Digital transformation plays an important role in the water sector. Smart technology is embedded in how we do our work at SMEC as designers, and how infrastructure owners operate and maintain their assets.

It is an exciting time for our industry. I think it’s interesting figuring out where you want to sit in the field. You need to ask yourself; do you want to miss the opportunities presented by new technologies, or do you want to be an early adopter?

At SMEC the bulk of our business is in the early adopters’ camp. We’re taking on proven technologies and processes as they become available to us and partnering with companies to drive new opportunities. Some of the real value is being able to adapt technologies to our clients’ specific needs.

The key to success is being aware, adaptable and ready to take on change.

Not only must we be open to the digital innovation wave that’s in front of us, we must also be ready to select what technologies we really want to champion and apply early – so that our clients capitalise on those advances.

Transforming how we capture and interpret data

Remote data capture is already embedded within the engineering community across the board and particularly within the hydro, dams and water sector.

We have moved from aerial photography and drones to LIDAR, 3D scanning and multiple forms of remote capture that capture a broad scope of data. Our teams focus on interrogating that data, and importantly, aim to capitalise on the depth and richness of that data in different ways. A great example of this is how we manage both the collection and interpretation of data from drones.

Whilst we have been using drones for a long time for project images and video, our requirements have advanced at a rapid pace.  Now we are starting to use drones in confined spaces, inside a reservoir, inside a pipeline, inside manholes and pits and places where it’s dangerous to put people. Often there is significant cost and time involved and limitations in terms of how much data a person can collect in a certain amount of time.

The role of the engineer has shifted into driving how we use technology in a much more interactive way to increase the quality of data capture – including real time capabilities.

Back in the office we utilise smart automation to connect multiple data sources and analyse the results. The data interpretation is complex and operators still require a solid technical background to understand how to analyse the data.

Driving innovation through complex and in-depth data analytics

It is possible to capture large data sets from clients over several years of asset monitoring data. We utilise unguided analytics – finding patterns in the data without any technical preconceptions – to extract valuable insights and then leverage our technical experience to understand and apply those patterns.

In fact, this is a process we have used recently with Queensland Urban Utilities (QUU). We did some unguided analytics on the work order history from sewage pump station assets as part of the Enhanced Condition Assessment Program. The analytic plots revealed patterns and trends in the dataset which allowed QUU to make informed decisions about how to prioritise their maintenance efforts and future budgets and reduce the operational risk of assets (ie. which assets are causing the most outages/disruptions and then targeting them in future maintenance strategies). We were able to pull trends from the data results and confidently engage QUU with data driven recommendations to improve maintenance operations across their asset portfolio.

Increasing efficiencies through 3-D modelling and visualisations

We recently completed a 3D scanning project in the galleries of a wastewater treatment plant for South Australia Water. Again this was in areas where it was difficult to access by conventional means. The team produced a 3D model of the galleries which we used as an important resource for the design of key remediation works.

SMEC has some high quality front end capability in the 3D/BIM realm and when it comes to digital strategy we’re always thinking about where we need to be in a few years.

As a business, we’re recommending to clients that we use 3D BIM and if it’s a 50-50 call on what we can do, then we push to develop 3D intelligent models.

In addition to producing 3D design, SMEC has championed virtual and augmented reality (VR/AR) in the built environment and our work on streamlining Hoddle St is an excellent example. For other projects both in civil engineering and water infrastructure, like the iconic Snowy 2.0 project, we’ve utilised VR construction visualisation. Additionally, we have transformed the design into an animated construction sequence where we can start to see how the project will actually be constructed.

Technology’s role in water security

An op-ed article written by my colleague, Jonathan Kent, outlines how Australia is increasingly adopting dams and engineered water storage. He describes how other more high-tech and expensive technologies such as desalination have been installed to provide increased water security to major urban areas. I agree that providing water security to the direst and most in-need areas is the most challenging issue to overcome.

SMEC is already providing its expertise to begin to address the issue. We are working with Water NSW on the implementation of the Wentworth to Broken Hill Water Supply Project. The project will provide greater water security to regional New South Wales.

Leading innovation across the board

In line with more challenging external environments, our clients and partners are increasingly placing a high value on innovation. From an organisational level, SMEC has embedded a culture of innovation including our internal innovation grants program. The program gives our employees an opportunity to pitch and refine their ideas for innovation, with the chance to secure funding to develop those ideas. Our focus is on identifying and capitalising on innovation as quickly as possible and as it becomes available to us.

SMEC also has a team of leaders who are looking ahead at emerging technologies and new methodologies, and studying what we can apply to benefit our clients.

As we celebrate National Water Week and acknowledge one of our greatest natural resources, it’s also a great time to reflect on how far with have come with integrating digital approaches and technology to assist with driving efficiencies and innovation.

SMEC’s commitment to smart technologies within the water sector aligns with our broader interest in renewables and sustainability. Our designs positively impact the built environment and help to shape a better future for all.

In fact, SMEC is now a leading provider of project development, detailed design and engineering services for large scale solar farms across Australia.

SMEC was also Design Lead on the Sydney Metro Northwest surface and viaduct civil works (SMNW-SVC) project, which has been consistently recognised for innovation and sustainability. In 2015 the project won a Leading Design IS rating from the Infrastructure Sustainability Council of Australia for the most environment-friendly project design. In 2017 the project was recognised with a “Leading” As Built IS rating – the highest possible score for sustainability. And this month, the project won 2018 Project of the Year and the 2018 Global Best Rail Project from Engineering News-Record (ENR), who described its design as ‘elegant, innovative and sustainable’.