A Glimpse at the Future
January 1, 2007
At the recent NGWA Ground Water Expo in Las Vegas, a special industry experts-led panel discussion titled, “The Business of Ground Water: Looking Beyond 2007,” was one of many show highlights. Here, we offer excerpts from the presentation given by Robert Stone of Franklin Electric Co.
From day one, our industry has been about providing reliable and safe sources of drinking water. Two areas that will affect us most going forward are advances in material sciences and advances in electronics. And within the category of electronics, I’d break that down into two areas as well. Number one would be devices that control and monitor in order to give us diagnostic information and protect components and systems. And number two would be telecommunications.
Material SciencesIn the area of material sciences, we have seen advances in ceramic materials that have given us much better bearings, seals and other components, which, in turn, mean increased reliability in pumps and motors. We have developed elastomers – both as parts of components, either motors or pumps, or as an insulator for electrical cable – that are much more inert than their predecessors. It’s been quite a challenge for companies to develop chemicals that have the physical properties that we want. We want these materials to be flexible at high temperatures and at low temperatures, and we want them to be flame retardant, yet we do not want them to have any heavy metals in there. We’ve seen many advances in those areas, and there are many yet to come.
In the area of polymers, we expect to see new polymer development. A higher strength-to-weight ratio will allow us to do different things in pump design and impeller and diffuser design to make them more efficient. These new polymers will be more corrosion-resistant and will have broader temperature ranges over which they’ll be able to operate. That, too, will lead to products that are more reliable and have lower life-cycle costs.
Membrane technologies also have advanced quite a bit, and they are affecting our industry as well – at either point-of-use or point-of-sale.
We’re able to use less raw water to get drinkable water, and we’ll use less energy in converting untreated water into treated water.
It’s impossible to know when we’re going to have practical applications available, but, to be sure, nanotechnology, which is very hot right now, eventually will affect water supply with the introduction of better electrical conductors, heat transfer properties and coatings that are going to yield better corrosion-resistance in the stainless steels that we’re using today, and provide better frictional properties. We’ll have materials that do not allow buildup of bacteria, for example, and they’ll consume less power because their frictional loss will be much lower.
Electronic AdvancesImproved chip technologies are allowing us to put ever-increasing computing power into a smaller, more reliable package. All one has to do is look at the latest iPod Nano or the latest cell phone to see what that has resulted in. Advances in power semiconductor design, manufacture and fabrication have done the same, resulting in high power densities in electronic components, and higher efficiencies.
Putting these two technologies together gives us an opportunity to embed smart-devices into the components that make up our water systems. Be it a smart motor, a smart pump or a constant pressure system, we now are able to put much more reliable components into a system and get us to a total-system solution that is the ultimate in reliability and efficiency.
When I talk about components, I’m really referring to active components in electronics these days. We’ve seen a lot of advances in these areas in the past several years. We have not seen nearly as many advances in the passive components, such as capacitors and inductors. So our concentration in these areas is in variable frequency drives.
TelecommunicationsIn the area of telecommunications, the World Wide Web and the Internet have given us an amazing ability to disseminate and distribute information very rapidly, with very low cost. That is a fantastic benefit. At the same time, it also gives anybody in the world the ability to publish, and one of the challenges in having the ability to disseminate a lot of information very rapidly is to make sure the information that is disseminated is accurate information. This will be a challenge for us moving forward. There are several special-interest groups – all with their own spin on what they’d like to see happen – and that means there is a condition of information overload right now. That makes it very difficult for people who are trying to do the right thing and apply a system efficiently; they’ve got to sort through a lot of bad information.
But back to the beneficial part of this information: It allows us to distribute training information in a much more efficient manner than in the past. Each of us as manufacturers is now able to give good, accurate information to allow contractors to do a better job. That should allow them to create and install more reliable systems for their customers, increase their customer satisfaction, increase their profitability, and decrease the necessity of callbacks. That’s how I see the World Wide Web being a great benefit to us.
At the same time, we also can take out the smart devices from the system components, and retrieve information that will allow contractors to provide additional services to their customers. We can know when a system goes down; we can know the primary cause of that system going down. It is not of very high cost, then, to put that information out on the Web or have it sent to a cell phone, for example, and open an opportunity for an additional revenue stream for contractors in this industry. They could provide a valuable service at a reasonable cost to building owners.
Unrealistic Goals?I would like to comment on what I see as being a bit of a race condition that technology has created for us in this industry. Advances in materials, advances in electronics and advances in machine tools have given us the ability to detect very, very low levels of contaminants. Because we have the ability to detect these very low levels, we are legislating ourselves into these very low levels. This is creating a huge challenge because it’s very simple to say we’d like to have no lead, no arsenic in any of our components or in any of our water, but to get down to the levels that are being legislated these days is a severe challenge – to the degree that we’re our own worst enemy when it comes to that.