Last updated on May 20th, 2019 at 11:23 hrs.
Water infrastructure is complex. Whether it’s the water utility’s clean water supply network, the sewerage or district heating, it is very hard to know how the water behaves inside the system. Looking at a map won’t tell you the pressure, flow or velocity in any given pipe, or how loss of pressure in one area will affect the pressure in another.
Pumps are used to maintain sufficient pressure everywhere in the water distribution network. The sewage collection system works mainly by gravity, but if the area is really flat or there are hills in the area, pumps are needed to help lead the sewage to the wastewater treatment plant.
“Often, when we first look at the pumps in use, they have a significant over-capacity,” CEO Timo Ranta-Pere of Fluidit Oy tells me. “When the pumps are too big and run at a lower capacity than what they are designed for, they use more energy than an optimal pump. So, when you replace them with new pumps that have a lower, more optimal capacity and efficiency, you can often break even in three to six months even though you buy a new pump while the old one was fully functional.
“Pumps will usually operate for at least ten to fifteen years,” Timo continues. “If you look at the pumps’ full lifecycle, you save many times that investment. Utilities can practically always achieve savings within a year by using our software and replacing pumps.”
Consulting & software
A water management consultancy from the Finnish city of Tampere, Fluidit’s team has a rare skill set. The three founders, Chief Technology Officer Dr. Markus Sunela, Vice President Kalervo Kylätie and Timo Ranta-Pere, all have academic degrees and long experience in water management and engineering, but they also have a strong software capability.
Founded in the beginning of 2017, the company has been providing consultancy services to water utilities and other consultant companies from its inception. Cash flow from some 40 Finnish customers has allowed them to develop modern software that simulates the flow and other properties of water in a network. The company currently runs around 10 commercial deployments of the software. It works not only with water but any type of fluid, for example oil. But the team decided to start with water.
Fluidit is one of a dozen startups taking part in the internationalisation programme ‘Software from Finland to European Markets’, run by growth consultancy Pro Growth Consulting Oy, sponsored by the Finnish Software & E-Business Association (Ohjelmisto- ja e-business ry) and supported by the Centre for Economic Development, Transport and the Environment (ELY-keskus).
As it happens, Tampere is the only city in Finland, and one of a few worldwide, where consumers can check various properties of their drinking water, such as hardness, temperature or pH value, online at Vellamo Tampere. It’s a public service that Markus was developing before founding Fluidit.
“Most hydraulic modeling software was built in the 1980s and 1990s,” Timo explains. “Our philosophy is more in line with open software development. We use modern software development tools, principles and user interfaces because we want it to be fast, easy to use, and easy to integrate with other systems. We want the users to be able to program and extend it, and that the software can talk with, for example, network information systems [NIS] and water utility control systems like SCADA [Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition, a software system that gathers data from industrial devices – JS].
“I sometimes make the comparison to what happened to Nokia’s mobile phone business,” Timo says. “Rather than starting to build a new operating system from scratch, Nokia kept holding on to its ageing Symbian platform. Apple came out with its iOS and it took them only about a year until they had a better system and Nokia started to lose its share of the market.”
Timo goes on to describe a few use cases that could benefit from Fluidit’s software:
- “The solution is very useful in planning. If a utility knows they are going to serve ten thousand new inhabitants, our simulator allows them to calculate, how to connect the new infrastructure to the existing one most cost-efficiently and reliably. Sometimes the best connection is not the nearest one.
- “If you have to build a new pipe or renovate an old one, you will want to know if the new pipe should be bigger or smaller. When a large factory is being built, one that requires a lot of water, the utility needs to know how much water they can promise to deliver them under all different circumstances.
- “With our simulation software you can test various future scenarios. Let’s say you need to replace a pipe. It can be that if you close part of the water system at 7 o’clock in the morning, a thousand people will run out of shower water whereas, if you do it at 10 o’clock in the evening, nobody will notice a shortage of water. Knowing this enables proper planning of the installation work.
- “If you live in a city where our software simulates the behavior of the water distribution system in real-time, when you open your tap, we can tell you where the water is coming from, its age, and its quality.
- “In case of an accident, for example when wastewater has flown into the water supply system, as was the case in the town of Nokia in 2007, our software can tell where the polluted water is flowing and who is going to be affected, so that the damage can be minimized.
- “Sensors are relatively expensive to install,” says Timo. “In a city of 50 thousand people, you may have to install 10 to 20 measurement points. That information alone is rather limited, but combined with the real-time simulation it offers a lot more insight to the system. The more real-time data you feed into our software, the more accurate the simulation becomes.”
In Timo’s view, utilities haven’t always been incentivised to optimise their water management because as public operators, usually owned by municipalities, they have been able to finance their operations simply by adjusting the price of water.
Globally, the water sector accounts for roughly 4 percent of energy consumption, according to Timo. As municipalities are increasingly committed to saving energy, improving the water utility’s energy efficiency and lowering greenhouse gas emissions could be a way to show tangible results.
Software from Finland
“The timing of the ‘Software from Finland to European Markets’ programme is really good for us,” Timo says. “It’s our first step in developing an international growth plan. Our product is in version 1.1. We know it works well and we are very confident about its commercial potential. But we hardly have any experience in international markets, except for some initial talks in Vietnam and Poland.
“What do you need to consider? How to find a distributor? What kind of contracts should we draw up? What are reasonable margins? What kind of financing could help us even though our consulting business is profitable? These are all questions that are addressed in the programme and that’s very useful for us.”
Is there a book or other informational resource that you would recommend to readers?
Timo: “When we started the business, we were more like water engineers than software developers. Then Markus told us: ‘Your first assignment is to read ‘Scrum: A revolutionary approach to building teams, beating deadlines and boosting productivity’ by Jeff Sutherland. Read this and we will use this method.’
“Quite many people seem to think that the book is about software development. I think the methodology can be used in other fields, too. It can be a real eye-opener in any kind of business.”