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Delicious water at the turn of a faucet, and reliable sewerage systems to drain the water. The Hitachi Group has long been involved in providing mechanical and electrical equipment for water and sewerage facilities in order to maintain water and sewerage systems—social infrastructure that supports people's daily lives. Hitachi High-Tech Solutions is responsible for one part of the monitoring system that is core to these facilities. Introducing "Water and Sewerage Solutions," which contributes to society through the development of advanced technologies, guided by our mission to provide a steady supply of safe and reliable water.
The tap water we all use is drawn from rivers and other water sources before being filtered and purified at water purification plants and then supplied through distribution reservoirs. Water quality is checked at each step of the process using instruments such as turbidity meters to measure the turbidity of the water, in addition to other instruments such as alkalinity meters and residual chlorine meters. Hitachi High-Tech Solutions also deals in supplying these water supply measurement instruments.
"Hitachi High-Tech Solutions provides solutions based on the basic premise of ensuring a steady supply of safe and reliable water. From treating water drawn from rivers, right through to when it is distributed to households, we make sure that the water is pure at each and every step of the process and that it has been sufficiently purified. We also measure how much water is available at all times to prevent the water supply from getting cut off due to tanks in the distribution reservoirs running dry,"
explains Koji Sasa, an engineer in the Control Systems Business Unit of Hitachi High-Tech Solutions.
Water turbidity fluctuates depending on rainfall and temperature. This is why Hitachi High-Tech Solutions uses two different types of sensors: A standard turbidity meter is used to measure the water drawn from rivers, as it is highly turbid. A highly sensitive turbidity meter is then used for final checks of the water flowing out of the water purification plant, as it is not very turbid.
This measurement data must be constantly controlled by computer and facility operators must be notified of any abnormalities. The instruments used for this purpose are called monitoring and control devices.
Monitoring and control devices have consisted of a broad range of equipment since around the 1970s. They have become smaller as computers have become more compact, and progress made in network technology has enabled them to collect and centrally monitor data from facilities scattered over a wide area via communication links.
"Despite this, until very recently, people needed to be stationed at each facility to monitor the screens. However, we can now view the data from outside the facilities using tablets and other devices. The water supply doesn't stop when people take breaks. Operations-wise, the ability to check a tablet to determine the urgency of a response and put in place countermeasures is a great help when something goes wrong," says Sasa.
According to the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare, the water supplied by Japan's water systems (yield) peaked in 2000 and has been in decline since then, and is estimated to halve by the year 2070. The reason for this is down to the sharp decline in Japan's population.
In principle, the operating cost of water utilities is covered by water rates. However, water supply volume has decreased in line with the decline in population, thereby resulting in decreased revenues for water utilities, making their operation increasingly difficult.
Meanwhile, the number of water utility workers has decreased by around 30% compared to its peak in the 1980s. The significantly reduced number of workers has become especially challenging for small-scale local governments.
"These are the reasons why technologies such as remote monitoring is in demand," notes Masahiro Yabashi, Deputy General Manager of the Control Systems Business Unit.
"We mostly deal with equipment for simpler water utilities that serve populations of 5000 people or fewer. Our clients are local governments, and they are finding the number of water utility workers is dwindling rapidly due to the baby boomer generation now retiring. In towns and villages, houses are scattered and distribution reservoirs and other facilities are spread out across various locations. Before, workers would take turns monitoring the sites in day and night shifts and driving to each facility one by one, but now they have to get this done with only one or two workers. This reality has made remote monitoring technology invaluable," says Yabashi.
Remote monitoring came into practical use around the year 2000, but could not be fully utilized in the beginning due to slow connection speeds. Eventually, developments telecommunications technology led to increased connection speeds, and now monitoring via mobile devices is becoming more widespread. In addition, technologies for pulling data from servers to devices via a network have been combined to make monitoring systems more versatile, open and highly reliable.
This has not only ensured the safety and reliability of the water supply, but has also reduced the workload of the local governments that operate these systems.
However, Japan's water utilities face a great deal of challenges. Due to the declining population, there is a growing demand for cooperation among multiple local governments across wider regional areas, especially in rural areas. Given this trend, efficiency needs to be greatly ramped up through digitalization, including the use of the aforementioned computers and networks, in order to ensure the proper monitoring and operation of facilities spread over a wide area.
Regarding digitalization, Sasa says: "We will work together with Hitachi, Ltd. and start by doing what we can. I'm sure we will also make use of AI (artificial intelligence) and other technologies in the future."
Another solution to the challenges faced by a society with a declining population is public-private partnerships for water utilities. Several models are being explored in Japan, ranging from comprehensive outsourcing to private finance initiatives (PFI), concessions (the operation of public facilities, etc.) and even total privatization. Although there are some who insist on playing it safe, this is an issue that cannot be avoided, and increased efficiency will translate to energy savings and solutions to labor shortages.
Speaking on this, Yabashi expresses his determination to be part of the solution to this issue by leveraging technology and experience that only the private sector can offer, saying: "The Hitachi Group recognizes that privatization is a business opportunity, and we will naturally play our part in it."
The private sector not only supplies water to households, but also industrial water for industrial areas. For instance, Hitachi High-Tech Solutions has installed flow meters to accurately measure the amount of industrial water used.
To maintain and manage water supply facilities, we work together with Group company Hitachi High-Tech Fielding. Hitachi High-Tech Fielding has locations throughout Japan that also handle maintenance of water supply and sewerage systems, and works together with Hitachi, Ltd., distributors, and Hitachi High-Tech Solutions to offer preventive maintenance and services that solve customers' problems, such as by improving their operations and efficiency.
"When our monitoring and control units receive an abnormal signal, Hitachi High-Tech Fielding is immediately notified. Users can also tell us if they want us to take a look at something they say is broken. Our clients tell us that they find this very helpful, especially since everywhere is understaffed," says Yabashi.
This system is also effective in the event of disasters such as major earthquakes.
When a disaster strikes, Hitachi High-Tech Fielding's team will first go to the site to help with rapid recovery efforts. Lately, localized downpours, floods and other disasters involving water have been increasing, but we work with a mission: The water supply must never stop.
"In Japan, we take it for granted that we can turn a faucet and water will come out. Our water utility coverage rate is over 98%. If you look at it that way, the mission of building a water supply system is complete. Now, we are at the stage of keeping it going. What we are doing now is the behind-the-scenes work of actually producing water. Water is a lifeline that must never stop. Our mission is to keep it going as long as there are people who need it," says Sasa.