With intelligent automation water companies can act quickly to bring changes to their processes, adopting a much more proactive approach to everything they do."
As with so many areas of life and business, the pandemic has changed how UK water companies manage their repair and maintenance planning processes—perhaps forever.
They were already facing technical and engineering skills shortages, but a combination of illness and shielding during the pandemic put even more pressure on the availability of staff with the experience necessary to resolve problems or undertake maintenance work.
This, together with the requirement for social distancing, has led to the need to fix faults first time, every time, rather than to make several visits to remedy a situation. It has also meant having to deal with repair and maintenance tasks in a more orderly fashion than in the past, since it is more efficient to plan out work for scarcer resources, so they follow the most sensible routes.
Three other factors are encouraging water suppliers to reconfigure the way they manage repair and maintenance:
- Ofwat’s PR19 has introduced the customer measure of experience (C-MeX), meaning that members of the public can make a complaint against a water company even if they are not customers of that company, and that Ofwat can check up on potential concerns directly with consumers. The number of issues that are likely to be raised and that will need to be resolved, will increase as a result.
- The risk of fines. Failing to address problems such as leaks from water or waste systems means that water companies risk being given fines running into the multi-millions. The size of such fines is unacceptable to shareholders, has a drastic impact on profit and loss, and risks reputational damage.
- A commitment to protect precious resources means that water companies need now to demonstrate how they are taking action to stop water being lost through avoidable equipment failure or leaks.
The question is whether water companies will continue with the tighter management of repair and maintenance work once UK businesses and households go back to normal, and field engineering teams are fully restored. In our view, it seems unlikely that regulators will be happy to see a backwards move to pre-COVID habits, having seen how planning could be managed differently.
So, what could water companies be doing now to get ahead of the game and bring even more change to how field engineering teams work, and how can intelligent automation play a part?
In general, most of the improvements stem from becoming more proactively efficient, rather than simply reactive to problems as they occur.
This starts with mapping out pipelines for water supplies and waste across the region covered by a water company, then engaging with predictive maintenance techniques based on data gathered from internet of things (IoT) and supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems.
Using data analytics, it is possible to build an algorithm that looks at real-time data gathered automatically by digital workers and predicts when a 30-year-old pump is likely to fail. An alert system would let the field engineering team know where they should focus their efforts to replace or maintain equipment at most risk of failure, instead of fixing it after the fact.
As well as ingesting data and routing it to the right decision makers and systems, intelligent automation can manage relatively simple but still effective tasks. For example, if companies are alerted by sensors that there has been a leak, a digital worker could be instructed to contact all customers by text or email and keep them updated on progress.
Water companies can use intelligent automation for regular scheduling of maintenance and safety checks, as well as any rescheduling requirements based on reports from the field. They can also enable engineers to update records in the field and automatically sync with multiple back-office systems to ensure accuracy, consistency and to maintain service level agreements.
As well as forecasting maintenance requirements, companies can check inventory levels against actual stock and automatically generate purchase orders to suppliers, speeding up the process of securing equipment and preventing delays in repair and maintenance.
An Emphasis on Proactivity
While there is no doubt that water companies face significant challenges from ageing infrastructure and engineering skills shortages, it’s clear that the entire industry will need to head in the same direction of adopting a much more proactive approach to everything they do.
With intelligent automation, water companies can act quickly to bring changes to their processes, including gathering and assessing data from networks and pipelines. Many have already started on the journey to create so-called ‘smart networks’, with multi-million-pound frameworks for digital infrastructure being put up for tender. It’s highly likely that this progress will only accelerate now that more efficient ways of working have been revealed by the strictures of the pandemic.