Engineered for success
A South Australian engineering firm which provides a global consulting service on water distribution systems, saving companies millions of dollars, has its roots at the University of Adelaide.
Optimatics specialises in developing cost-effective and efficient designs for piped water distribution systems.
Established in 1996, Optimatics grew out of a University of Adelaide PhD project by Laurie Murphy on the use of genetic algorithms for pipe network optimisation. The project was supervised by Professor Angus Simpson and Professor Graeme Dandy from the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering. Professor Simpson and Professor Dandy are directors of Optimatics and Laurie Murphy is a senior modeller with the company.
Genetic algorithm (GA) optimisation is a technique that is used to solve complex water network problems by evaluating hundreds of thousands of possible solutions and finding the best outcome. The solutions are generated in a highly structured manner, similar to population genetics, using operators such as selection, crossover and mutation.
Professor Dandy said that since its inception the company had carried out more than 80 urban water and irrigation studies worldwide for clients in Australia, the USA, Canada, the UK and New Zealand.
"The clients are mainly water utilities or irrigation authorities. For example, Gold Coast Water and Murrumbidgee Irrigation in Australia, the City of San Diego in the USA and Severn Trent in the UK have each supported a number of optimisation studies by Optimatics," Professor Dandy said.
"By using Optimatics, companies are saving in the order of 15% to 50% of the capital costs of their systems while still meeting all of the required performance criteria. For example, on a project for San Diego, Optimatics achieved cost savings of 36%--or $20 million--for their Californian client.
"More recently, Optimatics has carried out studies on optimising system operations aimed at improving water quality. A study of system operations in Las Vegas, for example, reduced the average age of water supplied to consumers by 13%--leading to an expected improvement in water quality."
Export earnings alone account for more than 60% of Optimatics' revenue stream.
The General Manager of Optimatics, Tim Anderson (a University of Adelaide graduate in civil engineering), said the company had a track record of applying optimisation to real water distribution systems for the past ten years.
To date, the focus has been primarily on cost savings, but Optimatics is now starting to consider sustainability, environmental and social aspects of piped networks as well.
"We recently completed a study in New South Wales that looked at energy requirements and the quantity of materials used in pipes, rather than purely at cost," Mr Anderson said.
"A lot of the systems we are dealing with are pipes below the ground so they do not have a significant environmental impact, but you still have to consider the energy required to pump water through the pipes as well as the energy required to manufacture the pipes themselves," he said.
Optimatics is also in the process of branching out to wastewater and stormwater systems, providing new opportunities for the company's continued growth.
Optimatics was recently awarded a $414,545 Commercial Ready Grant by the Federal Government though AusIndustry to develop, in association with the University of Adelaide, a software tool to provide more efficient and effective designs for complex sewer collection networks and stormwater catchment drainage systems.
Professor Dandy said other opportunities for commercialisation were opening up all the time in the engineering faculty.
"The School of Mechanical Engineering, for example, has developed a greatly improved design method for air conditioning systems, and Professor Simpson and Associate Professor Martin Lambert in the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering are developing new techniques for detecting leaks in pipes."
Optimatics' growth rate has been impressive. In the past year alone it has employed four new staff including two graduate engineers, boosting its staff to more than 20, with offices in the USA and UK. It also plans to open an office on the Gold Coast this year.
Most of the engineering staff employed by the company, including three women, are graduates from the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Adelaide.
In May 2005, Optimatics won the South Australian Water Industry Alliance Innovation Award with its world leading development of Distributed GA computing, allowing the company to use a suite of up to 200 computers on one project.
The previous year, Optimatics took out the Export Development Award offered by the Water Industry Alliance.
"This is big business we are talking about because our work is saving companies many millions of dollars," Mr Anderson said.
"When you consider that in South Australia alone there are 25,000 kilometres of water supply pipelines and the circumference of the earth is 40,000 kilometres, you get an idea of the enormity of the opportunities," he said. ■
Story Candy Gibson