This article first appeared in Drain Trader Magazine, issue 254, June 2019

As the literal and figurative foundation of society, it’s safe to say that the drainage industry has come a long way since the public baths of ancient Rome, readily embracing new developments as to further its field. Across all industry in the 21st century, however, digital disruption now demands that emerging technologies be adopted at a rapidly accelerating rate if businesses are to stay on top.

To paraphrase Charles Darwin: it is not the strongest who survive, nor the most intelligent—it is those who are the most adaptable to change.

Mixed-reality technology

Already proving highly effective in neighbouring industries such as construction, the introduction of augmented and virtual reality technologies to the drainage industry is fast approaching.

Evidence of this is an exhibition by Hong Kong’s government Drainage Services Department that took place during the Hong Kong Institution of Engineers (HKIE) Fiesta in June earlier this year. At the exhibition, over 7,500 visitors were invited to visualise and explore the designs of future sewage treatment works using virtual reality headsets.

2017 has also been the year that, in the UK, a 360° projection theatre called the “igloo” began operation as a sewer management training facility for Thames Water and Lanes Utilities.

With mixed-reality technology gaining traction as a tool in both public and professional education, it is only a matter of time until we see more and more real-work applications within the drainage industry as well.

Using holographic projections, mixed-reality technology has been shown to raise safety standards and improve error detection. By enabling engineers in different locations to work on the same projects, collaboration is also significantly enhanced.

3D Printing

Another disruptive technology set to shake up the industry in years to come is additive manufacturing—or as it is more commonly known, 3D printing. Essentially, 3D printing refers to the use of computer-aided design software in creating unique three-dimensional objects that can be manufactured (or rather printed) using responsive machinery.

Imagine the possibilities when, instead of identifying required parts, finding a supplier then placing an order, engineers can simply print parts themselves, custom built and ready to go.

Due to current material constraints, industry use of 3D printing is at present generally limited to the prototyping stages of production. However, as the involved technologies improve and become cheaper, it is expected that 3D printing will become a progressively viable alternative to traditional manufacturing methods.

Adoption of this new-age technology will inevitably necessitate new skills, disrupting current supply chains and transportation methods. Nevertheless, those first to realise the future in 3D printing will be at a great advantage.

Market networks

One technological development from which leading businesses can benefit right now is the recent emergence of market networks. Fortunately, market networks are one example of digital disruption that has less to do with redefining job roles and much more to do with making existing jobs easier.

By streamlining all job-related communications through just one online platform, market networks ensure that everyone—employers, workers, subcontractors and clients alike—are all on the same virtual page. Rather than on paper, job sheets and invoices are managed electronically, accessible across multiple devices and easily updated or viewed in real time.

Users can navigate market networks in a way that is similar to how they use social networking sites such as Facebook. In this sense, many of the skills needed for market networking are the very same skills that social media users have been unwittingly developing for the past 10 or so years.

Many companies in the UK drainage industry have been quick to make the leap to a market network already. Maclin Pumps from Surrey for instance, after more than 30 years in the business, has recently made the choice to sign up to the UK market network Okappy.

Jackie, director at Maclin Pumps, claims that “Okappy works from when the job is first entered onto the system through to invoicing”. The company’s directors have also praised Okappy for giving them a better work-life balance as well as more time to grow their business.

Investing in a market network such as Okappy is something you can do today at very little risk and without having to restructure your business model.

Too many businesses make the assumption that they are ahead of the game when it comes to new technologies, when in fact they are no less complacent in their old ways than their like-minded competitors. To those in the know, digital disruption will prove the windfall their businesses deserve—be sure to take the necessary steps to ensure that your business comes out on the right side.

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