Supply chains must rise to climate challenge

Contractors have a critical role to play in helping utilities companies future proof their networks. Ronan Clancy writes for Utility Week about the steps supply chains can take to meet this challenge.

The past summer has highlighted the ever-growing pressure on water networks from the effects of global warming. As we begin to prepare for AMP8, water companies face pressures not just to tackle climate change and safeguard our water supplies, but to minimise environmental impact and protect habitats. They must also deliver against this mission while driving greater efficiencies.

By delivering crucial repair and maintenance and capital projects that build and maintain network resilience, contractors will continue to play a critical role in helping utility companies to future-proof the network.

To step up to this challenge, the supply chain will need an unrelenting focus on innovation, investing in cutting-edge technology, cultivating the right culture and building our workforce’s skills for the future.

Embracing innovation

Digital technology holds huge potential to detect and fix water leakages more quickly and efficiently, which will need to be a priority for the entire supply chain as we begin to see more regular threats of drought.

Our recent investment in BlueLight pipe re-lining technology for our wastewater team is a demonstration of what can be achieved.  The lower curing temperature of the LED system it uses and its faster curing time mean that our teams can carry out repairs much more quickly.  Unlike traditional re-lining systems, the equipment can be transported in a small van, reducing emissions, and repairs can be carried out in tight spaces without the need for significant disruption or road closures.

As well as reducing the time it takes for repair, the initial investment in the technology is paying for itself.  For example, for the typical cost of digging down to a damaged section of pipe, we can now repair the entire length of it.

When it comes to plant, trenchless techniques such as directional drilling and horizontal auger boring offer particularly exciting opportunities to improve efficiency and reduce disruption.  As well as minimising disturbance to the environment and local communities, trenchless techniques also lower the amount of waste produced and transported off site.  Not only can this reduce carbon emissions but it further improves the safety of our people and allows greater flexibility for work in challenging locations such as busy urban areas.

Reimagining ways of working

Innovation isn’t simply a case of investing in new plant and technology – it also means building the skills and culture that help our teams to approach problems creatively and identify more efficient ways of working.

Working together with a water client on the installation of water meters in a drought-prone area to more quickly detect leakages, our team was tasked with rapidly ramping up delivery.  Inspired by Formula 1’s pitstop model, we worked to identify incremental changes – looking at everything from team structures, to installation and assurance processes – to install the meters as quickly and effectively as possible.  Overall the programme delivered an eight-minute reduction in time taken per job and saved a significant £1 million a year, earning the title of Team of the Year at the Utility Week Awards 2022.

The success of approaches like this relies of course on operational expertise.  However, just as important are the softer skills – the appreciation of our technicians for the wider project and desired outcomes, as well as constant communication and collaboration between our teams and clients.

As we attract and train talent across our sector, these softer skills should be a priority alongside traditional practical expertise.  With national population growth placing greater pressure on networks, innovative, collaborative problem solving will be crucial to building and maintaining infrastructure at the pace needed to tackle the looming challenge of hotter, drier weather.

By bringing together investment in both practical delivery and a new set of cultural behaviours we will be able to deliver more quickly and efficiently and in a way that minimises disruption and environmental impact.

Our sector will continue to face headwinds as the demands of AMP8 require water companies to do more for less, while climate change places added pressure on our networks.  This is not a burden for water companies to shoulder alone – the entire supply chain needs to pull together and focus on being as efficient and collaborative as possible.