Anja Eimer, General Manager for Global Water Industry – Siemens AG
Siemens AG is a global technology powerhouse that has stood for engineering excellence, innovation, quality, reliability and internationality for more than 170 years. For the water industry Siemens provides comprehensive solutions from a single source: from process instrumentation, industrial communication, and power supply systems to drive and protection technology as well as automation and process control technology. From seawater desalination to the treatment of drinking water, and waste water, all the way to the management of water networks, Siemens’ integrated portfolio covers the entire plant lifecycle from planning and operation to maintenance to lower energy consumption, minimize water losses and reduce lifecycle costs.
Energy typically accounts for one-third of the total cost of operation for water utilities. What are the best ways water and wastewater utilities can reach carbon neutrality?
Achieving net zero in the water and wastewater industry will take a lot of effort on many levels, and we firmly believe it can be done. What is essential is to look at the larger picture. That is, the entire water cycle and the lifecycle of water infrastructure, to make an informed choice about which strategies will pay off best in terms of increasing energy efficiency and replacing fossil fuels with more sustainable resources. For example, we need to look into integrating renewable energy in water treatment and desalination systems, and we need to increase the share of renewables in the energy mix. This also means we must find new ways to control the microgrids in water and wastewater facilities to maintain a stable and reliable energy supply. For this purpose, we need to make use of digital solutions such as a digital twin to be able to design and optimse the water and wastewater infrastructure for energy efficiency. To use these digital tools, we need data.
We must create data and operational transparency in water networks to know how much energy we use, where, and when. This requires asset connectivity, which is still a challenge in many installations. Without the data, how can we optimise pump schedules to reduce energy consumption, detect leakages in remote or large networks, or identify the optimum process set point for increasing energy efficiency? Creating these digital twins of operational assets, and enabling connectivity are key on the road to net zero. We still have untapped potential in the form of latent heat and process heat, specifically in sewage systems. So there is still a lot to be achieved.
There is a lot of discussion now about the potential of generative AI for water utilities. Based on Siemens’s experience, how do you think AI can improve utility sustainability goals?
At Siemens, we are already applying AI to many areas of design, engineering, operation, and maintenance. For example, we are using AI to identify anomalies that can point to asset wear or failures, as in pumps and pipelines, and to detect and localise leaks in water networks. AI is already helping the water and wastewater industry to optimise their operations, and generative AI will definitely be a next step. We can use AI to accelerate the net zero transition, through predictive modelling that helps to optimise network efficiency and reduce the footprint of water infrastructure. With AI we can better improve resource efficiency and circularity, for example by avoiding water leakages and extending asset life cycles based on preventive maintenance.
Another area where generative AI has great potential is the talent crunch that can already be felt in the water and wastewater industry. Experienced staff are nearing retirement, and it is getting harder and harder to fill open positions with experienced staff—or any staff, for that matter. Generative AI could be used as a virtual trainer or assistant for onboarding new staff, to explain process parameters or support tasks such as maintenance. AI can also help technology become more people-centric and social, with chatbots that interact naturally with staff, with virtual training environments that make the lives of utilities workers easier and safer, and ultimately with tools that help reliably and sustainably provide societies with high-quality water.
However, what any kind of AI needs in order to perform are data—and here again, we need to have the right data strategy in place. When we achieve that, there is definitely huge potential in the water and wastewater industry for AI in general and generative AI in particular.
Siemens has many collaborative relationships with organisations such as Bentley and TU Berlin. What do you see as the role of collaboration in advancing digital twin deployment in the water sector?
Siemens strongly believes that true innovation is born from close collaboration and cooperation between science and business. This is why we think in ecosystems. You cannot create something as complex and multidimensional as a digital twin without having expertise from many fields—so we work with Bentley and TU Berlin, which both bring their specific capabilities to projects. Bentley, as a leader in the water industry, brings strong capabilities in the planning and design phases of developing 4D and XD digital twins; TU Berlin is spearheading research in water, for example with an advanced pump model. Siemens brings broad engineering and operational expertise, and a strong base in software development.
Collaborating with R&D organisations helps create new degrees of freedom, as these institutions are not driven by time to market and return on investment to the extent that businesses are. Whereas businesses are better suited at developing marketable solutions. Most importantly, combining different domain and technology know-how helps to break down silos in thinking and in technologies, which is essential for developing an end-to-end perspective for asset life cycles and for integrating the various data points in engineering, operation, and maintenance. We need this integration to exploit the full potential of digital twins.
What advice would you give to young professionals who are considering a career in the smart water sector, in terms of skills and mindset needed to excel in this field?
Water is the future—and what could be better than to choose a career in that? Smart water is all about integrating the process and the IT, integrating operational technology with information technology. Having skills in both areas is essential to understanding how the convergence of OT and IT can help to optimise operating expense challenges, and it will be even more so in the future. Digital skills in fields such as data science, data analysis, and programming will be very much needed. You need to be open to whatever challenges the future will bring. We are increasingly living in a world of uncertainties, and the water and wastewater industry is no exception to that.
Would I personally encourage young professionals to choose a career in smart water? Definitely. For me, it is highly satisfying and motivating to help secure a safe, reliable, sustainable water supply and to use all the expertise and technologies that we have for this.