Municipal Water Leader
Interview

Black & Veatch: Management for All Stages of the Asset Life Cycle

Black & Veatch is a global construction and consultancy firm with more than 100 offices worldwide. One of its many services is its asset management practice, which works with clients in the water field, including municipalities, state governments, utilities, and research organizations. Black & Veatch’s asset management services for water agencies include strategy development and implementation, information solutions, and condition assessment. These services cover all stages of asset management, including planning, design, construction, operation, maintenance, and rehabilitation. 

In this interview, Will Williams, associate vice president of Black & Veatch’s water asset management practice, speaks with Municipal Water Leader Managing Editor Joshua Dill about how the company helps its clients as well as the trends he sees in water utility asset management today. 

Joshua Dill: Please tell us about your background and how you came to be in your current position. 

Will Williams: I started my career in 1990 in the United Kingdom after the privatization of the water industry. I joined the Water Research Center (WRC), which had been the government research center into anything to do with water and wastewater. Because the industry had been privatized, WRC became a research-based consultancy. It was a time of transition, as WRC went from being a government-subsidized research center to being more commercially focused. Because the industry was newly privatized, the new water companies were trying to understand the condition, performance, location, and age of all the assets they had. WRC started developing a lot of the principles that we now consider central to asset management, risk-based planning, and condition assessment. I spent 16 years at WRC and left as an executive director. I then went to another large international consultancy called Halcrow and set up an asset management practice there. This was a global practice with people in the Middle East, Australia, and North America. I moved over to grow the North American business about 10 years ago, and then I joined Black & Veatch 7 years ago and started to help us grow our asset management practice in the water business. 

Joshua Dill: Please tell us about Black & Veatch’s asset management services practice. 

Will Williams: We have over 50 staff in the United States. We work throughout the United States as well as the United Kingdom, Australia, and Southeast Asia. 

Our services fall into three broad areas. The first is asset management strategy and implementation. That involves working with clients to understand how they manage their assets currently, doing a gap analysis against best practices as defined by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) standard ISO 55001, and then putting in place an improvement roadmap to help them to improve the way that they plan and manage the asset life cycle. That involves improving the way in which they understand risk, the way they collect data, the way they turn those data into information for decisionmaking, and the way they prioritize investment. 

The second area is information solutions, which involves helping clients improve the way they collect, store, use, and analyze data. That is done broadly through the use of geographic information systems (GIS) and computerized maintenance management systems as well as business intelligence and dashboards to enhance the visualization of data for decisionmaking. 

The third area is condition assessment and rehabilitation assessment. We assess the physical condition of above-ground facilities as well as buried structures like pressure pipelines and gravity pipelines of all different diameters, analyze the data we collect to understand the rate of deterioration, and then develop targeted rehabilitation programs. Our services cover the whole asset life cycle. 

While I mentioned three areas of focus, we always provide tailored solutions. For example, in our work for the California Department of Water Resources, we started off with a gap analysis of its current practices, wrote an implementation roadmap together, developed an asset management policy and strategy, reviewed its approach to condition assessment and data improvement, and then developed a risk-management program. We are currently helping develop a risk-based capital investment program. Those service areas are combined to meet the needs of the client. I guess you could say that all of them have elements of people, process, and technology. 

Joshua Dill: What are the most common gaps you identify during a gap analysis? 

Will Williams: A lot of utilities have been running their assets for a long time. The barrier to becoming even more efficient is often that the processes and procedures are not documented properly. That makes them vulnerable to the aging of the workforce as well. It is important to standardize processes and documentation and make sure that there is a link from the overall strategy of the organization all the way to down to the work at the asset level. Taking a risk-based approach is key to a lot of that. That means understanding where the most critical assets are and what condition they are in and targeting investments to deal with the highest-risk issues first. That leads to efficiency and enables an organization to deliver more value from its existing budget. 

Joshua Dill: What are the most common data collection gaps? 

Will Williams: That varies by utility. Some clients are data rich and information poor. They may be collecting the data but not storing them properly or analyzing them in such a way as to turn them into information for decisionmaking. In some cases, a lot of effort is expended to collect condition data, but as long as a certain threshold is not exceeded, the data just get stored. However, we find value in analyzing those data to identify trends and underlying deterioration. 

Joshua Dill: Who are Black & Veatch’s asset management clients? 

Will Williams: They include municipalities, state governments, utilities, and research organizations. 

Joshua Dill: When a client works with Black & Veatch on asset management, do you provide them with a one-time report with recommendations or with an ongoing service? 

Will Williams: It varies depending on the client’s needs. It could be the selection, implementation, and integration of a new software solution. It could be the development of a risk-prioritization model to help to justify a capital investment program, which is something we would come back and update annually. However, it could also be a multiyear condition assessment program in which we systematically analyze the condition of a client’s entire system, or a multiyear asset management implementation program where the initial report and recommendations are turned into an implementation plan and we work with the client to implement the plan. 

Our services are targeted at each stage of the life cycle. You might be planning, designing, building, operating, maintaining, or deciding whether to rehabilitate or replace. We might get involved in the planning stage of an asset, and then later in the life cycle, get involved in optimizing its maintenance. 

Joshua Dill: What results can Black & Veatch’s clients expect to see from its asset management services? 

Will Williams: The services are focused on getting better efficiency from the existing assets. That could be efficiency savings, better targeting operations and maintenance expenditures, or developing an optimized capital investment program that targets investment efficiently. We help clients to put large multiyear capital improvement programs in place, which can bring significant savings, for example, by delaying expenditure if it does not increase risk. Clients can expect to see long-term improvements in the awareness of the state of their assets from our condition assessment programs, which can help them build their long-term budgets. We can help optimize long-term investment as well as short-term investment. 

Joshua Dill: What trends do you see today in asset management? 

Will Williams: The first one is digital water. Clients are looking to improve the accessibility of their information through things like dashboards and business intelligence. For example, some of our clients do not want written, text-heavy asset management plans. They want to be able to do dynamic planning by having current asset information at their fingertips and having that information easily or automatically updated. 

The second area is dynamic maintenance planning. Clients are seeking to understand the reliability of their assets and analyze condition data to put together condition-based maintenance plans. They will assign a criticality to each asset and target the most critical first, then use condition data to predict their future performance and adjust planned maintenance accordingly. This increase in adaptiveness is a long-term trend that will continue. 

The third area is resilience. Risk-based planning has been around for a while. But at the end of last year, the American Water Infrastructure Act (AWIA) was passed. It mandates water utilities of different sizes to consider risk and resilience. It is a new concept for a number of clients. Resilience is the ability of a system to recover from an incident, whether that is a weather event or a malevolent action, and to continue to deliver service. We’re involved with a new Water Research Foundation project focused on developing a common framework for resilience for water, wastewater, and stormwater infrastructure. Under the AWIA, large utilities—those with a population of over 100,000—have to put risk and resilience plans together by next March. Smaller entities will have to do the same thing over the next 18 months. These will need to be updated every 5 years. I see resilience becoming a more frequently used term in the lexicon of water, wastewater, and stormwater utilities, a little bit like risk did over the last few years. People are going to be talking about resilience-type investments. There, the challenge is going to be balancing needed investments in chronic issues like aging infrastructure against investments in improving the resilience of the system and making sure that the overall investment plan is optimized. 

Joshua Dill: What is your vision for the future? 

Will Williams: We’ve come a long way in improving asset data over the last 10 years or so. I think that will continue as the accessibility of things like sensors for condition data become cheaper and better. I think that the structure and use of that data to make decisions, supported by some of the trends that we’re seeing with digital water, will allow utilities to become more proactive in the way they manage their asset base. Rather than basing investment planning on what an agency has done over the last few years, I think we will see more dynamic decisionmaking or adaptive planning. That will enable much better decisions. 

We’ve developed processes and procedures for managing the asset life cycle, but the gap has been the data and information necessary to make the best decisions. We’ve got the principles and the structure sorted out, but the major leap forward is going to be improving the data, which will allow us to improve analysis and then improve decisions. 

Will Williams is associate vice president of Black & Veatch’s water asset management practice. He can be contacted at williamswd@bv.com or at (404) 432-3860.