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The world of water is modeled in its software applications

Software systems that automate enterprise, operations and maintenance functions (and water the golf course)

May 01, 2013
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With 4,500 residents and six golf courses, Desert Mountain is the largest reclaimed water (26 million gallons) user in metro Phoenix-Scottsdale, Ariz.

Software suppliers have spent the last 20 years modeling — in various codes, arcane and otherwise — the doings of the water and process industries, including for the business enterprise and for operations, engineering and maintenance.

For process industries, water and wastewater management is an integral part of operations. But it is seldom the most highly-engineered aspect of a facility. Yet general-purpose programmable controller (PLC) hardware and supervisory control (SCADA) software available today is as easily applied to a water-related process as any other kind. Vendors make it even easier with industry- and process-specific templates.

For example, an industry package from a SCADA vendor for water and wastewater might include templates, graphics, controls and reports used in collection, transportation and distribution of SCADA applications. Templates can include stations, such as a pumping station, storage, valves, flowmeters, chemical feed
stations and generators.

Beyond SCADA, process industries are characterized by high-capital infrastructure and equipment investment. Maintenance software has been widely marketed as the means to help keep that equipment running. The centrality of maintenance is also seen in that enterprise systems for process industries mostly came out of the asset-management world, not material resources planning. (In “discrete” manufacturing, where things like cars or computers are made, material-resources planning ensures orders, materials and labor come together at the right time.)

It’s clear many conclude that the process-industry maintenance project — with its many, well-known challenges — benefits from software-based coordination and management.

Turning to water distribution, while using gravity to remove sediment from water over time doesn’t quite have the urgency of monitoring unconventional oil extraction or of making steel, the municipal treatment and distribution of water is also the focus of software-development efforts.
As the infrastructure software supplier Bentley has pointed out in regards the water industry: “Investor-owned utilities, civil-engineering consultants and municipal utilities engaged in designing, building and operating water, wastewater and stormwater infrastructure need solutions that integrate asset management, mapping, analysis, documentation, field engineering, operations and maintenance workflows.”

The breadth of functionality here outlined leads Bentley, and others, to talk about the “water infrastructure lifecycle.”

Implementation challenges

Often the number-one, and certainly the first issue to arise associated with most software purchases is projecting its ability to deliver return on investment.
In some cases, the software’s benefits may be based more on its helping demonstrate and document the meeting of regulatory requirements than actual change in “how things get done.” In many other cases, process improvement can be quantified. But the actual buying decision is often, at end of day, more intuitive, i.e., that streamlined efforts based on a single source of knowledge vis-à-vis maintenance issues is both necessary and a plus for complex operations.

In April, Epicor Software Corp., Dublin, Calif., announced that the Water World Group of Companies had decided to implement its ERP solution. Water World is Egypt’s leading water treatment company, with technologies to purify and filter potable water. Software modules being implemented in collaboration with Global Business Solutions, an Epicor channel partner, include for financials, logistics and manufacturing.

“The single most important criteria for selecting Epicor was our need for a powerful, proven solution that comprehensively supports manufacturing while still being easy to use,” said Islam Fayez, financial controller at Water World.

Epicor ERP is used by 20,000 customers in over 150 countries. Its key suites cover financial, customer relationship, sales, production, supply chain, product data, service, human capital and enterprise performance management, as well as planning and scheduling.

Further challenges come with the software implementation itself; whether the system does in fact what the purchaser bought it for, flexibly enough so that users embrace the system. You would think that’s a no-brainer. But it’s not always easy, looking at an advertisement for enterprise, operations or other type software, for example, in an industrial trade magazine, to say exactly what a system does. That keeps the sales-peoples options open.

Further, developers are constantly trying to bring their system’s footprint into other areas. For example, the vendor of maintenance system software may believe inventory management of maintenance supplies is best done within the maintenance system, not the ERP system. So the maintenance package ends up with its own inventory management module, blurring the lines with the enterprise system.

A more general example can be found in the origins of today’s SCADA systems from the major automation vendors. The first SCADA systems came on diskettes that an engineer took out of a box and used on a PC platform to automate a process. That’s still available today, but those same technologies have grown and matured so that they are applied in highly distributed industry and infrastructure automation projects, for the control of dams, stadiums and steel mills.

Big data vision

One of the most important trends in computing looks to glean information from the huge amounts of data being generated simply as a matter of course in today’s world. The ability to synthesize and analyze “big data” will impact water issues, providing fodder for fact-based decision making. A golf course provides an interesting picture of what water management could be.

Desert Mountain, an Arizona-based golf and residential community, is using IBM analytics software to help reallocate and reduce water usage, save energy and cut operating costs.

With 4,500 residents and six golf courses, Desert Mountain already is the largest reclaimed water (26 million gallons) user in metro Phoenix-Scottsdale, Ariz. The analytics software will manage irrigation of all six of its championship grade golf courses and expects to reduce up to 10% of its water usage and generate an additional 10% savings in energy costs related to water pumping and distribution.

Using IBM Intelligent Operation Center software for Smarter Cites with IBM Partner UgMO Technologies’ Wireless Soil Moisture Sensor solution, site managers can access data on turf conditions, soil moisture, volume and frequency of watering, fertilizer application, distribution costs and weather forecasts. Real-time data supports decision making for managing irrigation systems, monitoring exact water supplies and allocating water.

Water usage is monitored in real time from supply source to the soil, rather than waiting for a monthly water bill to view water and energy consumption after the fact. Turf managers can uncover leakage or low-pressure issues that are often difficult to track down. Capabilities also reduce the amount of energy used to transport and treat irrigation water.

Previously, course managers would communicate via “sneaker net” — running back and forth to provide updates on course conditions such as moisture and salinity levels. Now Desert Mountain has a complete overview of the golf course operations. 

“Water is one of our most precious natural resources. Because its uses are so extensive, water is very difficult to manage,” said Bob Jones, chief operating officer of Desert Mountain.

In addition, IBM Intelligent Operations Center for Smarter Cities can be extended to help support a wide range of integration projects across the city or within agencies and departments. “A well-designed, analytics-driven irrigation system can significantly reduce water waste by collecting and analyzing data about water transmission — how water flows, where it flows, how it’s used, how it’s lost and where it’s vulnerable to future losses,” said IBM Smarter Water Program Director Michael Sullivan. “The ability to monitor these systems in real time means that potential problems such as under or over watering, a burst pipe, a slow leak or a malfunctioning pump can be quickly identified and resolved — or even predicted and prevented.”

Closer to the ground

Wastewater and water treatment facilities are said to use about 3% of U.S. energy. Suppliers say enterprise asset management can, amongst other things, be the key to energy savings, as it ensures preventive maintenance and inspections are scheduled in a timely basis. Integrating handheld technologies will further enhance operating efficiencies and help utilities reduce paperwork.

But the reality of how software is perceived by educated generalists and managers with some exposure to the industry was revealed in a small story that recently appeared in the EMC News of South Frontenac, Ontario. A report on the purchase of asset management software was presented at a meeting of the township council.

In its 2013 budget, South Frontenac allocated $125,000 for the purpose of asset management software and consulting services for the development of the township’s asset management plan for water and wastewater and other infrastructure elements. The report recommended buying a software package for a bit more than $80,000 Canadian and annual maintenance of more than $6,000 Canadian.

Two seemingly lower bids, it was reported, were for Web-based systems with higher annual maintenance/support fees and their software “did not meet the needs of the township, including software consolidation and future growth needs.”

The EMC News story reports the following dialogue ensued.

“I know everything is always changing and we continually hear that we have to update this because it does not work with the other,” said Councilman Ron Vandewal. “It would be nice if everything worked together just once.”

Councilman Bill Robinson suggested $6,300 [Canadian] sounded like a lot for maintenance and Councilman Al McPhail wanted to know what the estimated “life expectancy” of the new software would be.

“About 12 minutes,” Councilman Del Stowe interjected. Treasurer Louise Fragnito suggested 10 years might be more accurate.

“Because with the support, you’re also getting updates,” said CAO/Clerk Wayne Orr.

“This may make me sound like I know what I’m talking about but don’t be fooled,” said Councilman John McDougall. “We hear a lot about cloud hosting these days but will this software keep data in-house?”

Fragnito said that that was one of the very reasons they chose the vendor they did, because it wasn’t Web-based software. “We’re trying to get all of our technology to the point where we can budget for and predict when it needs to be replaced,” Orr said.

Final words

This is all just the beginning. Water, in all its many facets, is no longer just a national or regional issue, but rather, in our lifetimes, for the first time in history, has become a global issue. And as such, the collective efforts of many will be aimed at making sure IT-based automation and the power of software applications provide support in addressing the myriad of issues involved.

The tension comes in the working out of the imbalance between the vision we have for a world modeled in software and the reality of all-too-frequent misconnections.

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