Digital twin – a catalyst for transformation

Mike Otten, director, Enterprise Digital Success at Xylem, looks at what digital twin technology can deliver for water utilities.

Image © putilov_denis - Adobe Stock.

Digital twin technology is already here. Since NASA first pioneered the concept during its space exploration missions of the 1960s, to the technology being more widely applied in manufacturing in 2002, the digital twin has come a long way. For the best part of the last decade, global water and wastewater utilities have been putting the digital twin to work, harnessing its power and potential to deliver transformative outcomes for communities around the world.

However, while digital twin technology can enable a whole new level of operational resiliency, it’s often viewed as a singular solution capable of solving problems on its own. Without a deeper understanding of how digital twins fit within the digital ecosystem, utilities could be missing out on realising its full potential. Beyond understanding how a physical asset, process or system is operating at any given moment, how can utilities apply digital twin technology to its maximum effect?


Digital twin intelligence

The answer lies in how the data is applied. A digital twin, in its most basic form, is the assimilation of data and a computer model that allows operators to understand how a system should be performing. In some cases, variables can be added – say a change in water levels due to rainfall – to predict an outcome. Essentially, the integration of data is used to detect and diagnose anomalies, test different scenarios, and predict outcomes specific to those scenarios.

But when digital twin technology is coupled with advanced data science, like hydroinformatics, and water system expertise, utilities can unlock its full value. For example, by combining hydraulic modelling skills with expertise from traditional civil and environmental engineering, hydroinformatics engineers help utilities extract insights from the data by designing algorithms that deliver the most useful information, in the right way, at the right time. Beyond that, the system can deliver autonomous, optimized control, while still allowing for the operator to have final decision oversight.

This ‘supercharged’ digital twin helps utilities make sense of their data, providing enhanced visibility and predictive capabilities to dramatically improve capital and operational decision-making. For example, by using past data and automatically ‘calibrating’ to better represent the infrastructure, the digital twin enables continuous, real-time optimization and supports highly accurate predictions to improve the efficiency and resilience of an asset, process or system.

In taking this ‘decision intelligence’ approach, utilities can also minimize downtime and optimize maintenance costs by detecting and diagnosing anomalies quickly and implementing a proactive maintenance or asset replacement plan. This approach also delivers valuable insights on the interrelationship of assets, allowing operators to troubleshoot the impact of individual asset vulnerabilities on the wider network and implement the right strategies for greater optimization.


Digital twin deployment

In Tennessee, Nashville Metro Water Services operates a complex water distribution system with over 3,000 miles of water mains, two 90MGD water treatment plants and 56 water pumping stations. When the utility implemented a water network optimization solution, rooted in digital twin technology, it found that the water age at a particular tank was significantly higher than expected – and climbing over time. Armed with this insight, the utility decided to reduce the tank fill lower limit by just three feet.

Once the lower-level limit was enabled, data from the water network optimization tool confirmed that the water age at that particular tank had decreased and was no longer climbing. Advanced hydraulic modelling, coupled with machine learning to create a digital twin, allowed the utility to quickly detect anomalies within its distribution network and take proactive measures to prevent system disruption. As a result, the utility can now continue delivering safe, high-quality drinking water to its community through greater system control.

Similarly in Europe, when a major wastewater utility was facing cavitation issues at one of its treated sewage water pumping stations, an asset-level digital twin application was deployed as part of the utility’s control strategy. The pumping station was responsible for transporting water over a long and complex network towards the ocean, which ultimately led to variable water levels and uncontrollable cavitation. Variables in ocean tide levels and treatment outputs also made it impossible for operators to set the right pump control strategy.

A smart asset management optimization solution provided real-time performance insights that allowed the utility to identify when assets were operating outside of their best efficiency zone. By integrating data sets from multiple assets, the utility could define acceptable operating parameters and accurately predict and prevent pump failures caused by cavitation. Not only did this eliminate unplanned service visits to the site, but it also improved overall system efficiency, resulting in significant OpEx and CapEx savings.


Digital twin success

Whether at the asset, process or system level, utilities can unlock big results quickly by putting their digital twin to work in the right way. For those who don’t know where to start, following a simple audit, evaluate and prioritize approach can provide the building blocks needed. By auditing the current situation, which includes identifying what real-time data the utility currently has access to, utilities can determine all the areas where more detailed data can support better decision-making.  

Similarly, by evaluating how a digital twin can add value within the unique context of a specific utility, operators can explore the potential for an initial small-scale project to get a sense of what’s possible. This can be a straightforward, low-cost route for utilities at the early stage of digital maturity, allowing them to determine the challenges, opportunities, and potential return on investment.

Lastly, by prioritizing projects appropriate to a utility’s specific goals and requirements, managers can determine the best route forward. It might make sense to start by optimizing a single asset or area of the system, or there could be an opportunity to move faster — every community, utility, and system are unique.

While each utility has its own challenges, the opportunities afforded by digital twin technology are endless. No matter where a utility is on its digital journey, taking a decision intelligence approach that combines digital twin data with advanced hydroinformatics can empower utilities to make smarter capital and operational decisions – whether at the asset, process or system level.

Not only are water operators delivering big results from a business perspective, but they are also realizing big gains in sustainability. As the water sector turns its focus towards the decarbonization of water systems, the enhanced level of visibility and predictive capabilities afforded by digital twin technology can help advance progress.

This artcle was written by Mike Otten, director, Enterprise Digital Success at Xylem. -

 Last year, World Pumps hosted a Xylem webinar exploring how digital twin technology can be maximized to deliver the most powerful operational and environmental outcomes. Access the webinar here