Power Marriage

From removing tedious, unpleasant chores to helping deliver higher-quality end product, automation elevates people and advances the clean-water profession.

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When I talk to longtime clean-water plant managers about staffing, it usually turns out they had more people on their teams 15 to 20 years ago than today.

Some of that no doubt has to do with belt-tightening — budgets now are about as stressed as they’ve ever been. But a bigger reason most likely is automation: Better technology means fewer people can accomplish as much or more.

So, does automation cost jobs? No one really likes to talk about that side of things — but the simple fact is, yes, machines do replace people. But, more to the point, what they largely replace are jobs that people hate doing or that force people to work at things far below their creative and productive potential.

Natural Progression

Automation is inevitable if only because of human nature: We want to avoid unpleasant work and wasted time. That’s why to heat our homes we prefer thermostat-controlled gas furnaces to chopping wood and hand-feeding stoves. And it’s why we enjoy little conveniences like speed-dial phones and automatic coffee makers.

You see things of similar nature around clean-water plants. There are self-cleaning bar screens in headworks because operators don’t like hand-raking debris (and managers don’t like paying for the labor to do it). The same basic thing is true of grit-handling systems like the one described in this issue’s “How We Do It” feature.

Many older plants today are making transitions from manual operations to SCADA process control. Now instead of having to walk all over the facility to read instruments and record data, operators can monitor, control, document and report nearly everything from a single computer terminal.

Does all this automation make the people less valuable? No, it makes them more so. Because now, instead of spending a large slice of their days using their muscles to travel around the plant, they can use their brains (aided by intelligence from the computers) to refine processes and make better effluent more consistently and efficiently.

Core Benefits

So it’s worthwhile now and then to reflect on the benefits of all this automation, and to be thankful for it. Here are a few of the basic advantages:

Safety. Machines ensure that people no longer have to lift and carry heavy objects. Instruments detect hazardous gases. SCADA monitoring means people don’t have to climb ladders to read meters in remote places.

Job satisfaction. In the old days, wastewater treatment could be a dirty, smelly job. Today’s equipment makes it much less so. Freedom from nasty jobs helps operator morale. And clean, low-odor facilities are more likely to interest potential future operators who come through facilities on tours.

Accuracy. Think how easy it is to make mistakes when measuring things, or taking instrument readings, recording results by hand, and then transcribing data into required report forms. Computerization helps ensure that measurements are correct in the first place and only need to be entered one time.

Efficiency. In the kids’ book, Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, Mike bragged that he and his iron partner Mary Anne could “dig as much in a day as a hundred men could dig in a week.” You get the idea.

Insight. Computerized processes make it possible to collect and analyze data in ways that would be difficult or impossible by manual means. Good data can deliver valuable insights that inform operating improvements — the opposite of “garbage in, garbage out.”

Cost savings. Yes, technology takes an initial investment, but generally with an expectation of fast economic payback through saving on labor, materials and energy.

Strong Marriage

There’s a saying attributed (probably in error) to Albert Einstein: “Computers are incredibly fast, accurate and stupid. Human beings are incredibly slow, inaccurate and brilliant. Together they are powerful beyond imagination.”

That really sums up the benefits of automation. The marriage of human and machine is powerful indeed. You are welcome to share your perspectives on this topic. Send me a note to editor@tpomag.com. I promise to respond, and we’ll include a sampling of comments in a future issue.   



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