Construction is the world’s largest industry, accounting for 13% of global GDP. But for years its productivity levels have been stagnant due to lack of consistent investment in innovative processes. A recent study by McKinsey & Company shows that in the last twenty years, productivity in construction grew by just 1% compared to the average trend in all other industrial sectors. The Covid-19 tsunami was an opportunity for many industry players to invest in digitalisation and R&D, as well as sustainability and human capital advancement, prioritising these categories.
But change was afoot even before 2020. According to McKinsey, R&D spending by the industry’s 2,500 largest companies globally has increased 77% since 2013. For years, Webuild Group has been committed to technological innovation. This commitment has been shown through partnerships with the research world and practical application in the construction sites the group has opened around the world. From the Panama Canal to the San Giorgio Bridge in Genoa, from Snowy 2.0 in Australia to the Lake Mead Tunnel in the United States to the Terzo Valico dei Giovi, the high-speed railway set to connect Genoa and Milan, Webuild Group’s large-scale works have been and remain the “ground floor” for environment- and people-centered technological experimentation processes.
Innovation in service of sustainability
In the construction of large-scale, complex works, more innovation often means more sustainable processes.
A chief characteristic of the Webuild Group’s production models is a focus on sustainability, not just in terms of community impact (for example, the positive effects that high-speed trains and metro lines can have on reducing traffic and pollution), but also in terms of how the structures themselves are built.
In 2020, 100% of the waste produced at Webuild’s construction sites has been reused and 69% is sent for recycling. Compared to 2014, the works’ CO2 emissions have been reduced by 56%, while 91% of material supplies are sourced and 82% of staff are hired locally. Sustainability is a holistic way of working that takes into account the roles and safety of people on the construction sites, and not just works’ environmental impact.
For six consecutive years, the number of accidents has decreased, underscoring the group’s emphasis on health and safety issues.
To monitor progress in its transition toward sustainability, the Group developed a 5P model (Planet, People, Partnership, Progress, Prosperity). With a constant reduction of energy consumption and waste sent for recycling, the first goal is to reduce environmental footprint by creating works that can withstand the effects of climate change (Planet). As for the People pillar, the 100 nationalities represented in construction sites around the world, along with the fall in the number of accidents, highlight how the Group is supporting worker safety and inclusion. Partnerships, through the many collaboration agreements co-signed by universities, research bodies and start-ups, help support innovative processes; today there are more than 30 suppliers involved in the Group’s innovation activities.
This is a new working model that generates value for customers, the supply chain and the territory (Progress), increasing productivity and ensuring that 91% of supplies are sourced locally.
All this combines to create the key “P” of Prosperity, aimed at improving quality of life. To this end, Webuild’s projects, once completed, will ensure benefit to 87 million people worldwide and an annual cut of 21 million tons of harmful CO2 emissions.
Construction techniques changing the work sites
Large-scale work construction sites often become laboratories where industrial and scientific discoveries are put to the test. This was and still is the case of the San Giorgio Bridge in Genoa, which was not only rapidly built, but vaunts aesthetic appeal and new innovative assets.
Two innovative technologies have been set up on the bridge. The first is an inspection robot, a machine that scans and monitors the steel surfaces of the outer deck to check materials’ condition and safety. The second is a wash robot that travels from one end of the bridge to the other, cleaning the glass and photovoltaic panels.
The robots installed on the new San Giorgio Bridge are just one example of the many innovative solutions implemented on Webuild Group works and worksites.
Another example can be seen in the Riachuelo project, in which a pumping plant is being built to clean up the waters of the Buenos Aires river (one of the most polluted in Latin America). For the first time anywhere in the world, an innovative installation of vertical pipes, called “risers,” were set up inside submarine tunnels and mechanised much of the work, increasing worker safety and mitigating environmental impact. Then there’s the Snowy 2.0 project, currently underway in Australia. The mega hydroelectric plant for clean energy production employs innovative excavation systems that allow the TBMs (tunnel boring machines) to dig inclined shafts with a maximum slope of 25 degrees.
In order to keep excavations safe, either in urban settings or where there are environmental particularities (such as digging under watercourses), underground excavations are carried out by freezing the groundwater, which stabilizes the soil in the surrounding area.
These techniques were implemented in the undercrossing of the Isarco river, a part of the new Brenner railway tunnel, as well as in downtown Milan, where the tunnels of the new M4, a metro line connecting Linate airport with the city center, are underway.
Excavations are highly complex operations and experimentation is fundamental to their success. In the construction of the Lake Mead hydraulic tunnel, the largest artificial lake in the United States, and source of Las Vegas’ drinking water, a unique prototype TBM was designed that could advance under a maximum pressure of 15 bar. This was twice the previous world record.
Digital construction sites, transparent construction sites
A construction site is a world in its own right – an often-vast space where thousands of people work together. In the Panama Canal construction sites, as well as those of large African dams or high-speed railways like the Terzo Valico dei Giovi between Genoa and Milan, thousands of workers, technicians and engineers all work at once. To keep activities efficient and safe, the Group has launched an innovative process of creating digital worksites. The aim is to expand digital technologies to support management processes, from the worksites’ startup phases to projects’ conclusions. Several tools are used to do this. Among these is the “Smart Box”, an artificial intelligence device placed on the main machines in use (dumpers, excavators, bulldozers, cranes, rollers), and used to collect all machine data (from speed to position to fuel consumption). The software then analyzes this information and transforms it into useful statistics used to improve safety and productivity.
In the most complex excavation works, such as the Snowy 2.0 Hydropower Project in Australia, the Tunnel WeView has been incorporated. This system allows visualization of all information on the work of the TBM, collecting all the data in a single control room for processing and analysis.
The work of these TBMs, ultra-technological giants that can exceed 100 meters (328 feet) in length, is being continuously studied. In the United States, Webuild and Lane Construction, the group’s American subsidiary, are collaborating with the Colorado School of Mines on a project involving artificial intelligence applied to tunnel boring machines, aimed at improving their operating efficiency. The machines are being used in the construction of a Washington D.C. tunnel.
Digitalisation, then, is the home stretch of applying innovative processes and techniques within construction sites. Along with the need for sustainability and new construction techniques, digitalising processes will not only mean increasing productivity and protecting the environment, but also will considerably raise onsite safety levels and better protecting people, the most important asset in large-scale construction work.