Cement is the second most polluting industrial sector, responsible for roughly 8% of global CO2 emissions. Although progress has been made in reducing the emissions-intensity of cement production, this has been eclipsed by a surging demand for cement, as cities rapidly expand and governments worldwide invest in major infrastructure projects. Cement sector emissions cannot be reduced simply by changing fuels or increasing the efficiency of plants, but instead require the transformation of cement itself, either by blending it with alternative materials or by developing novel low-carbon cements.
Although the cement sector is only in the early stages of digital transformation, there is growing interest in the role that digital tools could play in accelerating deep decarbonisation. Many of the barriers to cleaner cement production and use are about optimising processes, matching solutions to local conditions, better coordination, and cooperation and communication – areas where digital technologies have significant advantages. Digitalisation could help address misinformation, enhance collaboration, disseminate best practice, and reduce asymmetries in access to relevant information at different points along the value chain.
In a report published earlier this year, Chatham House analysed the potential for breakthrough innovations in this area. A major patent analysis revealed that, while there has been lots of R&D, particularly in China, and while many of these innovations have been discussed for decades within the research community, very few have broken out of the laboratory for use on actual construction sites. Of those that have been commercialised, none have reached widespread application. The sector is still dominated by emissions-intensive portland cement, which is used in roughly 98% of concrete produced today.
Well-known barriers stand in the way of lower-carbon cements and concretes. The raw materials required to produce them are often not readily available at the scale required. The major cement companies that dominate the sector are cautious about rolling out new products that could challenge their current business practices and erode the value of their production facilities. Finally – and perhaps most importantly – consumers are reluctant to use novel building materials.
What role can digital technologies play in overcoming these barriers
A combination of enhanced connectivity, remote monitoring and predictive analytics, machine learning, and 3D printing is already transforming the wider construction sector. Such changes could feed back into cleaner cement and concrete consumption.
Digital technologies are likely to have four key impacts in the cement sector:
Optimising existing processes
Maybe the most obvious promise of digital disruption is the potential to optimise existing processes through better data gathering, data analysis, and the use of automated process control. This is the area in which industrialised cement producers will already be seeing the impact of digital technologies. Firms are, for example, employing ‘smart’ devices to track and monitor operations, and machine learning to improve process control in their plants. Logistics is another area where this has progressed, with technologies employed to gather data insights for increased efficiency and to improve timing of deliveries to sites. CEMEX has, for example, introduced a system that leverages customer data and digital technology to forecast where and when demand is likely to be high.
Yet there are also opportunities to optimise processes further down the value chain in concrete mixing plants and on construction sites. Augmented reality and information-driven decision tools used onsite could enable an individual mixing concrete to make the best decision for a given application. An onsite worker could, for example, quickly call up the details on the compatibility of a given clinker substitute with a given chemical admixture. Better dissemination of knowledge is a key factor for facilitating the use of higher blend and novel cements, particularly in emerging markets.
Digital technologies are also allowing users to optimise the maintenance of concrete structures over the course of their lifetimes. Remote sensing can help track and record performance of concrete structures as they harden, after completion and beyond. Increased collection and dissemination of data on in-service performance could dramatically speed up understanding of lower-carbon concretes, allowing the improvement of existing and construction of new tools to better predict concrete properties.
Matching solutions to local conditions
Digital technologies can play a key role in finding the right combination of technology solutions for each and every location. The choice of building materials for a project is highly site and application specific. Differences in climate and soil conditions, what the material is going to be used for, and the local availability of a given material will all play into the decision-making process. Belite-rich clinkers, for example, have been used in large concrete dam projects in China, where strength gain after a few days is not as important as it might be on a typical construction project.
The number of factors involved and the need for very fine tuning suggest that this problem is well-suited to machine learning. In combination with the potential increase in data gathering described above, analytics could be used to predict product characteristics, for a given mixture, in a given climate, and for a given use. By finding the right solution for any building or structure, anywhere, digital innovation will unlock new opportunities for deep decarbonisation. Ideally, this would allow the user to match the lowest carbon cements to their most viable use-cases and reserve the higher carbon cements for only those applications where they might still be needed.
Enhancing information sharing and collaboration
Improving coordination and communication is an area where digital technologies have significant advantages and could play a key role in transforming how building materials are procured and specified. In this context, there has been a growing interest in tools, such as building information modelling (BIM), which allows users to build a data-rich computer generated model of a building. Structural engineers and architects are using BIM to collaborate on the optimal design and materials for a structure at the very beginning of a project. BIM also helps to communicate decisions to the client, the contractor, and suppliers in the value chain.
Although BIM is not directly aimed at promoting low carbon materials, it may also help to challenge perceptions of and guide decisions about novel materials. Integrating embodied carbon calculations into BIM, for example, could allow architects and structural engineers to see how their design is performing against similar buildings, as well as how their choice of materials is affecting the overall embodied carbon of their design. By putting better information in the hands of consumers, digital technologies could transform the markets for low carbon products.
Changing what we want from building materials
Finally, digital disruption in the broader construction sector could mean completely new requirements for our building materials. A shift towards automation, for example, could mean that there is greater demand for precast concrete and prefabricated components, as machines work best with standardised components and processes. 3D printing has opened up the range of shapes available to architects and engineers, altering how we use building materials in our designs.
One of the key technical barriers holding back the use of lower-carbon concretes is that they tend to gain strength more slowly than traditional concrete, increasing the amount of time builders have to wait before demoulding. Will this matter more or less on a construction site populated by robots? On the one hand, a company may be better able to afford irregular working shifts and longer gaps between shifts if it is using robots rather than paying workers’ salaries, and safety concerns may be diminished. On the other hand, construction work may speed up with the ability to work through the night, while waiting longer to demould concrete may be even less viable than it is today.
What can be done to support digitalisation in the sector?
There are many entry points for digital technologies in the construction sector and adoption rates are likely to pick up over the next decade. However, for these technologies to be truly transformative they need to be adopted by a broad range of market participants. In order to be effective, for example, BIM has to be used by a wide set of stakeholders at different points in the chain. So far, the software has been adopted by architects and larger contractors with little uptake seen among service engineers, facilities managers, smaller contractors, and – crucially – the cement and concrete sector. Most concrete companies are not using BIM for coordinating with contractors on production and delivery activities.
Concerns raised over the adoption of digital technologies include the cost, changes in workflow, questions over who owns the data, and the potential for blurred lines of responsibility and liability. The skills and training needed to roll out digital technologies are a particularly important consideration. In Europe, the construction sector is already suffering from a serious skills shortage and is struggling to deliver widespread training, even on simple processes. The importance of digital disruption will also depend on the degree to which it reshapes the largest cement markets: China and India.
There are, however, near-term opportunities to overcome these challenges. Governments can invest in training to address the digital-skills shortage in the construction sector, also with a view to retaining the number and improving the quality of jobs in the sector. They can provide de-risking mechanisms and financial support to encourage the use of new technologies and help to cover their cost. Cement and construction companies can work with digital providers to improve digital tools and technologies, to offer the right kind of services, and to accelerate their uptake. Innovation partners should work together to build the stack of digital assets needed to integrate real-time decision tools, supply chain optimisation, and lesson sharing from experience into the development of new materials and blends.
Read the article online at: https://www.worldcement.com/special-reports/05112018/the-path-to-progress/