Industry 4.0 & the Water Sector

By Doug Hatler

The first three industrial revolutions transformed our modern society with mechanization, mass production and digital technology. The world around us fundamentally changed. The fourth industrial revolution is now upon us.

Industry 4.0, as it is called, will transform modern society and economies through innovation brought about by advancements in digitization, interconnectivity, data analysis and automation. The technological elements of Industry 4.0 integrate physical production and operations with smart digital technology, machine learning, and big data to create a more holistic and connected world. The result is productivity far beyond what has been seen in the past three industrial revolutions.

What Is Industry 4.0?

The Industry 4.0 term first appeared at Hannover Messe in 2011 when Professor Wolfgang Wahlster, director and CEO of the German Research Center for Artificial Intelligence, addressed the opening ceremony audience about how to be successful in a high wage region with global competition. Some of his perspective was detailed in an article by Bill Lydon published by “That means we must be in shape for the 4th industrial revolution that is being driven by the internet,” said Wahlster. “The internet of things is creating a bridge between the virtual and the real world.”

Professor Wahlster noted that in industry this approach is leading to a paradigm shift — it is the product being created itself that controls the production process and uses embedded sensors to monitor the relevant environmental parameters and if there are any disturbances in production, take remedial action. A key part of this concept is embedded information in the products as they move through production that enables fully flexible make-to-order manufacturing, according to the article.

Credit: Enerco Energy Solutions LLP.

There are six major technological elements of Industry 4.0. The integration and embedding of these elements into interoperable production systems has the promise to link global value chains making the world more flexible, responsive and productive.

1. Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT):

The interconnection via the Internet of instrumentation and connected sensors and other devices to machinery and vehicles enabling then to send and receive data. IIoT brings the power of the Internet, data processing and analytics to real world physical objects used in the transportation, utilities and industrial sectors.

2. Cyber-Physical Systems (CPS):

The basic technology platform for IIoT and therefore the main enabler to connect physical machines that were previously disconnected. CPS integrates the dynamics of the physical process with those of software and communication, providing abstractions and modeling, design and analysis techniques.

3. Cloud Computing:

With cloud computing IT services and resources can be uploaded to and retrieved from the Internet as opposed to direct connection to a server. Files can be kept on cloud-based storage systems rather than on local storage devices.

4. Edge Computing:

According to IndustryWeek, a distributed computing paradigm edge computing brings computer data storage closer to the location where it is needed. In contrast to cloud computing, edge computing refers to decentralized data processing at the edge of the network, according to Klaus Schwab, founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum. The IIoT requires more of an edge-plus-cloud architecture rather than one based on purely centralized cloud; in order to transform productivity, products and services in the industrial world.

5. Big Data Analytics:

Big data analytics is the process of examining large and varied data sets, or big data.

6. Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning:

Artificial intelligence (AI) is a field within computer science in which intelligent machines function like humans. Generally speaking, there are six branches of artificial intelligence: natural language processing, machine learning, robotics, vision, expert systems and planning/observation. Machine learning involves the use of algorithms by computers to automatically learn and improve from experience without being explicitly programmed.

In addition to the above, robotics and augmented reality play an integral role in Industry 4.0. Robots can substitute for humans and replicate human actions especially in hazardous environments and manufacturing processes. Augmented reality (AR) creates an interactive experience of a real-world environment where the objects that reside in the real world are enhanced by computer-generated perceptual information. AR enhances natural environments or situations and offers perceptually enriched experiences. The information about the surrounding real world of the user becomes interactive and digitally manipulatable.

Why Is Industry 4.0 Important for Water?

In the water sector, Industry 4.0 is massively important for several reasons:

Aging Workforce

The water industry is experiencing a generational change in its workforce. Many people are retiring, approaching retirement, or leaving the industry for better opportunities. Their departure depletes the workforce, but more disconcerting is the loss of undocumented knowledge and experience. Moreover, because of declining revenues, tight budgets, and technological immaturity, the best and brightest talent is not attracted to the water industry so open positions are either filled with suboptimal resources or left unfilled.

Asset Management

The assets at many water utilities are old and in need of rehabilitation or replacement. Capital budgets are expected to decline over the next several years and the United States Congress cannot agree on an Infrastructure funding bill to financially assist. Operating costs are skyrocketing as assets frequently break and demand immediate emergency repairs. In addition, asset management practices are antiquated compared to other industries like oil and gas, chemicals and even electrical utilities.

Climate Risk

The first three industrial revolutions transformed our modern society with the steam engine, the age of science and mass production and the rise of digital technology. The world around us fundamentally changed. Consequently, so did the planet. It has been heating up. As a result, the earth’s climate is changing, and this change is imposing risk on the environmental, economic and social aspects of human civilization, challenging society to find new ways to live, a way that is more resilient and sustainable. Water utilities and the communities they serve are challenged with dwindling water supplies; more frequent and greater intensity rainfall events that are exacerbating combined sewer overflows (CSO) and sanitary sewer overflows (SSO); and rising sea levels and salt-water intrusion.

Emerging Contaminants

PFAS, 1,4-Dioxane, microplastics, pharmaceutical compounds, and other refractory compounds have been detected in drinking water sources, sewage, wastewater sludge and biosolids. Theses contaminants are harmful to humans and aquatic life. U.S. EPA and state environmental agencies will soon require that water utilities to actively monitor and treat these contaminants to below pending regulatory limits. This translates to another unfunded mandate that will stress water utilities budgets.

The Industry 4.0 Utility

The Industry 4.0 utility will create an information-centric and connected workforce. The workforce will be connected to each other and to physical assets and the environment. Networks of sensors installed through supply, collection, treatment and distribution operations and processes will monitor conditions in real time. Data and information will available via the cloud and hand-held devices anywhere, anytime. Data analytics with machine learning will make machines and devices smart enabling prescriptive actions based on data-driven predictions, all without human intervention.

Automation will replace routine, manual tasks with higher value, performance optimization tasks. Augmented reality, gaming and other forms of digital and cloud-based training will facilitate onboarding and reduce the cost and time out of office associated with destination training events. In-situ monitoring devices will detect and send alerts about events such as water level rises, pressure spikes or dips, the presence of contaminants, loss of flow, off-spec water quality, etc., allowing preventive intervention, shifting the risk paradigm away from consequence containment. Bill payment will occur seamlessly from meter-to-cash.

Even more exciting is that interconnectivity does not have to stop at the fence line of each utility. Industry 4.0 can facilitate the interconnectivity between water utilities and create larges stores of data about their assets, and the environment. Engineers and scientists can use big data analytical tools and machine learning to generate insightful information into the behavior of the shared environment and common physical assets. This information can be shared by communities and utilities to more holistically improve the industry, the environment and benefit society. In doing so, Industry 4.0 will drive economies of scope and scale across the entire water industry that were unimaginable in third industrial revolution.


It sounds magical, mysterious and made up, but Industry 4.0 is here. These capabilities exist today. It’s now a matter of architecting, implementing, deploying and then operating and maintaining. The increased productivity, heightened level of resilience and enhanced customer experience will provide a clear and direct return on investment.

For the water industry to thrive (not just survive), it’s imperative it embrace Industry 4.0 and modernize its systems. This means full digitization of all operations, integration of not only systems but people and processes to achieve full digitalization. It also means the deployment of the key technological elements of Industry 4.0 to create an interoperable water management network that uses near real time data and analytics to provide actionable insights that enable short- and long-term responses to changes in monitored systems including water, wastewater and stormwater.

A paper titled “The Fourth Industrial Revolution (Industry 4.0): A Social Innovation Perspective,” by Rabeh Morrar, Husam Arman and Saeed Mousa published in Technology Innovation Management Review in 2017, discusses how the technological innovation and change of Industry 4.0 not only influences but necessitates social innovation and change. The interaction between technological and social innovation will drive the balance of environmental, economic and social factors in society.

The fourth industrial revolution will create an interconnected world that uses real time data and analytics to provide actionable insights that enable short- and long-term responses to changes in monitored systems. The world of Industry 4.0 will be better equipped to mitigate and adapt to change and support a major societal paradigm shift toward sustainable development.


Doug Hatler is president of Environmental Business Ventures, LLC, which helps early stage cleantech companies deliver their unique value proposition to customers and partners. It focuses on innovative products and services that help businesses and local governments make the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) a reality.

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