Maintaining water networks priority for ifm

IFM and Aerofloat collaborate to create water networks solutions for their projects

ifm provides sensors for numerous industries and purposes. The company promotes ecologically conscious decisions for water networks. This includes contributing to the UN Sustainable Development Goals, such as the provision of clean water and sanitation.

Already a dry continent, Australia’s water scarcity issues are likely to be exacerbated by changes to weather patterns, caused by climate change, as well as the demands of a growing population. As the world’s driest inhabited continent, Australia has always faced challenges in terms of meeting its water consumption needs.

Its average rainfall is roughly 470 mm a year – below the global average – and temperatures in Central Australia can reach over 50˚C. Further to that, what rainfall Australia does receive is concentrated along the north and east coasts of the country.

Australia’s inherent water scarcity is compounded by the twin challenges of climate change and population growth. The Productivity Commission noted in a 2021 report that drought conditions are likely to become more frequent, severe, and prolonged in some regions and that reductions in supply should be expected alongside growing demand due to population increase.

In this context, the provision of safe drinking water is a key challenge. More sophisticated and effective methods of treating water are crucial to meeting the demands of today and tomorrow.

Water networks becoming digital

Industry expert Freddie Coertze, who serves as national IoT business manager and digital strategy leader for ifm, said the company’s goal is to help maintain Australian water networks and make them more efficient.

“In Australia, maintaining our water networks is a make-or-break issue. This is why ifm is committed to working with local companies that are tackling water scarcity issues,” Coertze said.

But not all water is created (or recycled) equally. Each state has regulatory frameworks in place that govern how different types of wastewater are treated. There are also quality standards that must be met when transforming wastewater into usable water for different purposes.

On-site wastewater management systems must perform effectively and be properly managed to reduce risks to public health and the environment. Among the criteria that govern the handling of wastewater are the source of wastewater, site constraints, treatment methods, and the quality of effluent needed for proposed end-uses of treated water.

Australian states have their own regulatory frameworks that govern the conditions for the construction, installation, and alteration of wastewater management systems will be granted.

ifm digitising water networks

Grant Smith, senior applications engineer at ifm, said that the challenge for wastewater treatment operations is to run plants effectively along the entire cycle. They need to produce a result that is economical, effective, safe, and in line with environmental regulations. Accounting for these various factors means there is no one-size-fits-all solution.

“At ifm we understand the customer needs and focus are on offering scalable solutions that best fit the application. We offer hardware and solutions for water and wastewater treatment plants. We have a consultative approach because we understand that each application and project is different,” Smith said.

Smith said that ifm has supplied various IO-Link Solution wastewater treatment projects. It provides hygienic pressure sensors that continuously detect the pressure, temperature, level, and flow in the tanks. They are connected via IO-Link Masters back to a Programmable Logic Controller (PLC).

Integrating IO-Link sensors into wastewater treatment plants and other water networks allows for greater accumulation of monitoring data and process transparency, from the machine level to Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) software.

IO-Link is a short-distance communications network that connects smart sensors and actuators. Actuators are components responsible for moving and controlling a mechanism or system. IO-Link connects the actuators back to an industrial control system. They allow for a more transparent monitoring of data, as well as doing away with complex physical wiring processes.

IO-Link support water networks

Coertze noted that in more traditional environments, different sensors would each have to be wired back through separate channels. With IO-Link there is just one channel where all the information pertaining to what’s going on inside an operation. Variables such as pressure, temperature, level, and flow is gathered in one place. IO-Link allows transition from traditional 4-20 mA analogue data collection methods to a more digitalised process that ensures a continuous flow of accurate and lossless data.

“In the past, conversion losses and EMC interference during the analogue signal transmission of the level caused inaccuracies,” said Coertze. “The IO-Link utilises purely digital transmission of the measured values, so the exact measured value is now transmitted to the controller — eliminating any risk of signal interruption.”

Coertze noted that screened cables and associated grounding are no longer necessary. Instead, the data can be transferred via industry-standard cables. Furthermore, analogue input cards are no longer needed.

“These features save time because you don’t need to integrate separate data – there are fewer engineering hours in paying someone to integrate – and also saves on installation costs,” he said. “It’s almost a plug-in-and-play system; you screw on the cables and you’re good to go. That’s why it’s good for Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) to use ifm’s IO-Link system.”

As Youssef Attallah, NSW branch manager at ifm, summarised, “with IO-Link you get more diagnostics using less wiring”.

Attallah also pointed out that ifm has been working with water treatment companies with sensor and control systems for many years. Its sensors and IO-Link solution is cost-effective for small-to-medium size enterprises.

Aerofloat project for water networks

One such enterprise is Aerofloat, an Australian industrial wastewater treatment specialist that ifm has been working with to help provide affordable, Australian-compliant treatment services to customers.

Attallah says that Aerofloat is an ideal customer for ifm. It provides wastewater treatment solutions across various industries, supporting water networks. As a homegrown Australian company, it gives new opportunities for ifm products to be utilised in new ways by new companies in an Australia-specific context.

“One day, Aerofloat will be installing a solution in a food factory, the next in a winery, the third somewhere else – no two days are the same. For ifm, as a company with an international footprint, it’s great to see our products utilised in new ways for new customers,” Attallah said.

Michael Anderson, general manager of engineering and operations at Aerofloat, co-founded the company in 2009 with his father and managing director, Ray Anderson, and sister Katie Moor, who is the general manager of business operations.

Michael said that Ray, a chemical engineer, was doing consulting work when he spotted an opportunity to solve a problem treating grey water on houseboats on the Murray River in South Australia. The three teamed up to address the problem, with their individual skill sets complementing well. Ray’s experience in the wastewater treatment industry, Katie’s chemical engineering background and business acumen, and Michael’s passion and adeptness in product design.

“We got to work designing the product and got it certified to Australian standards. We then commercialised it, and installed about 200 systems,” said Michael. “It took roughly three years. At that point the Environment Protection Authority relaxed its standards for grey water discharge from houseboats on the Murray. The market we had been solely catering to disappeared.”

Scaling up technology

Michael said that Aerofloat then had to pivot by scaling up the technology it had developed to supply a new product. That product is Aerofloat’s Dissolved Air Flotation systems (‘AeroDAF’), which is designed for industrial wastewater applications.

From working on quite small projects, Aerofloat has grown to doing water network projects. They now work on industrial wastewater plants, breweries, food manufacturers, as well as projects for local and state governments.

“We’re committed to innovation and sustainable solutions,” Michael said. “We have a number of patented technologies and we’re very research and development focused. I’d say our biggest point of differentiation is that we’re an end-to-end solution provider in wastewater treatment. Every customer is different, and that’s why relationships like the one we’ve built with ifm are so important. We’ve done some reliable wastewater treatment plants exclusively fitted out with ifm instrumentation.”

Tim McCann, operations manager at Aerofloat, said that the ifm relationship has been key for Aerofloat.

“ifm is well known for reliable and high-quality products. Having their brand associated with Aerofloat is a great selling point for us,” McCann said. “Technologically speaking, ifm’s IO-Link technology suits us as a business perfectly because it saves us and our customers on time and wiring costs. We also gain more visibility in terms of data collection than we’d otherwise have.”

McCann added that because ifm has so many instruments in its portfolio, there are always new products that can be added to Aerofloat’s arsenal in servicing its wastewater plants.

IO-Link customisable with ease

“With IO-Link, if we want to add a new instrument in later, we don’t have to upgrade our control panel,” Michael said. “Where you would usually want more PLC inputs and outputs on analogue signalling, we can just get this instrument into one of the field modules. It is fast and straightforward. Having that scalability, flexibility, and ease of add-on functionalities is important. It helps us respond to customer demands and potential regulatory structure changes.”

McCann agrees, stating that the ease of use of IO-Link has made a difference to their business. They have also appreciated the initial and ongoing support Aerofloat has received from ifm.

“I wish IO-Link was available in all of our other instruments. It’s so easy to set up, easy to run, is more cost-effective, and we’ve received great support,” he said.

In supplying innovative and always-evolving instruments to assist with wastewater treatment and improve water networks – an industry that will only grow more important given Australia’s harsh climate conditions and growing population, ifm will continue to play an important role in collaborating with Australian businesses.

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