Covid-19 boosts technology use in road construction
ROADS & HIGHWAYS

Covid-19 boosts technology use in road construction

As the pandemic continues to spur interest in technology among road construction companies, this article delves into the reasons that are encouraging manufacturers to engage in more R&D.

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Despite the constraints imposed by the pandemic, 8,169 km of national highways were constructed between April 2020 and January 2021, marking a construction rate of around 28.16 km a day. The Ministry of Road Transport and Highways (MoRTH)and the National Highways Authority of India have worked very effectively as a catalyst for the sector, spurring huge demand for construction equipment during such a challenging period, observes Sanjay Saxena, Senior Vice President & Head of Heavy Equipment Business Unit, Sany Heavy Industry India.

As the pandemic continues to spur interest in technology among road construction companies, this article delves into the reasons that are encouraging manufacturers to engage in more R&D. ________ Despite the constraints imposed by the pandemic, 8,169 km of national highways were constructed between April 2020 and January 2021, marking a construction rate of around 28.16 km a day. The Ministry of Road Transport and Highways (MoRTH)and the National Highways Authority of India have worked very effectively as a catalyst for the sector, spurring huge demand for construction equipment during such a challenging period, observes Sanjay Saxena, Senior Vice President & Head of Heavy Equipment Business Unit, Sany Heavy Industry India. Saxena is optimistic about this momentum continuing in FY 22, given the highest ever allocation for road and highway development in the recent budget, Rs 118,101 crore, nearly 20% higher than the previous year’s estimates. So, where will India see the most road construction activity? Action areas “This year North India will see the commencement of the Delhi-Mumbai Expressway, the 210 km Delhi-Dehradun economic corridor, the 63 km Kanpur-Lucknow Expressway, the Amritsar-Jamnagar project, and the Delhi-Katra project,” shares Saxena. “In the south, the 278 km Bengaluru-Chennai Expressway project will start this year. Other new projects announced in this years’ budget will come up primarily in Tamil Nadu, Kerala and West Bengal.” This year, big ticket EPC road projects such as Bharat Mala, the Amritsar-Jamnagar highway, the Ganga Expressway, the Samruddhi Mahamarg Project, etc, all of which are moving along at a good pace, will generate demand for road equipment, says Ramesh Palagiri, Managing Director and CEO, Wirtgen India. “Border road projects are also lined up, and now their execution may improve as the roles of border roads and MoRTH are better defined, with border roads getting more authority to execute projects independently.” Record outlays for MoRTH and for railway corridors and other structural developments augur well for our industry, observes Deepak Shetty, CEO and Managing Director, JCB India. “With the formation of a Development Finance Institute (DFI), the stress in capital requirements for long-term infrastructure projects should significantly ease out.” At the national level, Shetty believes that large projects like Sagarmala and Bharatmala would drive demand. Additionally, the creation of 100 new airports, smart cities and metro projects and rural roads will also contribute significantly. Other positives in the budget are the proposed privatisation drive and the monetisation of assets, the focus on hydrogen energy, the aim to create an ecosystem for alternative fuels and the focus on creating healthcare infrastructure countrywide, adds Shetty. With the budget for FY22 putting a lot of focus on reviving infrastructure and growing the number of new road and highway projects to 7,400, Sandeep Mathur, India CE, Brand Leader, Case India, is optimistic about the future. “Introducing the Development Finance Institution to provide ₹20,000 crore to launch the National Asset Monetisation Pipeline to fund new infra projects will stabilise the sector further. Plans to expand the national highway route by around 60,000 km in the next five years and committing Rs 1.97 trillion to the manufacturing sector over that time will also help the industry revive.” Mathur expects to see action in Tamil Nadu, Kerala, West Bengal and Assam. “Recently, under the Bharat Mala Pariyojana, Rs 1,229.38 crore has been approved for Punjab, Rs 1,102.63 crore for Andhra Pradesh and Rs 374.39 crore for Tamil Nadu and Mizoram,” he adds. Technology scores While the road construction industry has fared well during 2020, the year of the pandemic, an interesting outcome is the reverse mass migration of construction workers made technology more appealing to construction companies. “The pandemic has prompted the greater reliance on tech savvy equipment with agencies trying to achieve speed with more automated machines to reduce their engagement of labour and achieve better workmanship, observes Dr Soumendra K Mohanty, Managing Director, SMC India. As a result of the pandemic, customers are increasingly looking forward to owning technologically advanced machines boosting productivity and efficiency, agrees Mathur. Mathur cites a McKinsey report that says that by harnessing industry 4.0 tools like IoT, AI and automation, processes will see 30-50% reduction in machine downtime; 15-30% improvement in labour productivity; 10-30% increase in throughput; and 10-20% decrease in the cost of quality. “Industry 4.0 will enable us to reduce dependency on labour and create smart and intuitive products for the future with higher efficiency and productivity and low downtime,” says Mathur. Palagiri believes the growing demand for better quality of roads will necessitate more digitalisation for benefits like higher productivity, cost control, perfect predictability, efficiency, quality, safety, keeping projects on track and timely completion. In-demand technologies Digital tools and technologies fitted into construction equipment such as telematics, GPS, data collection, condition monitoring, secure remote maintenance, connectivity options, etc. are already being used in the road construction sector to measure what has been done, raw material used at the jobsites, and so on, observes Palagiri. He expects this trend to continue. JCB India has pioneered the integration of digital technology in its range of soil compactors, vibratory tandem road rollers and mini tandem rollers through advanced telematics called ‘LiveLink’. “These machines work in off-road and often remote locations and LiveLink helps in the remote monitoring and fleet management,” explains Shetty. “Today over 180,000 JCB machines communicate in real-time. Technology has transformed how both machine-to-machine and machine-to-customer communication happens.” Case machines spanning compactors for asphalt applications, soil compactors, motor graders, crawler dozers, skid steer loaders and excavators come equipped with a multitude of smart features such as an eagle eye telematics system, compaction meter, etc. While state-of-the-art equipment is increasingly being used on site, Dr Mohanty points out that India lacks expert operators, and therefore, the full potential of equipment is not fully harnessed. India needs to create more skilled operators for improved workmanship using new state-of-the-art equipment. Tech deployments span the use of construction equipment as well as methods and materials. “Road construction got more tech savvy with the use of fully automated plant and machinery with GPS sensors, drone surveillance and mobile-based apps, as well as precast and prefab construction, composite construction, the use of geo textiles, geo composites and geo grids in various road construction elements and the use of raw material such as plastic, pond and fly ash,” explains Sanjay Londhe, Director & CEO, Projects, Ashoka Buildcon. “These technologies have reduced the dependency on labour at site or compensated for labour and raw material shortage, reduced the need for supervision (drones), helped improve the utilisation of resources (apps), and helped manage projects more effectively in real-time from remote locations (drones).” R&D in focus An encouraging development is the government is paving the road for the adoption of new technologies with programmes like value engineering from MoRTH, observes Palagiri. “In fact, with the government being open to leveraging digital tools, Wirtgen is working on new technologies enabling the measurement of a job as it is being done and also to measure the quality and performance characteristics of the job, which can be used by the government to settle contractors’ bills.” Following on from developing products offering better fuel efficiency for sustainable development, lower carbon emissions, lower life cycle costs and higher productivity, Writgen will also be introducing new technologies across its product brands (Wirtgen/ Vogele/ Hamm/ Kleemann) to help speed up construction and improve the ride quality of roads. “At a full design and innovation centre at Pune, the largest outside the UK, JCB is focusing on research for the greater adoption of technologies like telematics, IoT, big data, and data analytics along with machine learning,” shares Shetty. “Pune also houses a state-of-the-art compactor manufacturing facility. Machines Made in India are exported to South Asia and developed markets like the USA, UK and Europe, where they are contributing to building infrastructure.” There’s progress for you! What’s new? Sany has brought out two new motor graders (STG-170 and STG-210) with a new paver model (SSP90-C) in the primary road market. Key offerings in other classes of equipment extensively used in road construction include Sany’s first Made in India piling rig SR235, a range of CEV Stage IV compliant truck cranes, new models of excavators and new concrete machinery. “Case India recently launched a Site-Watch platform with an all-new dashboard, more intuitive navigation and new overview sections that highlight critical information without requiring the user to search extensively for data,” shares Sandeep Mathur, India CE, Brand Leader, Case India. How MoRTH plans to end cartelisation in cement and steel Minister Road Transport and Highways Nitin Gadkari recently said that the government would promote bitumen roads instead of cement/concrete roads due to the cartelisation in the latter industries. This isn’t the first time that the honourable minister has spoken of promoting bitumen technology, observes Sanjay Saxena, Senior Vice President & Head of Heavy Equipment Business Unit, Sany Heavy Industry India. “He has been emphasising bitumen and other innovative road construction methods to eliminate cartelisation, black-marketing and profiteering as well as to cut construction costs and improve maintenance.” A check on cartelisation is much needed, says Sanjay Londhe, Director & CEO, Projects, Ashoka Buildcon. “When the Transport Ministry advocated concrete roads for greenfield alignments including expressways, rigid pavements used to cost 20-25% more than flexible (bituminous) pavements, though this was variable considering the lower maintenance costs of rigid pavements. But with the recent price movement in cement and steel, concrete roads have been made unviable. Now the use of concrete roads is likely to be restricted to high rainfall areas and roads catering to port traffic and some expressways.” I think our government is finally on the right track, says Blesson Varghese, Managing Director, Astec Inc (Asia). “The world over, every advanced country which experimented with concrete roads during its developmental phase, has all very soon realised the benefit of asphalt roads, and reverted to asphalt roads to counter the adverse environmental impact of the production of cement and the difficulty of maintaining and operating concrete roads. Counting the real end-to-end carbon footprints of bitumen and cement led those countries to pull out of building concrete roads. Also, the construction of concrete roads needs more skills and controls as compared to asphalt roads.” By adopting new methods and technologies, Saxena believes the government can easily curtail the ‘sophisticated cartels’ that have been artificially jacking up prices. “This is why the minister has asked the Indian Road Congress (IRC) to ensure the greater use of modified ‘bitumen’ with plastic and rubber waste to improve the cost and the quality of roads and highways and sustainability, as bitumen tops can be recycled and reused.” Minister Gadkari has considered making it mandatory to use modified bitumen but the biggest obstacle is the prohibitive pricing of the product by oil majors, which he is looking to address by increasing competition in the sector. The lack of carbon consciousness among companies producing modified bitumen in India keeps the production cost high as compared with advanced countries, notes Varghese. He advocates a reward mechanism on an industrial level to inspire companies to invest in more energy-efficient systems and thereby reduce their carbon footprints and achieve more attractive production costs. Also, the transportation of modified bitumen to application sites adds up to the final costs, observes Varghese. “Therefore, allowing contractors to produce high quality modified bitumen on site, with mobile plants, could help tackle this issue. With contractors responsible for the performance of the pavements, strict adherence to quality of such on site produced bitumen can be easily controlled. Importing bitumen along with the production and modification of on-site bitumen would surely help increase the competitiveness and open markets to more players.” Minister Gadkari is also open to using other new materials in road and bridge construction. He recently spoke of using steel fibre to construct a bridge in Latur, to reduce the cost of construction by 20-25%. Next, he is looking at promoting the use of carbon steel fibre and plastic fibre, and agricultural-based materials like bamboo and jute in crash barriers. The shift to black tops will impact demand for bitumen as well as associated equipment. While over 60% of road projects in the country use various grades of VG bitumen, including VG-10, VG-30 and VG-40, Saxena expects this to now increase. “We’re seeing a slight shift from concrete roads to bituminous roads, so the demand for asphalt pavers has picked up,” adds Ramesh Palagiri, Managing Director and CEO, Wirtgen India. “Concrete pavers saw a surge in demand in the last some years, which has now tapered down.” A contrary view is that India would be better off without the switch to asphalt roads. From the perspective of the quality of roads, “well-constructed concrete roads need the least maintenance and have a high service life,” observes Soumendra K Mohanty, Managing Director, SMC India. “Most of our minor roads have a low formation level. In areas of annual rainfall over 1000mm, bituminous top roads are prone to failure. So for a longer service life concrete roads are preferable.” From the perspective of trade, Dr Mohanty points out that higher prices paid to cartels still remain within the country while precious foreign exchange (dollars) is spent when bitumen is imported. So, he proposes that the nation look inward for a solution to the cartelisation of cement. -By Charu Bahri

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