Deciphering automation within the scope of water treatment

Systems must not be automated just for the sake of reducing labour dependence. Instead, it must be looked at as a process that enhances productivity, longevity and the functionality of a system, says Dennis Abraham Thazhamon, MD, Josab India Pvt Ltd when in conversation with Ranjana Konatt, Associate Editor.

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Assert the use and the importance of automation in the field of water purification; What are the opportunities for digitally-automated water technologies, does a research-oriented approach hold relevance in the broader scope of things…
Automation is an integral part of any engineered component, and as with any field, automation has huge potential in wastewater treatment systems. The opportunities for digital water technologies is especially promising for water business in emerging economies. The cost of having centralised water and waste-water treatment systems can be prohibitive, as a result, economies can develop and manage off-grid and localised water systems. Also, automated, dynamic, and data-driven models can integrate and optimise smart pumps, valves, sensors and actuators. Each device can talk to each other. Sweden is a pioneer in designing and developing automated systems. While one might assume that the prime reason driving automation is the need for labour, the fact remains that European countries and especially Sweden give more attention to precision, robustness and self-sustainability of the systems that are developed. A key difference in the way Sweden approaches automation is that their approach to a problem is different. Overall, its more of a research-oriented approach rather than a trial and error method. This also helps them understand the root cause of a problem which then enables them to come to a conclusion after a fair study of the situation. Similarly, even with automation, the systems shouldn’t be automated just for the sake of it or to reduce labour dependence. Instead, automation is a process of enhancing productivity, longevity and the functionality of a system.

Where is automation in water management systems headed?
Under the present global scenario where we see the world headed towards a “Water shortage” by 2050, we ought to develop a better and more efficient water-treatment and water-handling solution. Even though we are very inclined and focused on developing better technologies, it is equally important to develop better solutions when we work in conjunction with an integrated digital approach.

Predominantly, a water system was confined and catered to a limited geography. The aim was to treat and to deliver water to a particular population at the point of treatment. Further, supply systems have evolved which include large supply/distributary lines, control valves, reservoirs, chambers etc. All these systems are labour intensive and are unable to run without human intervention. Also, supply systems have become complex due to expanding cities and towns. The ability to efficiently manage complex systems requires a larger work-force and is flared by the possibilities of human error.

What is the role of automated and fully-integrated systems as a key contributor to enhancing overall efficiency? Also, ‘Automated Water Purification Systems’ is the need of the hour, please justify…
Today, we cannot afford to lose water due to wastage, leakages, human error, and hence, ‘Automated Water Purification Systems’ is the need of the hour. Individual automation systems catering to specific components are readily available in the market but integrating all these components to a central control system is also crucial. The integration will drastically improve the efficiency of the water system and also of the supply network. Today, we have digital systems and the connectivity services are better than before and there is a need to integrate these systems. Emphasising on the fact that digital systems and connectivity is better than ever before, integrating such systems into the water sector is just around the corner and making the systems widely available would be a matter of time. Once these systems are in place, we can expect a paradigm shift in increasing the efficiency of water treatment systems, controlling the water losses, data accumulation, customer satisfaction and a lot more. The digitalisation of the water sector is promising and would aid in strengthening the advancement of the industry.

Do you think the market in India is still realising the importance and the relevance of automation within the industry – especially concerning the manufacturing and the processing sector?
Yes, India is gradually and positively moving towards automation, and in India, the prospect of including automation is often considered as an expensive and a luxury affair rather than a matter of being productive. While the initial investment in automation might seem expensive, the monetary and the financial benefits attached to it are promising. A research conducted by the CDP Water found that Asia ranks among the top few in concerns regarding water scarcity where hundreds of sprawling cities are increasingly exposed to water scarcity, declining water quality and floods. Recently, the city of Chennai (India) has fought the worst ever water scarcity, and just two years back, the same city has experienced the highest amounts of floods. It is quite an anomaly to witness such extreme conditions. Similarly, instances have been seen in various geographies across the globe. Additionally, the mounting global tensions, the rise of digitalization of the water sector will prove to be transformational in making our sector more resilient for its customers, service providers as well as in fuelling the economic development.

Today, we have low-cost yet more powerful microchips, software applications, automation, data storage, analytics, sensors, machine learning, artificial intelligence, and the dynamic complex of sensors and signals known as the Internet of Things (IoT). The digitalisation of water systems goes beyond the ‘demand-side’ of the meter. Connected utility assets help unlock the seamless integration of information and operational technology (IT/OT), creating “robust running” systems, innovations that improve water extraction through smart pumps, or treatment through real-time performance monitoring. The real impact in engagement and efficiency will come through the interaction of big data, clear analytics, smart-devices and user-friendly applications. Still, development is not linear; digital technologies enable leap-frogging and thus hold enormous potential to solve water challenges and achieve Sustainable Development Goal 6 (SDG 6) of the UN.

Overall, what kind of a transformation are we seeing in the automation sector in the way in which it has been perceived over the years… Is cost a factor?
We see a major change in the thought process, especially when it comes to understanding how technology is perceived. Previously, we were satisfied with having access to minimal technology and were fine with doing manual chores. But with access to information from across the globe, the common man is trying to have the best available technology and automation at his doorstep. This shows the openness of the market in trying and accepting new technologies and solutions. On the whole, our target market is aware and receptive; we are making progress in the right direction. Nevertheless, as we all know that owing to the enormous geography and socio-economic barriers there are certain void spaces in India concerning the reach of technology and automation but we are and we will be making efforts to reach out to the target markets across India. Irrespective of the advancements in technology and the level of awareness in the market, the cost component is always a deciding factor for any buyer. In this context, the Indian buyer is cost-conscious but most of the buyers today are holding equal importance to the value proposition. The buyer today is not being carried away by the cost but is trying to make a clear differentiation between the products and making the final decision based on the value proposition. This is a welcome change and an encouraging factor to companies like us.

India is a complex market, what are the changes we are likely to see from the automation point of view?
Well, we do believe that the Indian market is complex and is highly competitive; but the competition is often restricted to the cost or the quantity of the component, instead of the quality of the component. In-fact most small, medium and few large players in the market are just traders in the industry and not true blood manufacturers, developers, innovators. I think this makes us stand apart. We are not keen on a volumetric business, rather we are more focused on developing and integrating technologies to provide solutions that are sustainable which would bring forth a significant change in the water and wastewater treatment industry. Today, with the ease of access to information, the end customer is pretty aware and informed than ever before. Thus, either due to experience, research or through word of mouth, the urban and rural customers can get firsthand information on the pros and cons before choosing any particular technology/solutions for their water & wastewater treatment requirements. The modern customer is looking for automated models and we, as a company which is banking on innovation and sustainability stand a clear chance to make a stronghold in the market.

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