Water Industry Innovation, A Slow and Painful Process

Long project timelines make our industry unique when looking at implementing innovative technology. In many industries, products become obsolete before the water industry even gets through a regular project timeline.

Early adoption of new technologies is key to growth

By John D. Dyson

The water industry is not like most businesses. We build capital equipment that is designed to last 20 to 25 years; but in many cases, if properly maintained, that equipment can last twice as long. Additionally, projects typically take 2 to 7 years to be developed and constructed, with the average timeline being 5 years for a project to pass from technology introduction to the final warranty stage (1 year of operation). In many other industries, products become obsolete before the water industry gets through even one regular project timeline.

This long project life cycle makes our industry unique when compared to IT or commercial industries where timelines are much shorter and feedback on innovative technology is more instantaneous. And that’s only if a new technology is ready for introduction to the market; before that, there are years of development work that must occur. Depending on the technology, the investment by manufacturers can be in the millions of dollars.

What drives a manufacturer to spend that kind of money on innovation? Generally, it’s based on requirements from regulatory agencies or input from the utility and the consulting communities surrounding the needs of the utilities. Because these needs vary greatly based on the type of water or discharge requirement in a given region or state, or even the size of the utility, a manufacturer must determine if the return on investment can be justified over a 3- to 10-year period of time before there are several installations sold and operating. Investment in innovation in the water industry, therefore, is a very long-term business commitment.

The water industry has been discussing ways to speed up the introduction of innovative technologies for over 30 years. I have been involved in many of these discussions with several different groups and have participated in programs such as the NSF/ETV program. The struggle for manufacturers is the fact that utilities and the consulting and regulatory communities want to see the technologies tested extensively across a wide range of water conditions and in varying water qualities. This requirement has led to a very long acceptance process for pilot studies in individual states, then subsequently the actual implementation of the pilot studies in each state for market acceptance of a technology. It can take 10 to 15 years before a technology will be considered “main stream” in the water industry.

How do we shorten this process? First, we must realize that we are not going to change the project timelines or the desire for extensive testing and operation of a potential new solution. If we cannot change these two factors, perhaps we can eliminate redundancies across state lines. There have been discussions about creating a water industry database as a resource for utilities and regulatory agencies to find information on innovative solutions. This database could include pilot studies and operational data as it becomes available so that interested parties can review and make a decision on whether the technology is the right solution for a specific project.

To truly introduce new, innovative technologies more quickly, however, utilities must be willing to be early adopters so that these new solutions can be proven on a full-scale level. While early adoption is risky, the water industry already excels in evaluating technologies through reviews by the consulting engineer and regulatory agencies on projects.

By using tools developed by other industries, such as databases and shared forums, the water industry can improve the time to market for innovative technologies. But ultimately, it will be critical for the water industry to be willing to use the data and information from testing at one location for the application of the technology at another location.

In the long run, as we have seen in many other industries, facilitating the acceptance of innovative technologies and solutions will lead to increased savings in capital and operating costs for utilities. WW

About the Author: John Dyson is product channel manager for Aqua-Aerobic Systems’ AquaPrime line. He is Chairman of the Board of the Water and Wastewater Equipment Manufacturers Association (WWEMA). WWEMA has served as “the voice of the water and wastewater technology providers” since 1908. To learn more, visit www.wwema.org.

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