Some time ago, the publicly listed Manilla Water Company which provides water and wastewater services to more than six million people in the East Zone of Metro Manila in the Philippines faced two problems.

First, water pressures throughout various parts of their network were either too high or too low. This meant that there was excessive leakage and pipe breakage in parts of the network whilst simultaneously other parts would run out of water altogether during peak demand.

As well, with The Philippines being within the middle of a horseshoe shaped seismic region which loops around from the Pacific Ocean coastlines known as the Ring of Fire, they are subject to frequent earthquakes and volcanoes. It is also located in a tropical region which is prone to cyclones and storms. As a result, the company regularly finds its infrastructure impacted by events which are beyond its control.

Yet the Manilla Water had one thing in its favour. It possessed a digital twin across its entire network – a virtual model and representation of its physical real world assets including all pipes, valves and pumps. Using this, they were able to resolve these challenges in two ways.

To address the first issue, they used the digital twin to analyse the system, their pumping strategies and pumping schemes. From this, they evaluated different possibilities and devised a method to operate pumps more effectively and to consistently maintain pressures within acceptable ranges.

On the latter point, they simulated the likely impact of natural disasters and made plans to strengthen and improve their infrastructure so that damage to assets, response times and domino-effect type impacts upon other assets are all minimised.

This has yielded benefits. By looking at their assets in a more structured way, the company was able to identify around $400 million USD savings in planned capital expenditure. Making their assets tougher and more resilient shaved an annual $30 million off their insurance bill.

The above case study was related by Greg Herrin, Senior Director, Water Infrastructure at infrastructure and engineering software solutions provider Bentley Systems at Bentley’s recent Year in Infrastructure Conference held in London. Herrin says this provides an example of the value of the digital twin technologies to power, water and telecommunications firms across the world and including in Australia.

According to Herrin, this value can be significant.

Take the case of a sewerage system which has experienced surcharging problems whereby the sewer becomes overloaded beyond capacity due to inflow and infiltration of water. When problems like this occur, the exact cause is often not readily apparent by ordinary visual inspection as much of the infrastructure the ground. Indeed, whilst a surcharge may occur in one location, the underlying problem may be located elsewhere. Areas beyond the immediate vicinity to the surcharge outlet may be at risk.

Having a digital twin may reveal that the problem was not indeed located in the immediate vicinity but was in fact caused in another area by a pipe nearby a street crossing which was undersized and was putting the entire street at risk by backing up the rest of the system.

Once this has been identified, digital twin technology can further help management decide what to do. Whilst one option might be to replace the smaller pipe with a larger one, the digital twin enables managers to identify any constraints which might impact upon this decision. These include whether there is room for a larger pipe or whether a larger pipe might compromise desired buffers between water pipes and sewerage pipes.

Using a 3D model and simulation, you can view the proposed larger pipe in its proposed position and see whether it conflicts with other things which are in place. You could also simulate the potential to move other infrastructure in order to make it fit. This is easier and cheaper, Herrin said, than going out into the real world and finding that mistakes have been made.

Beyond design and construction, 3D digital twins can also be used during operations. Again looking at a water utility, Herrin uses the example of where a fire breaks out and abnormal levels of water flow are needed to help extinguish this. Obviously, this needs to be managed whilst also delivering clean drinking water at acceptable pressures elsewhere.

Where this happens, operators may need to choose between simply using water within existing tanks or turning on additional pumps. This may not be straightforward. If existing tanks are depleted, issues relating to low pressure or water quality could result. On the flip side, turning more pumps on  may not only be expensive but might cause other problems (or the extra pump may not work).

Again, the digital twin can help. By combining a hydraulic model, a SCADA reading and information about how much water flow you need to put out the fire, you can conduct simulations and see how water pressures are likely to respond at given locations when fire breaks out at particular points. Using such a simulation, operators may see that in nothing is done, entire neighbourhoods or sections of the city are potentially at risk from a water pressure standpoint. By contrast, the simulations may reveal that turning on additional pumps will see water pressure drops being confined to more local areas and dropping by only half as much in these locations as would otherwise be the case should extra pumps not be used.

Beyond that, digital twin can be used for broader applications such as boardroom decisions and public communication. Often, Herrin says, utilities are confronted with a public which expects the utility to deal with problems but has no desire for any action which would impact them. By putting simulation into videos, he says utilities can communicate things such as actions to mitigate flood water risk by demonstrating why there is a risk of flooding, what they are proposing to do and how this will prevent potential problems.

Of course, for digital twins to be useful, information must be accurately input and maintained. Information is only useful, Herrin said, if it is an accurate representation of reality on the ground.

Information also has to serve a clear and practical purpose in guiding better decision making.

Herrin says utilities may already have much of the information required to create digital twins and simulations. A GIS system, for example, might indicate what assets are there and where they are. Information about loads and demand might be available through meters. Current and historic information about pumps and tank levels may be available through a SCADA system. Many of the gaps in information from these sources can be filled through a hydraulic model.

The problem, he says, is that much of this information is siloed. Where these types of information deliver ultimate value in decision making is where they are combined together to form a complete digital twin.

When going about this, Sherin along with Roberto Bianchi, Head of Technology and Innovation and Head of R&D at Siemens and a co-presenter at the aforementioned conference say, mistakes can be made across several areas.

The biggest, Binachi says, is to wait until everything is perfect before creating a digital twin. Whilst creating a digital twin is a significant undertaking, he says you can simply start and there are many relatively easy takeaways in the early stages.

“The biggest mistake is wait until everything is perfect and say, ‘I’m going to do this when all the pieces are in place all the technology is developed and the robots are there and so on,’” Binachi said.

“This doesn’t work. We need to start today. Actually you probably needed to start a week ago.”

Herrin agrees but adds that one of the most common mistakes for utilities is failing to realise how much opportunity is in front of them. Many, he said, do not realise how much data they already have in siloes, how much benefit they could derive and how much better their decisions could be.

Like many countries, Australia spends billions each year on electricity, water and telecommunications facilities.

To get the best value from this, having a digital twin is the way of the future.