Changing Tide: Harnessing Detroit’s Design Expertise to Launch America’s Next Great Industry

Over a hundred years ago, Henry Ford transformed the automobile from a custom-made, luxury item to a low-cost, standardized product that became the engine of the world economy. Today, water purification and waste water treatment remain fragmented industries, driven by custom projects to fix small parts of a rapidly decaying infrastructure. Could the design skills that made the Mustang Convertible and the Pontiac transform the emerging water technology sector into Detroit’s next great industry?

Water professionals run large-scale, centralized treatment plants with a hands-on approach. Much of the equipment has remained the same for decades. Water managers take water samples directly from the stream of water and analyze them on site in laboratories.

While the market in question is businesses rather than consumers, the value of user-friendly, “plug and play” onsite waste water treatment and recycling “appliances” is essential. If we are to replace hands-on management by professionals with automated machines and sensors, successful transformation of our current water industry will require the rigorous design that is applied to cars today.

As water and energy conservation become important priorities, we cannot ignore the dramatic benefits of decentralized water management. Businesses use about a third of the water in urban settings. We could save an estimated quarter of that slice of urban water use, much of the energy needed to manage it and reduce waste water capacity by utilizing onsite water treatment and recycling appliances. For example, onsite water recycling can save 80-90 percent of the drinking water required at a business like a retail store, and over 85 percent of the energy required to convey that water. In places where water must be transported long distances, the energy savings that are afforded by onsite water management are

At the same time, infrastructure for delivering water from centralized plants is far overextended, with over 70 percent of the current budget for water utilities focused upon serving only 10 percent of U.S. population. Current onsite systems are not reliable, with over 10 percent of systems failing to comply with basic performance standards.

The need to use water and energy more wisely is great, and the technology for on-location water management is well-proven and improving rapidly. What is lacking is the kind of industrial design for reliability and low-cost manufacturing that the engineers who once worked at Chrysler, GM and Ford can bring.

Here is an enormous market that cannot help but grow in importance. Now is the time to harness Detroit’s design expertise to launch this great industry in the United States.

Laura Shenkar is principal at The Artemis Project, a consulting practice that combines business development for pioneering water tech products with projects that apply water conservation approaches to large corporations.