Radical innovation in water treatment

Operator-centred design unlocks radical innovation in water treatment

Ironically, the success of modern water treatment remains hidden for as long as it is effective, becoming visible only when it fails. In a water scarce country, however, we dare not take clean water for granted. The effective operation of critical water-related infrastructure must be prioritised, understood and valued if we are to protect what is, arguably, our most precious resource.

Through a series of innovative projects, Zutari Solutionists applied a human-centred design philosophy to create water treatment facilities that do just that. Surprisingly beautiful, these plants achieve the goals of effective water treatment, operator engagement, and public education.

Human-centred design and innovation

Water treatment in South Africa has always been an innovative space.  In the 60s, 70s and 80s innovative bulk water schemes, world leading clean drinking water production and the protection of aquatic environments by ground-breaking wastewater treatment technologies were prioritized on local soil because of severely constrained resources.  South Africans have been benefitting from this innovative infrastructure ever since, but we are at a critical juncture.  Infrastructure must be maintained, refurbished and replaced. “Large investments in water infrastructure are required to maintain service delivery,” advises Geoff du Toit, Technical Director at Zutari.

It looks like innovation is on the table once again, and Zutari’s large and multidisciplinary treatment team is blazing a trail.  By integrating technical mastery, creative intelligence and digital acumen, the award-winning team has embraced a new normal. The team believes that contextualised understanding of complex problems drives the engineering of impactful human-centred solutions.

Designing better water treatment works begins, in the spirit of human-centred design, with plant operators – an ongoing source of inspiration for the team.

“We’ve found that, at the best run plants, plant operators are highly engaged,” explained du Toit. “Automation seems attractive, but it tends to lead to detached operators and low plant quality.  For us, therefore, human-centred design actually begins as operator-centred design.  We focus on understanding the operator’s experience of the plant, and then we design systems and processes that empower plant operators to run quality operations.”

Inspired by the operators, Zutari has redesigned plant circuits, improved lighting, and designed plant components for greater visibility, access, and serviceability.  Operators have also been empowered through digital infrastructure. “We made sure the operator had eyes on everything. Everything was monitored, but automation was reserved for only the applications where it was really needed,” du Toit explained. By empowering plant operators, the team not only improved their quality of work, but also ensured greater ownership of and initiative for effective maintenance, as well as direct accountability.

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“For us, therefore, human-centred design actually begins as operator-centred design.  We focus on understanding the operator’s experience of the plant, and then we design systems and processes that empower plant operators to run quality operations.”

A shared canvas

“Visualisation, especially virtual reality, has helped our clients understand the scope and scale of what we’re offering. 2D drawings just don’t cut it.”

Unlocking the critical inputs that led to these insights and innovations, required more than show and tell. Zutari needed a shared canvas that would enable all stakeholders to understand the design intent; that would empower everyone to provide meaningful feedback.

“We used engineering design models and created immersive walk-throughs of realistic virtual reality renderings of the designs,” said Murray Walker, a game engine developer at Zutari.  This innovative use of game engines and virtual reality hardware allowed a shared understanding to emerge, closing the gap between engineers and plant operators and enabling the collaborative, iterative design process behind the team’s success.

“Visualisation, especially virtual reality, has helped our clients understand the scope and scale of what we’re offering.  2D drawings just don’t cut it,” reiterated Murray.  The team has used virtual reality applications to train plant operators through simulations and has even supported clients to use these visualisations to mobalise project financing.

“There is a perception,” says du Toit, “that good design will cost more and is an extra nice-to-have. This is not true. What our projects have proved is that thoughtful, human-centred design is not more expensive but results in more efficient designs with a positive impact on the environment, long-term durability and morale of staff.”

Judging from feedback, this approach is highly appreciated by operators on the ground. An operator at the Kleinmond wastewater treatment works said: “You don’t always get the chance to talk to some of the bosses. With the workshops, we could sit around one table, look each other in the eye, and listen to what each had to say and talk together.

Water education

Being a Solutionist is an end-to-end process, so it is no surprise that the Zutari water treatment team is focused on the pre-, during-, and post design-and-deliver aspects of their projects.  This long-term focus has enabled Zutari to expand the boundaries of engineering to add real value to clients and their stakeholders.

“Part of Zutari’s vision is to create awareness of the water cycle in an effort to foster appreciation and conservation of this precious resource,” stated du Toit.  “A human-centred design approach demystifies and democratizes water treatment and helps people understand the importance of water reuse.  When people realise all that is required to clean their water, attitudes change.” 

To do this, the team designed water treatment facilities that are more transparent, accessible and attractive to the public they serve.

Besides providing valuable input in the design phase, plant operators were a key part of this long-term vision.  “We want the people operating the plants to be proud of the facility; to look after it and share it with others,” says Kenney O’kennedy, industrial engineer at Zutari.

These truly are structures to be proud of.  Far from the traditional industrial eyesores we’ve come to expect, Meulwater water treatment works on Paarl Mountain and the Stellenbosch waste water treatment plant seem fit for the pages of a lifestyle magazine.  Designed to receive visitors, Meulwater has been welcoming approximately 1,500 schoolchildren every year since it was commissioned in 2012.  At plants like Meulwater and Stellenbosch the infrastructure demystifies the story of water – a story that will only gain prominence in years to come and one that is “largely misunderstood,” according to du Toit. 

Zutari’s water treatment team, as trusted advisors to the City of Cape Town, is currently working on the Faure New Water Scheme, which will augment the current Faure water treatment plant – Cape Town’s biggest treatment plant.  “We’re expecting a lot of international attention on this project,” said du Toit of the facility which will be one of the most transparent and visitor-friendly water treatment facilities ever built on the continent.  Fresh thinking indeed.

“We want the people operating the plants be proud of the facility; to look after it.”

Meet the Solutionist


Geoff du Toit

Technical Director: Water Treatment
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