By Álvaro Aguilar, ACCIONA Middle East Business Development Manager
Roads cut journey times, shorten distances and connect people and businesses, galvanizing and fostering the development of whole regions. They forge the way for making, overcoming natural barriers and satisfying social needs. This is how they become a nation’s principal transport infrastructure.
Road connections are and will remain vital for the purpose of uniting a territory and channeling economic activity to distant points or areas with less activity. The allocation of budget to connecting infrastructure in depressed areas will revert back in the future by linking them to economic hubs which can attract companies and trade.
This principle not only applies to in-country connections. Thanks to years of this vision, the GCC countries currently have an extensive network of roads, bridges and tunnels across the region interconnecting the major trading and leisure hubs. Some of these projects include the Saudi-Oman Highway, a 680-km road that links Oman and Saudi Arabia, which reduced the previous road distance by 800km, and thereby shortened travel time between the two countries. Another cross-country project was the Mafraq-Ghuwaifat International Highway between UAE and Saudi Arabia, a US$5.3bn project that links Abu Dhabi to the Saudi border. Saudi Arabia itself has completed 55 road projects worth SAR4.98 billion and has approved 70 new projects, while the UAE has ongoing road development projects to the tune of AED9.7 billion aimed at the 2021 targets. The number and scale of road infrastructure development in the UAE makes it undoubtedly one of the most attractive places for the construction industry, with Dubai putting over 21% of its public spending on infrastructure back in 2018 in preparation to the world Expo 2020, which however had to be postpones for one year due to the global pandemic.
The road network fully connecting a region will be a key factor in determining its competitiveness, the strength of its economy and even its social development. Throughout history, ACCIONA has participated in this effort alongside governments and users to put into practice its long experience and deep knowledge on several hundred projects that today form part of the highway infrastructure of many countries across the world. In the past decade alone, the company has built 1,700km of roads corresponding to literally hundreds of projects, along with 600 bridges and 600 km of tunnels throughout our history.
We have carried out the construction, maintenance and management of all kinds of highways, motorways and roads across the world. In all of them, we have applied the most innovative and sustainable building solutions to maximize their usefulness and minimize the environmental impact. It is important to remember that thanks to the effort of our professionals, we have introduced to all our projects new working methods that have given rise to more sustainable processes, both in economic and environmental terms.
In the construction sector, process improvement is a source of competitive advantages: innovation, quality, improved performance, cost reductions, among others; and we need to keep in mind that the excavation process during the execution of infrastructures is one of the biggest energy consumers and the correct guidance of the excavation section is vital. The technological evolution of tunneling machines has contributed greatly to the expansion of land transport worldwide and our leadership in the construction of roads, railway lines and suburban trains have converted us in one of the leading experts in design and construction of all kinds of tunnels.
One of the critical factors tunneling is selecting or adapting the right Tunneling Boring Machine (TBM) and the actual need of it against a more traditional method. Select the specific equipment for each project is what makes ACCIONA a world leader in this sector. To meet all these challenges, in any location in the world, we own different types of TBMs: open-type Main Beams, single shield, double shield, earth pressure balance, hydro shield, and so on. Our engineers and technicians are able to adapt them to any eventuality the project presents. These machines are colossal in size, worthy of admiration in themselves: they reach up to 100 meters long, with excavation diameters up to 18 meters and can weigh 2,800 tons. That is, they can be as long as nine buses, as high as a five-story building and heavy as 7 fully loaded Boeing 747s. Watching these huge cylinders open up the earth is a unique spectacle. No less astonishing is contemplating how they leave behind them a structure of perfectly assembled segments that hold up the tunnel safely. And, in production terms, our tunneling machines are powerful beasts, boring through over 1,000 meters of rock a month.
Additionally, the industry needs to ensure the best possible coexistence with the environment during a project so it is necessary to take a series of additional measures in order for example to avoid the acoustic contamination or the carbon emissions (the construction industry generates between 25 to 40 percent of the world’s carbon emissions). To deal with this problem, we put an acoustic ship to reduce the noise generated during the excavation work. We also solve the carbon emissions issue by placing a material evacuation tape up to kilometer long, which allows dispensing more than 180,000 trips of debris trucks to a nearby quarry. The result? We avoid the emission of more than 1,000 tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, a drastic reduction of the acoustic contamination in the area and the reduction of affectations to the local vegetation due to pollution and dust.
Among the different challenges we need to cope with, digital transformation plays a leading role in our field and the construction sector anticipates a technological surge: 100 billion euros is the combined value that the Davos forum has calculated for digitization from here to 2025. That is to say, the crossed effect of the industrial renewal through the disruption of the Internet will be equivalent to what the whole planetary economy generates today. A huge opportunity. The most prestigious studies tell us that in recent decades, many industries have boosted their productivity above 150% and construction starts to share this trend through leading digital applications that reach unprecedented levels of efficiency. And what is more, studies suggest that companies that are digit get 8% more income and are 20% more profitable than those who do not. Besides, the gradual increase in the use of technology has also as a direct consequence in the improvement of the quality and safety of works and projects, reducing human errors and risk of accidents. For all this, the training of future professionals must be oriented, without further delay, towards this new paradigm.
The theory without practice is a pie in the sky and from ACCIONA we are developing several pilot projects on digitalization that we are currently applying in large works around the world: augmented reality; solutions to develop pavements adapted to new challenges and achieving an efficient, smarter and safer mobility, while maintaining sustainability principles; the use of eco-friendly materials for a new concept of Asphalt Pavements for a Sustainable Environment, to name just a few.
We are also living an exciting time of increasingly accessible technologies that allow us to develop vehicles and manage fleets that are increasingly intelligent, flexible and adaptive to the environment, like the automated guided vehicles (AGVs). In the near future, companies will comfortably operate fleets from an office through artificial intelligence and network infrastructure. In the construction field, the need to standardize the different types of vehicles and their connectivity will make each work a small smart city where all the teams collaborate, move, communicate and act under the same standards of communication and supervision.
We are witnessing an exciting time of increasingly accessible technologies where the construction sector cannot stay behind. That is why this new era is seen as a new opportunity based on regulation, technology and talent. We are immersed in the fourth industrial revolution that, like the previous ones, generates fear of the unknown and panic to the unprecedented. However, we have to live it in the key of opportunity, from a positive vision, adapting to development from the anticipation. Only then, we will be able to make the most of its advantages.