The Case for Digitization in the US Water Sector

May 24, 2022

Like many industries, the US water sector faces the challenge of managing an aging, vast network of critical infrastructure and assets, while trying to plan and prepare for future demands.

McKinsey & Company estimates the average US water-network pipe is 45 years old, with some cast-iron pipes more than a century old.  

The consulting firm also cites a projection from the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), that “water-pipe replacement rates will peak in 2035 at 16,000 to 20,000 miles of pipes replaced per year—four times the current annual replacement rate of 4,000 to 5,000 miles.” 

Water utilities face additional challenges such as ongoing pressure to improve safety, addressing the threat of water scarcity, and mitigation of  other risks such as cyberattacks. 

Many organizations in the sector have innovative visions for digital transformation projects to improve the management of various aspects of their network, but these initiatives are often stalled due to funding issues or a lack of core data. 

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Data - laying the bedrock for a solid foundation 

Whatever their specific current and long-term priorities may be, it’s critical for water utilities to know exactly what infrastructure they have in the ground - as the foundation for any path forward. In working with utilities around the nation, we see that they don’t always know this with one hundred per cent percent confidence. 

This is often because the documentation associated with their infrastructure isn't always up to date, or isn't always easily found. Some organizations centralize their engineering asset drawings, while others work with paper copies out in the field, marking up documents manually.  

One of our clients’ teams, for example, were taking big rolls of Issued for Construction (IFC) drawings out to the field, where their inspectors would be tasked to ‘as-built’ the drawings after comparing the IFC information  to the infrastructure that developers had actually built.  

As is often the case, there were numerous changes. Changes invariably happen out in the field, and those changes needed to be documented. The inspectors were hand drawing as-built markups on paper copies of the asset drawings, and sending those marked up paper copies into their central engineering and drafting teams. The drafting teams would then reissue new drawings based on the changes that had been documented - but the reissue would take months, leaving field teams and engineers ‘in the dark’ about what was actually installed. 

A solution like RedEye DMS allows water utilities to consolidate all their critical engineering records and information into one cloud-based platform to give quick and easy access to any user or stakeholder - whether internal to the organization or external partners, to see exactly what is in place now. Digitally mark up the IFC drawings in RedEye; which triggers a workflow that prompts the engineering and drafting team about pending changes or changes that need to be updated. They'll make those changes digitally and reissue a new revision within RedEye - all within about 48 hours. The time and productivity savings have been substantial. 

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Improving compliance and safety by centralizing key data 

Another benefit of centralizing key engineering drawings and data into a single system is the ease and speed with which compliance obligations can be met. For example, in some jurisdictions, regulatory requirements mandate that as-built documentation be issued within days of commissioning.  

We know of utilities who fail to meet that standard, simply because their processes and the tools they use don't allow for such a quick turnaround. 

If an organization then allows its field crews and contractors to use drawings that don’t match the assets that are actually on the ground in the field, unintended safety issues can arise. 

RedEye was purpose-built to facilitate all of these scenarios. And, simply having key engineering data in a system like RedEye, can dramatically reduce the amount of time people spend looking for the information they need to do their job effectively.  

Depending on the size of the organization, there can be tens, hundreds or thousands of hours wasted, just trying to find the right documentation. Our clients see over 300% returns on investment as a result of implementing RedEye. Much of those savings relate to search time and search costs.  

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The need for investment in the right technology

McKinsey & Company suggest that water utilities have been slow to invest in technology to improve areas such as health, safety and efficiency. Among other reasons, they cite “the relative immaturity of current digital solutions designed for water utilities has led some early adopters to become frustrated by programs that do not meet performance improvement expectations.”  

We frequently see organizations in the water sector using aging technology, which does not allow them to take advantage of the latest technologies - particularly in the area of information search, and ease of use.  

I’ve personally spoken with many field crews who simply do not use the designated software because it’s too hard to learn and they don’t have time to learn.  

Purpose-built technologies such as RedEye can readily address these issues. We find amount our clients that the solution is broadly and deeply adopted. The user interface is intuitive, and people don’t need a PhD to try to figure it out.  Most users are applying basic functionality, such as search, within minutes. 

The extent to which new technology is easy to use impacts change management - which is always a big factor in the success of technology adoption. If the software that you're deploying is intuitive and easy to use, and delivers immediate benefits, change management becomes a lot easier. 

More than ever, the water sector is under pressure to evolve its thinking and practices. Having an accurate understanding of the assets and infrastructure under management must be the foundational consideration in any upgrade initiative. Digitization and centralization of all key engineering documents and drawings into a platform like Redeye is the first logical step. 

If you would like to discuss how RedEye can help to underpin your digital transformation initiative, get in touch today. 

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