Official estimates put the number of water utilities in the U.S. at more than 50,000. A study carried out by the Environmental Protection Agency a few years back found that those utilities will have to spend about $470 billion over the next two decades or so to maintain their infrastructure. To make that task more manageable, utilities and the engineering consultancies that support them are taking a page from the book of the Fortune 500: they’re investing in better software to optimize their operations.
Boardroom Insight recently caught up with Mahesh Lunani, the founder and CEO of water infrastructure software maker Aquasight, for an in-depth look at the current state of the sector. Our interview focused on one highly specific but key piece of the water infrastructure puzzle: asset management plans. Those are the documents that track what parts of a utility’s infrastructure require repairs, how urgently they need to be fixed and what the project will cost.
This interview was conducted shortly after Aquasight introduced the newest release of its AMP cloud service, which helps utilities and engineering consultancies create asset management plans more efficiently. The new features introduced with the release are covered in the third section of the interview below.
Boardroom Insight: What does the traditional manual approach to creating an asset management plan look like in a water infrastructure context and what challenges does it involve?
Mahesh Lunani: The traditional approach to creating an asset management plan involves hundreds or even thousands of consulting or engineering hours for sourcing asset metadata, cleaning and organizing this data, creating condition and reliability assessments of each asset through surveys or analysis, assessing each asset’s criticality and service levels, setting up risk profiles, performing analysis and running capital planning scenarios.
The outputs of this work are then embedded into a GIS system or a work order system, which is somewhat of a tedious process. This is a 6- to 12-month effort and is resource-intensive, prone to errors, and does not fully leverage workflow automation, standards and technological advancements.
Most importantly, the asset management plan that this manual workflow produces is a static assessment and not an automatically updated infrastructure risk profile. So the next time one has to update the plan they have to go through another round of painstaking effort. And by then, the consultants who initially worked on these plans have moved on or utility staff have retired. This is not the kind of asset management workflow that the water rate payers need.
Boardroom Insight: How does AMP address the challenges in the workflow?
Mahesh Lunani: Aquasight’s AMP is a cloud-based asset management solution that integrates familiar spreadsheet- and GIS-based functionality with intelligent workflows for managing the risk profile of each asset. AMP refreshes asset condition data in near real-time via machine-to-machine integrations. It also provides user-configurable risk formulas and capital planning algorithms to help users make informed investment decisions.
It’s especially well-suited for small to midsize utilities – we have tens of thousands of such utilities in the U.S. – that have affordability considerations.
AMP is not an enterprise asset management system or EAMS, which is a type of work order management software for coordinating asset rehabilitation and repair initiatives. EAMS systems fall short in providing a practical solution for creating and analyzing GIS-based asset risk and capital plans. They’re not the type of system in which planners spend their time to make informed capital decisions. AMP can be used with or without an EAMS and is optimized for use by executives, managers, and operators alike.
Boardroom Insight: What are the key details to know about the upgrades Aquasight announced recently for AMP?
Mahesh Lunani: The entire workflow for an asset management plan can now be set up in a matter of days. Users can set up configurable asset risk formulas and 80% of the workflows, metrics and KPIs are auto generated.
It forward projects the risk and degradation of assets, and age and life metrics. It can be integrated with CMMS or ESRI systems to fetch data. We can integrate with CCTV NASSCO ratings for mains, laterals and manholes so one can connect video-based asset condition data to asset risk profiles in one smooth workflow. We enabled geo-specific analysis so it can be an intuitive and communicative tool to show where the money went and where money needs to go during board and council meetings.
Most importantly, it has audit trails so users can tell what changed in each asset when asset condition data is updated automatically via a machine-to-machine integration.
We are also certified by Amazon Web Services – we’re one of only two water tech companies in the world to get such a certification – which provides assurance to our customers about the cybersecurity and robustness of our technology.
Boardroom Insight: A lot of the discussion around enterprise AI focuses on potential future use cases rather than present-day implementation opportunities. What are the areas where infrastructure engineering consultancies can apply AI today to optimize their operations?
Mahesh Lunani: There are dozens of use cases. Aquasight is thinking several years ahead and in many cases we have already tested and or deployed the technology.
Some of these use cases include blind spot detection, lane departure warnings, smart advisors, utility assistant chatbots and virtual sensors. Forecasting water quality, influents, effluents, blockage and cleaning is another example. Detecting anomalies in equipment is also a use case for AI and there are many others.
Engineering consulting firms’ core competency is planning, design and construction. This is especially true for firms that deal with water and wastewater infrastructure. They should partner with companies like us that are more nimble, innovative and willing to think out of box so they can accelerate industry transformation. Partnerships are how industries change and no one can do it on their own.