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Everyday thousands of utilities measure and test water across the country in order to remain compliant with strict governmental regulations regarding water safety and treatment.
Water districts often rely on the help of technology for efficiency. Utilities use enterprise asset management (EAM) companies like Utility Cloud to automate processes, as well as monitor and repair equipment.
As a leader in asset management for the water industry, Utility Cloud realizes it’s not enough to help utilities remain in compliance today. With populations growing and equipment aging, we all must keep the future in mind to keep the water flowing and the public safe, and that begins with tools and technology, like water asset management software.
We’ve brought in Marcus Quigley—an expert in water resource engineering—to give his thoughts on how technological advances like water utility asset management software will affect the utilities and workforces of tomorrow.
There has been a lot of discussion about institutional knowledge, and how important that’s been for infrastructure maintenance, particularly in the water industry. Think of the maintenance engineer in their 60s who’s been managing a certain asset for years—they’re as familiar with a pump, for instance, as they are their own children. They can put their hands on it and—based on touch, vibration, and temperature—tell if it will need maintenance or repair. When that engineer retires, his or her intuitive, intimate knowledge of those assets walks out the door as well.
With the change of demographics and even the number of workers available, using institutional knowledge and traditional ways of maintaining and operating infrastructure doesn't appear to be viable. So, the question becomes, how do you replace those kinds of skills?
“I believe technology can step in to take all that institutional knowledge and systematize it in a way that’s more effective. I’m part of the next generation of engineers with a new set of tools,” said Marcus. “New systems should inspire the same kind of intuitive understanding of assets, but at a higher level. Instead of just being able to register the auditory frequency when you put a pressure sensor or listening device on a pump, you've now got superhuman capabilities.”
If listening to pumps actually works, then the next generation of sensors should be listening to pumps. While the industry may be losing one capability, it will be gaining new ones. What the pump whisperer of today is able to do, we’ll be ‘training’ machines to do. The same pattern recognition and interpreting data, only much faster and more accurately.
We have more data at our fingertips than ever before, and in the future we’ll have even more. The key is knowing what data is valuable versus extraneous. The challenge in having so much information is that it prevents people from being more effective in their jobs. Data needs to support decision making, not add confusion. It needs simplicity.
Imagine a proliferation of dashboards associated with each utility asset. It's great when the pump manufacturer shows up with one, and that's the only dashboard you have now. But when you've got 200 different pieces of equipment, and they all have dashboards, how do you bring that all together and simplify things to make sure the engineers and operators are attentive only to the things that require attention?
“Consider a simple asset management task such as litter pickup. If you have one crew that can only visit at most five sites a day to pick up litter, you don't need minute-by-minute data from all over the city. You're not going to be able to act on it,” said Marcus. “That’s why getting information at the right pace that's consistent with the ability to make and act on decisions is so critical.”
In the future, data solutions will need to simplify and focus attention on the things that are important, those that increase productivity and lead to better outcomes. Also, how that information is delivered is very important, it should be accessible and integrated into a user’s environment. It shouldn’t require much too much additional thinking.
One of the things Marcus has learned is that the underlying patterns of asset management don't change in really fundamental ways. However, the tools do and being able to use those effectively is very important.
“I see two things that need to happen. Tools need to meet users where they are, and engineers and operators have to continually learn as they grow. Well-designed solutions shouldn’t require a whole lot more than the skills that people have or feel comfortable with,” explained Marcus.
The most effective solutions in an industrial municipal setting are ones that look and feel like things you engage with in your day-to-day life. Ten years ago, this wasn't true but today people engage with their smartphone. They engage with basic email and texting. These are still pretty effective means of communication.
“I think there's a little bit too much talk about how much the workers have to meet the products. My perspective is that effective solutions will meet people where they are. I think the products have to get much more thoughtful,” said Marcus. “A good user interface is one that looks and feels like what users are used to. It's pretty unreasonable to retrain everybody when you're building a product. You should just build a really good product with the end users in mind.”
Marcus also explained that workers need to stay on top of new technology. Early in a career, skills are important to get you in the door, yet many don't age well over long periods of time. If you're an expert on something specific like programming certain types of PLCs, that skillset is probably a 5-10 year skillset. You can't build your entire career on it, or you'll find yourself in 10 years with an obsolete skillset.
“It’s important to retrain and be able to make the next jump to understanding and incorporating the management of the systems of the future,” explained Marcus.
We asked Marcus what he thinks the tech platform for the water specialist of the future is.
“The big thing for me is interoperability. Companies will push in this direction and say they’re the solution, but ultimately all these things will need to be rolled up into a much larger ecosystem. Solutions that will be successful already live in a service-oriented architecture and are fully embracing web services end-to-end. They’re just unable to own the entire space--to be the complete solution, but they work well with others,” said Marcus.
“I think that's so critical. Successful EAM companies will build in the cloud and make everything API driven. Then they’ve got the flexibility to plug whatever pieces you need into whatever systems people want to integrate them into.”
Another mega trend he mentioned was remote sensing. This is true across asset management in general, even in industrial settings. From sensors on the ground to satellites in orbit to drones, aerial platforms, cameras, and all kinds of feeds in between. The integration of all of those will really change the landscape.
“It's really hard to state the radical changes that are going to happen in the next 10 years around the ability to get continuous information from particularly lower earth orbits around what's happening in all kinds of settings,” said Marcus. “We think of these things as separate systems right now, but ultimately these will be one massive sensor fusion exercise. If you have the ability to read manhole covers or do pavement assessment from lower orbit satellites, that's a totally different thing from where we are now.”
Marcus is a leading authority on technology and practice associated with the water resources industry. As a principal at Geosyntec Consultants he worked in civil, environmental, and water resources engineering consulting on a broad range of projects of national import. In 2014, he founded OptiRTC, the first cloud-native platform to integrate sensors and forecasts to actively monitor and intelligently control stormwater infrastructure—keeping our water clean and our cities safe. In 2019, he founded EcoLucid, a Boston based company working at the intersection of technology and practice.
Marcus’ professional technical expertise includes civil and water resources engineering, focusing on digital and intelligent systems, design, water quality, data acquisition and analysis, and execution of major compliance auditing and litigation projects. He has co-authored national guidance manuals for monitoring of stormwater and evaluating and designing stormwater best management practices. In addition, he has worked on key federal rule-making efforts, and helped states in developing standards. Marcus regularly speaks at national technical conferences and has authored and co-authored numerous papers and journal articles.
Utility Cloud is a customizable cloud-based operations management solution that improves productivity and streamlines field service maintenance, asset inspection, and compliance reporting for municipalities, investor-owned utilities, and private service companies. Our solution incorporates technology not found in many enterprise operations management systems, including asset visualization and tracking via GIS mapping, SCADA integration, and automated report generation.