Making the case for full automation

Opinion: It is in everyone's best interests to move to full automation, particularly for publicly-owned facilities. Experiences running large spinning equipment in a dangerous and unhealthy environment led to exploring ways to reduce, if not eliminate, human involvement in the process.

By Daniel E. Capano August 14, 2021


Learning Objectives

  • Full automation can increase efficiency, quality and lower costs.
  • Automation can add innovation, education.
  • Automation utopia? Maybe not, but dystopia need not result.

It is in everyone’s best interests to move to full automation. This goes for all verticals, and particularly for publicly-owned facilities. While this might be heresy to some, the realities are like pigeons coming home to roost.

Full disclosure: I come from a labor background. I was a union machinist before I became an instrumentation professional; my experiences running large spinning equipment in a dangerous and unhealthy environment actually drove me to explore ways to reduce, if not eliminate human involvement in the process. This was some 30 years ago. Things have changed quite a bit, especially in manufacturing, where automation is well entrenched. However, the same cannot be said for many simple  processes, particularly in the water and wastewater industries.

Water, wastewater treatment automation efficiencies

Most industries have automated during the same time span, but unlike manufacturing, which cannot completely automate the supply, quality control and management functions without compromising the end product, water and wastewater treatment facilities can be fully automated without compromising quality. In fact, quality can be improved at great savings to the rate and taxpayers. This is especially true for large facilities where economies of scale kick in.

The human element has always been the largest expense in any enterprise and carries the most risk. Incremental reductions in staff due to automation have been occurring steadily over the years, but recent economic activity has slowed this trend. I believe this is more political than technical and an undercurrent of anti-intellectualism has infected the populace and must run its course before further progress can be attained. This is merely a distraction, however, and in due time, level heads will prevail.

Automation efficiency, safety

There are many reasons for going to full automation. Let’s talk about cost first. It is no secret a single machine can do the work of several people. Some examples: where a sewage treatment worker (STW, a generic term) previously had to operate a series of slide gates to remove accumulated scum buildup at the primary and final treatment tanks of a facility – raise, dwell, lower, repeat – a single programmable logic controller (PLC) can do this and also process many other signals – 24/7.

This is networked back to a central location, where a single operator can observe (key word: observe) the process and intervene if necessary. This eliminates three salaries, one per shift. When such systems were implemented some 25 years ago, labor representatives were furious until they weren’t. As it turned out, no one wanted to do the job anyway.

Another example is a disinfection facility. Previously, a facility had daily violations for either over- or under-dosing effluent with hypochlorite prior to discharge. The operator worked from a chart mounted next to a metering pump, which was mounted next to a hypochlorite day tank, which was next to a lounge chair, television and hot plate.

During the day shift, the operator had to turn the pump up during the morning rush, and then down afterwards. This was repeated at the noon flows, and again at dinner (second shift). Third shift, the overnight shift, had perform the same process starting about 11:30 p.m. The authority was using almost 60,000 gallons of hypochlorite a week and still getting violations.

The designed solution was a feedforward pump control system with a feedback trim from outfall-mounted probes. The system maintained a straight line 2.5 ppm residual that paced flow regardless of volume and without operator actuation. The violations ceased and the client cut hypochlorite use by two-thirds. Three operators were reassigned, which was a difficult change for labor.

SCADA advantage, benefits

The previous two examples are not isolated. The promises and rewards of increased process efficiency and better quality are hard to ignore. These examples show if an owner has the will, operating staff restrictions can be overcome and create costs savings. Labor may oppose automation, but the march of progress shouldn’t be halted. The rise of supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) is a modern success story. SCADA has made the idea of virtual monitoring for facilities attainable for some applications. In some cases, facilities without onsite operators are possible.

The concept of a licensed operator monitoring and controlling a complete collection and treatment system from an office downtown is not science fiction.

While maintenance and repair of facilities and equipment requires human hands (at least for now), eliminating human error in process management holds great promise.

Automation benefits analysis: Costs, safety, quality

The first example illustrates how staff can be used more efficiently.

In the second example, effluent quality was greatly improved by automation. Regulatory compliance was virtually guaranteed by automating the process. In both cases, costs were reduced and the risks inherent with human error were eliminated.

The application of automatic controls to disinfection is now almost universal. There is not one process or instrumentation and control (I&C) engineer that would consider anything else. In both cases, efficiency was increased, and costs were reduced. Treatment quality also was improved in both cases.

Elimination of one or more staff positions can be offset by cross training or re-training or, in some cases, early retirement or termination. Machines have gotten smarter and can be applied in more environments.

Another consideration for the elimination of the human element is the newer threat of cyberattack. It has been well established that the human element is the most easily and often compromised (See Control Engineering article, November 2019). By eliminating the need for human interaction in the monitoring and control of critical processes, or by removing the ability of a human operator to cause a breach in network security, the overall security and viability of a facility is enhanced and preserved. Recent events involving a treatment plant breach and a pipeline ransomware attack were traced directly back to human error. Limiting the involvement of the human asset is recognized as a key factor in securing a critical facility. Automated intruder detection and mitigation is a mature technology that requires no human operator. These technologies can be designed into SCADA systems and through the use of secure communications can effectively eliminate most threats caused by human error.

Automation, innovation, education

Henry Ford II, observing a new robotic assembly line, asked Walter Reuther, UAW president, “Walter, how are you going to get those robots to pay your union dues?”

Reuther replied, “Henry, how are you going to get them to buy your cars?”

Any increase in efficiency may reassign or reduce staff. Classical economics states any increase in productivity and innovation (in this case, from automation) causes prices to fall, demand to rise, more workers will be hired and the economy grows. Labor often suggests increasing automation results in the loss of jobs and widespread unemployment. This is called the “Luddite Fallacy,” which, if true, would mean we would all be out of jobs. This fallacy describes the concept of technological unemployment, whereby people are displaced by machines. This has been discussed since the time of Aristotle.

To be fair, more automation can change employment needs. Those with outmoded or obsolete skills will be displaced, replaced or re-trained. As the populace becomes better educated, more innovation will create better jobs. As someone once said: “An educated populace can be driven, but not led.”

It is generally agreed the trend towards automation will fall heavily on those with low skills. Witness the systematic elimination of toll collectors in many advanced countries in favor of automated toll systems. An exception may be retail self-checkout lanes. Most stockholders love it; many consumers do not.

Automation creates hope for a better world

A dystopian automated world was depicted in Kurt Vonnegut’s 1952 novel, “Player Piano” where all goods were produced in automated factories, and the working class is relegated either to the “Reeks and Wrecks” (Reconstruction and Reclamation Corps) or the Army. The downtrodden, displaced workforce rises up to smash the machines. Spoiler: It doesn’t turn out well for labor.

Vonnegut stated he was inspired to write the novel after seeing machinists replaced by automated milling machines for cutting the complex shapes of turbine blades at a General Electric jet engine factory.

We do not have to create a dystopian future.

All wastewater treatment plant processes can be automated and remotely controlled. Main pumps are automated based on flow or level and all operating parameters are monitored. Continuing in the treatment train, primary tank flights, dipping weirs, scum weirs or slide gates, and odor control can all be easily automated. Aeration tanks are automated, blowers are controlled by dissolved oxygen instrumentation and pressure monitoring of headers and drops. Any chemical addition, like methanol or glycerol for BNR enhancement or the aforementioned disinfection facility, is automated.

Final settling tanks are similar to primaries. With online analytical instrumentation in place, there is no need for grab sampling, though many localities bow to political pressure in requiring it, however redundant. Most systems described are already automated in most forward-thinking facilities.

Automation doesn’t have to be anti-labor, although staff reductions can save wages, pensions and “other post-employment benefits” that are increasing user rates and taxes.

More automation benefits all in the long run by improving education and quality of life. A rising tide lifts all boats. It may take generations before the full benefits are realized, and then history will not be kind.

Daniel E. Capano is senior construction manager with Gannett Fleming Engineers and Architects, a Control Engineering content partner, and Capano is an editorial advisory board member. Edited by Mark T. Hoske, content manager, Control Engineering, CFE Media and Technology,

KEYWORDS: Water/wastewater facility automation


What future vision can automation create in your world?

Author Bio: Daniel E. Capano is senior project manager, Gannett Fleming Engineers and Architects, P.C. and a Control Engineering Editorial Advisory Board member