When discussing the impact of digital twins in the water industry, not all experts do so from a common standpoint about this technology, though perhaps the most widely accepted definition is that they are a virtual copy of the water supply system, simulating how it behaves.
As a proxy for real behavior, digital twins help us to make better decisions thanks to the holistic view they provide of the system and their ability to simulate real and fictitious scenarios. They anticipate the response of the network to any circumstance affecting operations, whether it has occurred before or not, helping utilities to assess different scenarios. To do this, both the physical and dynamic aspects of the system must be represented, i.e., the virtual representation of physical assets must be combined with the simulation of their behavior in the digital environment.
A recent revolution in the water industry
The Digital Twin (DT) philosophy has been around since the 1960s when it was used by NASA to operate and maintain systems remotely. In 2003, the concept was finally consolidated by Dr. Michael Grieves, as a tool to optimize the management of a product’s entire life cycle in an industrial environment.
Due to its potential, DT technology has recently been implemented in other areas such as infrastructure management, including the water industry. In fact, today we can find application cases in drinking water distribution systems where it has become easier to implement thanks to the large-scale deployment of sensors in recent years. Breakthroughs are also being made in this sense in irrigation and in sanitation and sewage systems.
Digital twins need large amounts of data and information from the physical system to function. In other words, the development of use cases and practical applications depends on sensors and the information provided by the digital systems used, such as SCADAs, GIS and CMMS. Today, many companies have this information, so the next challenge for them is to concentrate, combine and standardize it into a single platform, which serves to feed the digital twin with real-world data.
Why is there so much interest in digital twins?
It is no coincidence that the current scenario of uncertainty has accelerated the adoption of this technology. Some of the most interesting benefits of digital twins, which have gained special relevance in recent years, are the following:
Digital twins improve the ability to adapt quickly and safely to any circumstance, whether it has happened before or not. This includes emergencies, health alerts and climate change-related events.
Testing new ideas and changes virtually, before making a decision in the real system, minimizes risks, time and costs. Digital twins anticipate problems and identify the measures needed to prevent emergencies or minimize their consequences. In short, they ensure that, even in critical situations and in complex distribution systems, the water supply will remain available 24/7.
Digital twins can help to optimize systems now and in the future from an operational and planning standpoint. Thanks to the holistic view they provide, decisions are made by considering their impact on the different processes occurring in the system.
For example, energy costs can be reduced by establishing the best pumping schedules taking into account the hourly price of energy, whilst also keeping the system’s hydraulic parameters under control. Energy consumption can also be reduced through more efficient asset operation and system planning, taking into account energy use associated with the design of new infrastructure.
3. Customer-centric management
Twenty-first-century citizens are demanding more information and better service, and they are also an essential part of the management of water distribution systems. Accordingly, digital twins need to engage citizens in order to provide them with information and to adapt water system management to cater for their needs. Thus, they can receive information on service disruptions in advance, whether due to planned interventions in the network or to an emergency. In addition, the operation of the system can be adapted depending on the needs of critical users, such as hospitals, to ensure supply in any possible scenario.
Yet that is not all: the challenges we are currently facing, such as increased demand due to urban growth and the scarcity of water, require water utilities and citizens as end users to work together. For example, providing users with access to detailed information about their consumption will lead to better actions and awareness of responsible water use policies.
There is strong support for the new concept of sustainable cities. Their objective is to adapt to climate change through planning, optimal infrastructure management and citizen participation. The technology used in urban water systems means that they can be operated safely and efficiently, with the aim of reducing water and energy consumption. They also promote two-way communication between utilities and citizens, who can now address new challenges and receive information on how their actions improve resource management.
2022: the future is now
Interest in digital twins is growing, with new success stories being added every year. The most innovative international utilities have already included them in their strategic plans. They are no longer just a good idea for the future, and many utilities have already put specific actions down on paper.
This ties in with the commitment to digital transformation. Once processes have been digitally transformed and infrastructures have been equipped with sensors, the next logical step is to extract value from all this data. Digital twins are one of the best tools to do this, as they deliver a holistic, cross-cutting vision of all the data they compile.
Their commissioning must include the following components: a platform integrating all the information collected from assets and infrastructure, hydraulic models and advanced analytics, and a powerful, user-friendly dashboard system. Digital twins go way beyond simply simulating scenarios: one of their main features is the development of use cases, understood as the ability to solve problems and optimize day-to-day operations.
Their successful deployment will require utilities to overcome a number of challenges in the coming years, which may act as a barrier to market uptake. For example, insufficient data quality and its location in isolated systems that are difficult to connect, or the intrinsic complexity of running a simulation model that must be kept permanently up-to-date and must operate in real time. In addition, the investment must be coupled with an innovative organization and culture if it is to be successful. If there is something implicit in digital twins, it is a new way of working.
At international level, more and more working groups are focusing on this technology. In short, in 2022 and beyond, digital twins will be one of the tools most commonly used to tackle the new challenges facing the water industry.
Idrica’s Water Technology Trends 2022 report provides a comprehensive list of trends for the industry, including the Trends in digital twins for 2022.
Pilar Conejos, Digital Twin Manager, Idrica