Plastic Roads & Mass Timber: The Innovative Technologies Transforming Infrastructure

I used to live in Berlin Germany from 2015 to 2018 and one of the things that I kept hearing about all the time was the Brandenburg Airport, this expansive plan to to modernize the Berlin Airport. That airport feels like a time capsule… if you ever go to Berlin and you land there, you feel like you're back in the late 70s early 80s of East Berlin.

It's a very very sad place to be in - you definitely feel the the vibe of the city immediately when you enter the airport after you have arrived.

This new project, though, was scheduled to open back in 2011, something that Berliners are still waiting for…

Over-budget, over-deadline projects like these too often seem to be the norm, all while innovation is flourishing in the rest of the global economy.

The one thing about this though, is that appearances can definitely be deceptive, as innovation is actually thriving at all stages of infrastructure developments simply because exciting new ideas are being generated around the world and have the potential to really change the field.

And guess what: It’s all due to technology.

Let's go through a couple of examples of new solutions spearheaded by technology that is helping infrastructure to transform:

BIM (Building Information Modelling) software

If you observe a construction site from afar, you look at the exterior and you think “ it’s just an ordinary construction site”. But if you take a closer look at a construction site nowadays it will definitely reveal advances that are changing the way these type of infrastructure projects are designed. The BIM software have the ability to digitally design a construction project that moves beyond the 2d technical drawings that historically have been preferred as the main model.

What BIM does is they allow professionals - from architects to engineers to the

building managers - to collaborate on a construction project so at all stages they are involved. So when I say that it goes beyond two-dimensional technical drawings perhaps you automatically think that we're talking about 3d computer-generated design, but what BIM also does is also provide insights into functional considerations like time, costs and even the environmental impact of the project.

3d printing

3D printing is way more famous and has made more noise than BIM, and while BIM increases collaboration to improve infrastructure design on-site, other technological advances are changing the way the infrastructure is physically constructed.

3D printing is poised to totally disrupt construction sites, making it the biggest biggest threat to conventional/traditional construction methods. This 3D printing company from Holland called MX3D have built the world's first 3D printed steel bridge and the crazy thing about that is that they printed that in midair.

It involved constructing a special robot that could create weight bearing structures beneath it which then could slide forward upon to continue the project as the building materials set.

The span of this bridge is twelve and a half meters and it's due to be installed over a canal in central Amsterdam after going through all the safety testings required. The actual bridge will also include sensors to gather insights on how the bridge reacts over time as more and more people use it, which I think is awesome.

It's a technology that holds the potential to increase the efficiency of future mega cities while at the same time reducing the cost and safety concerns of operating a sprawling construction site in the middle of a large city.

New materials


While 3d printing can print steel and a whole variety of different materials that can be used on the surface of things, some specific materials that not a lot of people are talking about its actual mass timber. The new way of developing infrastructure isn't confined to all new designing and building technologies - new materials are leading the field.

Concrete used to be the primary building material and from what I see, concrete is looking to be coming to an end as the use of mass timber alternatives continue to become more and more mainstream. The way they become mainstream is because the pricing is getting more and more competitive so it's increasingly replacing other building materials like cement, steel and new products like cross laminated timber.

Cross laminated timber is formed by stacking and gluing layers of wood and something called “Glulam” which is glue-laminated timber which is formed by stacking and gluing layers of wood directly on top of each other. All of these new products are basically allowing constructions to be even higher and stronger wood buildings.

There's a couple of these wood buildings already being built in Europe:

  • HoHo Tower,Vienna (24 stories and 84 meters tall)

  • The Mjøsa Tower (18 stories and 85 meters tall)

  • Fort McMurray International Airport terminal


Using wood materials in the airport terminal construction to cut building time was ideal, given the small labor force it really took to build the the Canadian Airport. Also, because of its remote location and harsh, Northern Alberta seasonal weather conditions - it was very important to cut the building time down, and the material was godsend in order to achieve that.

Mass timber can reduce construction time up to 25 percent and it uses up to one-third the energy production of steel and one-fifth of concrete, in addition to using significantly less carbon intensive production methods.

Plastic Roads

You might not believe it, but plastic roads is becoming a thing. In this article, we've talked about the disruption of traditional building materials, and plastic roads definitely sounds very disruptive. I think its efforts to replace asphalt as a primary material in road construction could really be a thing.

Again, the Dutch has done it again: An engineering firm from Holland called KWS developed a lightweight prefabricated modular road made with recycled plastic wastes. The advantages that this has over asphalt include a quicker installation time, triple the service life and introducing an effective way to recycle the plastic that ends up in our oceans and land fields. It also has a special coating that prevents the release of micro plastics which often end up on our food supply.

There's a pilot project in the Dutch city of Zwolle - a 30 metre bike path made from 218,000 plastic cups that has sensors embedded in the road helping the KWS team capture insights, just like the steel bridge that’s 3D printed, and those insights that are captured can be used to develop plastic highways and perhaps even plastic airport runways.

So plastic roads not only have the potential to take the actual plastic waste out of the environment but actually introduce savings through faster installation and less disruptive maintenance.

Conclusion

Clearly, there are many exciting things going on in a field that can appear to be very traditional and not innovative for the naked eye, but the technological transformation sweeping the rest of society is in my opinion totally ready to revolutionize every aspect of society, including infrastructure.

Now, decision makers for a variety of reasons are still hesitant to create the kind of enabling environment necessary for widespread embrace of these emerging technologies.

One of the main reasons is that governments are always late to catch up with innovations, simply because they are not the ones doing the innovations.

What government and law makers are doing is spending time to find out what regulations and what taxes to implement on these companies spearheading these innovations, so there's no wonder that they are late to the game.

There’s no doubt that they have a lot of catching up to do, but hopefully we will see more of these innovative technologies improving infrastructures of the new cities to come in the future, without too much intervention.