Technology Talks

Neda Simeonova: How has the economic crisis affected automation and industrial information technology adoption within the water industry?
Paul Miller: Always-conservative municipalities tend to be slow at implementing new technology solutions during the best of times. The initial impact of the recent economic crisis was to squeeze state and municipal budgets to the breaking point (and beyond), which initially put many planned and desperately needed capital water/wastewater infrastructure projects-and associated automation and industrial IT technology upgrades or new implementations-on hold. However, once the many billions of ARRA dollars specifically allocated for water/wastewater infrastructure projects kick in fully through the state revolving loan funds, project activity should resume at a relatively high level, and with it, new technology implementations.

Simeonova: How can new technology help municipalities and industrial plants meet today's challenges?
Miller: Water and wastewater systems are extremely asset intensive. By taking a life-cycle approach to managing these assets, municipalities and industrial treatment plants can maximize and extend the useful life of their existing assets. For new projects, asset life-cycle management (ALM) includes more effective handover of appropriate asset information and documentation from the project engineering team to the operations staff. For existing assets, it includes accurately capturing "as-built" asset information and making this available to operations and maintenance staffs. Effective ALM also requires improved maintenance procedures, including moving from conventional reactive or scheduled preventive maintenance practices to predictive, condition-based maintenance for appropriate assets.

In recent years, technology providers have introduced some excellent hardware and software solutions that can help municipalities and industrial operations improve ALM. These include engineering software packages designed to support both project and operations teams with appropriate tools and information; new 3-D laser scanning solutions that accurately capture as-built asset information that can be used in engineering and plant asset management solutions; and new, low-cost wireless condition monitoring sensors and associated software that support more efficient, condition-based predictive maintenance practices.

New wireless instrumentation can bring remote measurements from water distribution and sanitary/storm water/combined collection systems to a central data collection point for monitoring and reporting at a relatively low cost. Increasingly, municipalities are implementing wireless network backbones to cost-effectively integrate treatment plants, lift and pump stations, storage towers, reservoirs, dams, etc. into a common remote management and control structure. New variable-frequency AC drives also provide municipalities with an excellent tool to reduce their energy costs for operating pumps and motors, which, as we all know, are notorious "energy hogs."

Suppliers of both PLCs and DCSs have developed some pretty ingenious methodologies and attractive commercial practices that can help municipalities cost-effectively upgrade and/or migrate their obsolete process control systems and/or SCADA systems to current automation technology. New process control and SCADA technology allows better monitoring and control, is easier to integrate and eliminates many costly and time-consuming maintenance and support issues.

Finally, several well-known automation suppliers are also working to integrate their process control and electrical systems to provide more effective tools for monitoring and managing energy consumption. This should be particularly attractive to water operations because electricity typically represents such a large percentage of the overall operating budget.

Simeonova: How can municipal and industrial organizations get the most from their technology investments?

Miller: Traditionally, budget-conscious municipalities have awarded technology purchase contracts to the lowest bidders. This often results in a less-than-optimum solution and tends to create a confrontational relationship between the technology purchasers and suppliers. This low-bid mentality does not favor suppliers that might actually offer a better overall value proposition based on ROI and life-cycle costs and benefits but not the lowest initial price. It's also in a municipality's best interest to work in partnership with its technology providers to develop, implement and maintain solutions .

Simeonova: What are the biggest challenges faced by the technology providers themselves?
Miller: As Andy Chatha, ARC's president emphasized in his address at the recent 2010 ARC World Industry Forum in Orlando, Fla., the biggest challenge faced by today's technology providers is to make the technology easier to implement, easier to use, and easier to maintain. Chatha stated that automation suppliers need to learn from the IT world and make automation systems much easier to use. This is especially true with today's continually increasing business complexity and the knowledge drain created by the aging industrial workforce.

Automation suppliers also need to make the technology more secure. In his keynote speech at the recent ARC Forum, Marty Edwards from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security stated, "Modern control systems-which, in many respects, are difficult to differentiate from business systems-are easily exploitable from a cyber-security standpoint. Increasing use of collaborative, Web-based technologies will only add to these vulnerabilities."

Paul Miller is senior editor/analyst for ARC Advisory Group, Dedham, Mass. Miller can be reached at pmiller@arcweb.com.

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