When most of us turn on a tap, we don’t give a second thought to how the potable water comes from reservoirs to our homes.
Thankfully, some University of Adelaide researchers have put a lot of thought into this over the years, and the result is a better, more efficient design for water distribution systems.
Professor Graeme Dandy—who won the Australian Water Association Water Professional of the Year for 2014—and his colleague Professor Angus Simpson have been hard at work improving operations of water supply systems throughout Australia and across the world using fast mathematical optimisation techniques.
In 1996, after a couple of years consulting in the field, they formed Optimatics Pty Ltd, which purchased intellectual property developed at the University in order to commercialise a ‘genetic algorithm’ software solution that optimises water distribution systems. The concept arose out of a PhD project undertaken by Laurie Murphy under the supervision of Professors Simpson and Dandy.
Professor Dandy said that the traditional method of choosing pipe sizes for water distribution systems was by ‘trial and error’ with the performance of each design being checked using hydraulic simulation software.
Given there may be many more combinations of pipe sizes than there are atoms in the universe, this is a hit and miss affair.
The genetic algorithm, on the other hand, assigns a number to each possible pipe size and then represents each design as a string of numbers similar to a chromosome. When chromosomes are combined to produce new designs they have some of the characteristics of parent chromosomes like children have traits from each parent.
It then disposes of the combinations that don’t meet the criteria (natural selection, if you wish) and keeps those that do, while choosing more and more cost-effective combinations of those that survive (survival of the fittest).
Although this is a simplified explanation of the truly ingenious solution, it allows potential clients to understand why investment in Optimatics makes sound business sense.
After all, research has shown the company’s products significantly reduce the cost—by up to 30 to 40 percent—of a water distribution or waste collection systems whether it be as part of a 30-year master plan, in design or in day-to-day operations.
The company has consulted for water utilities in Australasia, North America and the United Kingdom and is currently moving from being a consulting firm to a software company with four major products covering water distribution systems, water collection systems (sewerage), water resources (dams, groundwater sources, desalination plants, etc.) and real-time operations.