Pretty much everyone in the water industry has heard about digital twins in the past few years. If you asked 10 people what a digital twin is, you would probably get 11 answers. The Smart Water Networks forum and the American Water Works Association produced a good consensus definition of a digital twin as “a dynamic digital representation of a real-world entity(s) and their behavior using models with static and dynamic data that enables insights and interactions to drive actionable and improved outcomes.” (Tomic, Karamous-Edwards, Kamojjala, 2022)
The digital twin revolves around using digital data to support decision-making. But digital data has been used in water systems since the dawn of digital computers. The distinguishing feature now, however, is the interaction of different kinds of data. Sure, there are isolated instances where one type of digital data has been utilized in another digital tool such as using GIS data to construct hydraulic models or work order data to help drive asset management systems. But these have generally been one-off, ad hoc cases.
What a digital twin brings to the game is the idea that the sharing of digital data across different technologies is not just allowable but desirable, and possibly even essential, as water utilities become more digitally smart. Sharing information across departments has been challenging, and digital twins offer hope for a better way forward, where the right people from each department can get to the right information easily and timely.
It often seems as if digital technologies have grown up like children in a family, locked separately in their own rooms and seldom given a chance to play together. Work order systems were not built with GIS in mind. SCADA systems were not built to share data with asset management systems. Hydraulic models were around long before advanced metering infrastructure systems were envisioned.
The digital family in water utilities is a big one. Let’s get to know the children.
A geospatial information system usually provides a way to link data and mapping, although in some cases, it might only be computer aided design maps or even paper maps.
Supervisory control and data acquisition really covers all external operational data whether it comes from a SCADA system, Internet of Things or manual readings that someone entered into a computer file.
Hydraulic models can take the GIS and demand data and extend that data to fill readings where sensors aren’t located, predict future readings, and answer what-if questions to support decision-making.
Computerized maintenance management systems can manage work orders, control inventory, track historical maintenance events and plan future work.
Customer metering goes beyond billing and knows where the demand is located and how it varies, which is essential to make management decisions. AMI systems have made customer data available to multiple systems.
Asset management supports decision-making to identify where money is best invested to improve performance.
When the kids are locked in their rooms, they can still play alone but sharing can only be done with ad hoc programming through some customer communication, sometimes called a demilitarized zone. There may only be one person in the organization who knows how this all works, and when that person leaves, system maintenance can become a problem. It looks something like this:
A digital twin is not only a collection of random technologies or one-off data transfer. Just as children play better in a playground, a digital twin works best if built on a sound, consistent digital platform. A capable digital twin provides the underlying digital architecture that saves water utilities from maintenance and security chores and enables a digital twin to scale up as new features are added, and the water system evolves. By comparison, a digital twin looks like this:
When the doors to the kids’ rooms are unlocked using an easily supported digital twin platform, the kids can have fun playing together, and productivity soars. Some refer to this as breaking down silos, but unlocking doors is a better analogy. Sharing information becomes a capability, not a challenge. With digital twins, the doors to the kids’ rooms have been unlocked, and data can flow freely, and kids can play together (with appropriate security).
As with any group of children, some play better with others, while some have little in common. The matrix below shows connections between digital technologies displayed by the darker shades of green for higher connection. For example, GIS (or some other type of mapping) is an important starting point for a hydraulic model. But work orders from CMMS generally aren’t needed by the hydraulic model. Nevertheless, there are plenty of opportunities for the kids to play together. In the figure below, the darker the cell, the closer the relationship.
Each of these technologies are powerful in themselves, but when put together to share information across technologies, they reduce the effort to make good decisions and provide insights that the individual technologies could not. Once the digital twin is created, it becomes more powerful and easier to work with than the sum of the individual technologies.
As utilities are learning every day, sharing information is as valuable for water systems as it is for children. “The kids are all right.”
Tomic, S., Karamous-Edwards, G. and Kamojjala, S., 2022, “Digital Twins: Case Studies in Water Distribution Management,” Journal AWWA, 114(8), 44-56.