Digital opportunities: Eurasphalt & Eurobitume (E&E) event, Berlin

Traditional players in the European bitumen sector need to grasp digital technology in all its forms to survive. Kristina Smith reports from the recent E&E conference in Berlin. Two big, interdependent challenges face the European asphalt industry. The sector must understand the digital age and acknowledge the opportunities as well as threats that it brings to companies. Also, traditional manufacturers and suppliers must attract young talent. These were thoroughly examined at the two-day Eurasphalt & Eur
Materials / July 3, 2018
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Arash Khojinian, with Highways England: zero ownership of cars is the future
Traditional players in the European bitumen sector need to grasp digital technology in all its forms to survive. Kristina Smith reports from the recent E&E conference in Berlin

Two big, interdependent challenges face the European asphalt industry. The sector must understand the digital age and acknowledge the opportunities as well as threats that it brings to companies. Also, traditional manufacturers and suppliers must attract young talent.

These were thoroughly examined at the two-day 5923 Eurasphalt & Eurobitume (E&E) conference in Berlin in June. The congress, entitled Preparing the Asphalt Industry for the Future, marked a departure from previous congresses, held every four years.

The Berlin event was the first of the E&E congresses that focussed not solely on technical issues. Many of the attendees were from management positions and fewer held technical roles. Even so, there were notable presentations on more regular themes such as sustainability and health and safety best practice.

But it was the repercussion of the digital age that took priority during the show, right at the start of the conference which attracted more than 400 people, including exhibitors. Delegates were encouraged to download the conference app - - which allowed questions to be posed to speakers and votes to be made during debates.

“We are seeing a lot of change in the market and the working environment and four years is a long time now,” says Siobhan Mckelvey, Eurobitume president. “We need to be more open and connected to a wider part of our audience.”

“We are facing a great revolution,” Guillaume Bastien, commercial and business development director for 184 Colas Europe, told the conference in the opening session that looked at how emerging technologies could impact roads. “There is no other way than to go with data and new technologies and go as fast as we can.” The alternative, Bastien warned, was for totally new players to come in and take away part of the traditional player’s already small margins.

Fewer car owners

Vehicle manufacturers are pushing ahead with their developments but not involving, or even showing an interest in, the asphalt industry, said Bastien. As a result, road researchers are looking at a number of what-if scenarios.

Nicolas Hautiere, deputy director of IFFSTAR, the French Institute of Science and Technology for Transport, Development and Networks, spoke about the I-Street programme. More than US$17.5 million will be invested in demonstration projects in the French cities of Nantes, Toulouse, Lyon and Champs-sur-Marne, close to Paris.

Subjects under investigation include greener roads, instrumented and connected roads, prefabricated and removable roads and new road markings.

Despite the uncertainty, one trend is widely predicted: car ownership will decrease dramatically since few of today’s children when they are older will want to own vehicles.

“We’re moving towards zero ownership,” said Arash Khojinian, pavement materials team leader at 8100 Highways England in the UK. He recounted a conversation with his eight-year-old daughter while he was searching through his music database for a track to play. “Can’t you find it on Spotify,” she asked him.

There are many implications on the horizon for the bitumen and asphalt producers should people increasingly prefer to pay to use vehicles as required rather than own them. Gergely Raccuja*, a consultant at 2958 Amey Consulting UK, won the 2017 Wolfson Economic Prize with his paper Paying for Road Use Could be Miles Better. He suggests that a tax should be applied to a vehicle that reflects the miles driven. Price-per-mile will depend upon the vehicle’s weight and polluting potential.

“With shared vehicles, there may be much fewer vehicles driving more miles, so it’s very important that we reinvest based on that,” Raccuja told the conference. With a switch to electric and hybrid vehicles, taxes collected from fuel consumption will continue to fall.

Raccuja’s scheme, developed in conjunction with the UK motoring organisation 5521 RAC Foundation, sees insurance companies collecting the taxes on behalf of the government. Monthly mileage would be collected by telematics or self-reported. For people who don’t use technology, distance travelled could be collected annually when the vehicle receives its annual health check-up, called in the UK an MOT certificate.

Miles Better also requires that tax money is ring-fenced for road repair. “It should be guaranteed that a proportion of my taxes will be re-invested in road maintenance,” said Raccuja. “That is critical, politically.”

Financing outlook

Thomas Bayerl, who runs the infrastructure debt team for the asset management part of insurer Munich Re, told the conference the infrastructure sector is a good investment for insurance companies. “We like infrastructure project finance because it gives us predictable and stable cash flows,” he said.

“Institutional investors are still fairly new to this topic,” he said. “What we try to do is work in strategic partnerships with market participants like you in order to develop our portfolio further and match our liabilities better.”

In the sustainability session, attendees heard that reducing carbon dioxide emissions from freight vehicles must be tackled on multiple fronts simultaneously. Tim Breemersch, senior researcher at Transport & Mobility Leuven in Belgium, explained that improving energy efficiency, better aerodynamics, lowering rolling resistance, better hybrid and electrification technology and improving logistics are part of the solution.

Bjarne Schmidt, a senior consultant at Teknologisk Intitut in Denmark, spoke about ongoing research to improve the rolling resistance of pavements. One of the current tasks is finding new and more effective ways of measuring rolling resistance.

Mats Wendel, innovation strategist at 2593 Peab Asfalt, in Sweden, talked about the importance of switching fuels at asphalt plants to reduce the carbon footprint of roads. Wendel pointed out that although using RAP reduced the carbon footprint of a road, a far more effective way is to change the fuel used at an asphalt plant for heating and drying the materials.

Peab has converted its asphalt manufacturing plants to use a vegetable-based bio-oil, a renewable energy source, Wendel explained. With the Swedish government offering significant grants for carbon-reduction research, other contractors have been trialling renewable fuels, such as wood pellets, for asphalt production.

Health and safety

More European Union health and safety legislation is coming our way, said Steven Van de Broeck, head of responsible care and supply chain at the European Chemical Industry Council. “In the past two years we have seen several legislative proposals setting limits for workers for carcinogenic exposures.” The EU has a list of 50 carcinogenic substances that it wants to tackle before 2020 to set occupational exposure limits.

Work is underway to set up a programme of medical checks on road workers to establish reasonable exposure limits, said Reinhold Ruhl, chair of the German Bitumen Forum. Similarly, Cosmin Patrascu of INRS - the French National Research and Safety Institute for the Prevention of Occupational Accidents and Diseases -  said his organisation has a project to create standards related to inhaling fumes from asphalt mixes and contact with skin.

David Giles, representing Eurobitume UK, noted that a scheme has been running since 2003 where drivers of bitumen tankers report accidents or problems with bitumen storage and dispensing equipment. Through analysis of the data, Eurobitume and the 5338 Mineral Products Association have been able to provide the relevant training and guidance to help reduce accidents.

Where is innovation?

Why isn’t the road-building industry adopting new technology more readily? Reasons abound, delegates heard.

Rudi Bull-Wasser, head of asphalt pavements at Germany’s Federal Highway Research Institute said that clients are risk-averse. There is a culture where failures are not accepted within a lowest-price-wins procurement environment.

Sergei Miller, asphalt researcher at Technical University-Twente in the Netherlands, said that he visits many construction sites and often observes that technology such as intelligent compaction systems have simply been switched off. “The asphalt industry operates mainly on condition and custom,” he said. “That’s quite dangerous in terms of blocking innovation.”

However, the good news from Miller is that the technology is already out there to improve quality, namely temperature homogeneity and compaction consistency. Savvy contractors can benefit from cheap off-the-shelf solutions such as infrared cameras that allow them to do a better job. “Off-the-shelf systems are going to be challenging the machine manufacturers,” he predicted.

Knut Johannsen, head of Material Prüfungs Anstalt at 3281 Eurovia Services in Germany, blamed large contracts such as those under public-private partnership (PPP) deals, for a lack of innovation. “Normally it’s very conservative what we do in PPP projects,” he said. “The idea of introducing new technology into PPP projects did not really work.”

Johannsen proposed that research be approached differently, with trials on live projects to speed up the development of new technology. “When you want to bring innovation into markets, start with smaller projects so that a lot of companies can jump on the train,” he said. “Research has to renew itself. There has to be design-thinking in research. The research we are doing at the moment is very conservative.”

Another barrier to innovation, highlighted several times at the conference, is the demographics of the road industry. Like the construction industry in general, road building firms and suppliers in Europe and around the world are struggling to attract new talent. Many young people are being drawn instead to high-tech industries.

How, then, does the bitumen and asphalt sector attract new recruits? In this respect, the  Berlin conference was part of E&E’s strategy. The goal is to show that the sector is not just a technical talking shop. Rather, the conference is to help the industry better communicate the value it brings to society and the environment.

As Gergeley Raccuja’s presentation demonstrated – he graduated in 2015  -  younger people will, and do, come up with alternative ideas. The challenge for established players is to be open to new ideas from young employees. Otherwise, new talent and outside companies will arrive bringing with them disruptive new ideas and taking market share from the sector’s traditional companies.

*Gergely Raccuja, 27, was born in Budapest, Hungary and moved to the UK in 2011. He read politics, urban planning and Italian at University College London, graduating in 2015. In January 2016 he started as a graduate transport planner at Amey Consulting, in Birmingham, UK. In 2017 he won the Wolfson Economics Prize, along with nearly US$330,000 in prize money, for his paper Paying for Road Use could be Miles Better. He discussed how society could pay for better, safer and more reliable roads in a way that is fair to road users, good for the economy and best for the environment.

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