowers the costs and risks.

In one project, we helped the City of San Diego add five times more assets than what they originally had—with a minor increase in operation and maintenance costs. They added 3 new treatment plants and 11 major retrofits to their existing Point Loma wastewater treatment plant. But their operations and maintenance costs only increased from $84 million to $87 million over a 12-year period. They were able to run their facilities at only $3 million more than what they used to run the previous asset base. We fully automated their new assets and helped them optimize their staffing, which kept operating and labor costs low.

If you grow your asset base, it doesn’t mean that you must increase your operating costs.

OT can work wonders for water and wastewater utilities, but it’s important to make sure your systems are performing their best.

3. Address labor shortages

There is another big challenge with OT in the water sector. What is it? Labor shortages and skill gaps. They are expected to worsen over the next few years. In water occupations, we’re noticing that an aging workforce isn’t being replenished by the younger workers that the industry needs. According to US-based research by Joseph W. Kane and Adie Tomer, many water industry workers are older than the national median. The national median hovers around 42.2 years old, with water occupations at 42.8 years old. Water treatment operators are even older on average, with a median age of 46.4 years old.

When it comes to members of the workforce less than 24 years old, Kane and Tomer’s research shows that 12.5 percent of all occupations fall in this age group. But in the water industry, it’s just 10.2 percent of workers.

We’re in a fight for talent to attract the workforce needed. And we need to ramp up OT skills so that we can begin to adapt and make a positive change toward this new reality.

We’re finding that there aren’t many current workers specialized in online analytics, real-time control aspects, artificial intelligence, and machine learning—or not as many as the industry needs. How can we create an OT career path that includes a focus on more modern technology? Thankfully, younger generations are more fluent with technology—and more willing to work with it. These are the types of people we should encourage to join the water workforce.

Our team has collaborated with utilities on recruiting strategies like working with tech schools and trying to find nontraditional labor pools. We’ve also found ways to enhance the OT discipline, via pay and other benefits to offer new graduates.

We’re all in a battle for talent. To succeed, we want to create programs to help our clients attract and retain that workforce in a digitally enabled environment.

An operational technology system evaluation lets a utility develop short-term and longer-term plans to navigate challenges and build better water automation systems.

4. Reduce cybersecurity risks

Most public and private organizations need help in this area. Cybersecurity threats to OT—including ransomware, malware, and phishing—change constantly. And these threats aren’t going away. In the water industry, it’s important to embed security in our planning, design, and operations.

When working with utilities, we’ll advise them to take a cybersecurity assessment. We follow standards from the National Institute of Standards and Technology. You can apply these standards to your operations and OT systems.

We’ll consider things like an impact-analysis or risk-scoring using tools like the free Cyber Security Evaluation Tool from the Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency. Then, after the assessment, utilities can look at employing an incident response or recovery plan. After that, they can share risk communication through training and awareness with their staff.

5. Stop utility data silos

Unfortunately, core utility OT systems are often siloed. Utilities tend to separate operations and maintenance.

But we advocate bringing the data together. It’s easier to manage the centralized data that way, which leads to cost savings and a reduction in work orders. You’re speeding things up and designing water automation systems around business outcomes. As we said earlier, there’s been a fusion of IT and OT, and we think it’s time to embrace that fusion.

We’re currently working with the Region of Peel in Ontario, Canada, on a real-time control project that combines data sources, like rain gauges and flow monitoring out in the field. We’re able to show helpful information on dashboards that management can use for planning and design. We’re fusing data sources from both the operations and maintenance sides. No more silos.

Our team worked with the City of Los Angeles’ Bureau of Sanitation on a project that mitigated system obsolesce and reduced risk.

Consider an OT refresh

Ready to move forward? Work with a team of OT professionals (like us!) to perform an OT system evaluation. This lets a utility develop short-term and longer-term plans to work through challenges and build better water automation systems. You can address all five of the challenges that we’ve mentioned above or just focus on one area. Comprehensive or à la carte.

For this OT readiness evaluation, we apply benchmarks and standards to evaluate the current state of a utility’s OT. Then we identify priorities. We discover the key issues, risks, costs, and benefits.

We do a current situation analysis. Typically, we find that those running the utility are already aware of some of their OT issues, but they may not be familiar with the benchmarks and standards that we’re applying.

The next step is one of the most important. It’s really looking at risk. What’s the consequence and the likelihood of something happening? What are the costs and benefits? Also, what are the immediate things that need to happen? We then put those details onto a planning road map.

It’s important to engage stakeholders and build support. Then, you need to establish long-term partnerships with suppliers, vendors, and key stakeholders that will be partners now and into the future.

OT can work wonders for water and wastewater utilities, but it’s important to make sure your systems are performing their best. The time to evaluate your OT readiness is now. 

  • Kevin Johnson

    Passionate about solving complex challenges with new and innovative approaches, Kevin leads sales and business development efforts for our automation and operational technology group.

    Contact Kevin
  • Pete Perciavalle

    As a key expert in intelligent platforms such as SCADA and distributed control systems (DCS), Pete leads our water and wastewater teams through optimization and strategy development.

    Contact Pete
  • David Wilcoxson

    As vice president and digital practice leader, David is responsible for managing our internal Water group for Digital Practice in North America. He is known for implementing process efficiencies throughout different design disciplines.

    Contact David
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