Examination of the economic feasibility of digital twins

By Sandra DiMatteo

From aging infrastructure and changing environmental regulations to funding shortfalls and climate-fueled natural disasters, water utilities around the world face a range of challenges in their efforts to deliver reliable and affordable water to their communities. . Their potential solutions are equally broad, ranging from stimulus grants and conservation programs to smart water technologies.

Utilities employ a variety of digital strategies to address urgent risks and meet the demands of digital transformation aligned with strategic investments in water supply systems. A very compelling digital strategy that water utilities are adopting is a digital twin. Digital twins of water infrastructure can help utilities make the most of their data to improve their decision-making. Most utilities have the key building blocks in place to make digital twins economically feasible as a short-term strategy with long-term benefits.

leaky pipe

What is a digital twin?

A digital twin is a realistic and dynamic virtual representation of a physical asset, process or system. Creating a digital twin for a water system involves integrating existing models and data. This could include engineering models (hydraulic models of the water network and 3D models of the water treatment plant and pumping stations), new virtual reality models (if the 3D models are inadequate, obsolete or non-existent), and GIS, asset management and customer data. Additionally, the digital twins are continuously updated with operational data from SCADA systems, sensors, meters and other measured sources, creating a real-time model that can be used in operations and maintenance.

Integrating isolated and disparate data into a unified view provides a single, collaborative, connected digital twin environment that water utility personnel can use to gain insights from their data for better decision making. Dynamic operational data integration allows utilities to see what’s happening in real time or review at any time, while providing a definitive record of changes to water systems and assets as they evolve . This dynamic aspect is also what differentiates digital twins from static 3D models typically used for design and construction.

The end result is an information-rich digital infrastructure model that supports engineering, operations and maintenance, and capital planning for smart water networks. With digital twins, utilities can perform “what if” analyzes and simulations to make informed decisions throughout the lifecycle of a water system, from long-term system vulnerability and capacity planning to immediate performance monitoring and emergency response. The process allows utilities to better understand the past and current performance of their water systems while helping them predict future performance and simulate the impact of potential changes in the virtual world before funds are committed.

Digital twins help develop intelligent sustainable water management platforms and powerful decision support frameworks for the modern workforce. In particular, the digital twins which are cloud-based enable remote sharing of data, dashboards and situational intelligence. Thus, a cloud-based digital twin overcomes the limitations of old water control rooms as it interacts with real-time systems and data, SCADA and data historians. A digital twin manages large volumes of disparate data sources to gain near real-time information and reduce or eliminate false alarms.

bricks and mortar

Moving to a digital twin may seem daunting, but in reality, most water utilities have already started. They have implemented a variety of systems that they use in their daily operations: sensors, SCADA, automated metering, asset register, hydraulic modeling, etc. And since the fundamental purpose of a digital twin is to unite data from these different sources and provide a unified view of that data, utilities have already done the hard work of implementing systems that generate digital data: that is, the building blocks of their twin digital.

The next step involves the mortar that connects this data. And for a smooth journey, the mortar-slash technology that underpins a digital twin must be open. Digital twin technology is not off-the-shelf software. Instead, each digital twin is assembled, built, customized, and advanced using parts from many sources that will change over time. To ensure that a utility controls its digital twin and can include the systems and data important to it, it must rely on open source technology. This “openness” means that the digital twin can seamlessly connect with other technologies.

The technology within this mortar must also include these other key features: decision-making tools and scalability. The importance of digital twins lies in the ability to use data to make informed decisions. This involves the use of integrated decision-making software that can link current state or condition data to a robust and mature portfolio of analysis and simulation tools. And scalability means a digital twin can see and analyze at the scale of (say) a city or sewage plant, down to an individual pump or valve.

Digital twins for Network Operations and management

Many utilities already have hydraulic models of their water systems that they use for planning and design. Integrating these models into a digital twin helps utilities simulate events such as pipe failures, power outages, etc., to analyze the resilience of their water network systems and assess their risk. Additionally, integrating these models with SCADA data provides an accurate assessment of the current behavior of a water system. This allows utilities to simulate and test different ways to operate their water systems to improve emergency response, increase efficiency, or save energy.

Continuously updating digital twins with measured operational data also helps a utility determine the location of potential leaks and reduce water loss. And a digital twin can leverage data from existing work and asset management systems, as well as other enterprise systems, to support risk-based asset management, informing their decisions such as repair or replacement and helping them prioritize capital improvement projects.

Digital twins for Plant Operations and management

Digital twins for water and wastewater treatment plants are particularly useful for improving plant efficiency, reliability, and resilience, as well as for training and safety compliance. Virtual tours, communications and simulations provide personnel with better visibility into plant data and information for better decision making. For example, reliability engineers can simulate hypothetical events such as a multiple filter system or pump failure to assess the severity and consequences of failures and take preventive measures.

Digital twins can also be used to flag real-world issues, such as malfunctioning equipment, enabling virtual exploration and quick access to relevant data. For example, operators can zoom into the equipment area and extract data related to that particular item (such as manufacturers’ specifications or repair manuals). This gives staff immediate access to information without wasting time digging through filing cabinets or searching through document libraries.

Digital twin technologies (such as Bentley’s OpenFlows powered by the Bentley iTwin platform) are intelligent integration solutions that connect information technology, operational technology and engineering technology. These connections help water utilities unlock the potential of their data in ways that were economically unfeasible just a few years ago – uniting legacy data with operational and technical data to provide a broader system view. utility water supply and enable data-driven decision-making. manufacturing.

In the years to come, digital twins will become an integral part of every aspect of the water utility control room. Utilities can start creating digital twins overnight with the data and systems they already use. Becoming the new normal for water utilities, digital twins will improve the reliability of water systems, reduce utility capital and operating expenses, reduce their environmental footprint, and provide safe services to their customers. and efficient.


Sandra DiMatteo is Director of Industry Marketing at Bentley Systems. She has over 20 years of experience in asset performance management, reliability software solutions, asset lifecycle information management and enterprise asset management for public infrastructure.

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