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Contractor (November 2017) Innovate or Stagnate

01 Nov 2017
Rob Gaimster
Concrete NZ

We find ourselves in strange times.  Construction is at almost unprecedented levels and the ‘job sheet’ remains full for the majority.

Yet, we hear of businesses struggling, and in some instances going-under. We are also in the uncertain position of waiting for policy implementation from the new Government, while at the same time nervously waiting for the boom to (inevitably?) transition to bust.

Regardless of the outcome, one thing is certain – the need to innovate remains a priority in a rapidly evolving and increasingly competitive environment, where the failure to develop answers in response to constant or emergent questions will most likely mean coming in second place.

WHAT IS INNOVATION?

Definitions abound, but in general terms ‘innovation’ can be seen as “the application of better solutions to meet new requirements or implicit needs”.

Over recent years ‘innovation’ has evolved into ‘disruptive innovation’, and is broadly interpreted as an “innovation that creates a new or disrupts an existing market and value network; displacing traditional market leading companies, products, and coalitions”.

INNOVATION IN CONSTRUCTION

Over recent decades the generally risk-averse construction industry has tended to adopt innovation that is more incremental than radical.

However, despite being seen as a late adopter, the construction industry can point to its recent acceptance of the Industry Transformation Agenda, a BRANZ led project for collaborating, organising and prioritising projects to affect meaningful change; as an indication of a commitment to innovation.

INNOVATION IN CONCRETE

Similarly, the concrete industry sometimes suffers from being seen as reluctant to innovate, primarily because many consider concrete ‘old technology’. However, this is definitely not the case.

I have written on numerous occasions about concrete based technologies that are transforming the way that buildings and infrastructure are designed and constructed. 

Advances in cement and admixture technology have been dramatic over recent decades. Investment in research has led to improved manufacturing processes and additives that reduce environmental impacts and allow designers to exploit concrete.

Echoing innovations in its constituent materials, concrete itself is undergoing constant development. The umbrella term high performance concrete captures features that include higher strengths, enhanced abrasion resistance and durability, improved resistance to chemical attack, and greater ease of placement.

There are however, two concrete-based innovations that have the potential to seriously disrupt the construction and concrete industries in New Zealand and in so doing dramatically enhanced productivity. These are 3D concrete printing and ductile cementitious composite.

3D CONCRETE PRINTING 

As covered by Jia and Lendrum from Callaghan Innovation at the 2017 Concrete Industry Conference in Wellington, 3D printing of concrete, also known as Cementitious Additive Manufacturing (CAM), is advancing quickly with a range of sample structures having been constructed by academia and commercial interests.

The authors note that while the global 3D printing market is being driven by the strong demand from automotive, medical, military and aerospace sectors, construction is regarded as the next main area with the potential to embrace 3D printing.

The two most important printing technologies used in concrete construction are fused deposition modelling (FDM) and three-dimensional printing (3DP). 

While there are limitations in terms of building code coverage and the need for materials development, the immediate future will see 3D concrete printing adopted for temporary structures and architectural features.

Beyond that, structural applications for 3D concrete printing will emerge, such as the ‘world's first 3D-printed bridge’ designed and built by engineers from the Technical University of Eindhoven and construction company BAM Infra.

DUCTILE CEMENTITIOUS COMPOSITE

As seismic structural design moves beyond ‘life safety’ towards ‘building survivability’, recent innovations in damage resistant design using concrete systems, such as PREcast Seismic Structural System (PRESSS) and base isolation, are leading the way. 

There is however, an exciting new seismic-resistant, fibre-reinforced concrete developed at the University of British Columbia (B.C.), set to pique the interest of engineers and property owners here in New Zealand.

Termed Eco-Friendly Ductile Cementitious Composite (EDCC), the material is engineered at the molecular scale to be strong and ductile; enhancing the earthquake resistance of a seismically vulnerable structure when applied as a thin coating on the surfaces.  

EDCC also combines cement with polymer-based fibres, flyash and other industrial additives, to enhance its sustainability credentials.

Along with being added as an official retrofit option in B.C.’s seismic retrofit program focussing on schools, other EDCC applications include resilient homes, pipelines, pavements, offshore platforms, blast-resistant structures, and industrial floors.

FUTURE UPTAKE

Change is inevitable. Concrete, including its constituent materials and systems, has and continues to compete strongly with alternative building materials to design solutions that address current and anticipated requirements.

No one can predict the future, but I’m confident that the concrete industry’s growing appetite for innovation today will yield results that advance New Zealand’s built environment tomorrow.