R&D provides building blocks for construction sector’s road to recovery

22 Apr 2009

With the post-Celtic tiger construction industry arguably taking the biggest hit over any sector in the Irish economy right now, a three-pronged approach to survival and growth is available, according to Peter Deegan, technical director of Banagher Concrete. This approach involves leveraging the technologies developed during the boom times, innovating in the green sector and targeting the export market.

This approach involves leveraging the technologies developed during the boom times, innovating in the green sector and targeting the export market.

Banagher is speaking this week at the Engineers Ireland Annual Conference, which will be held at the Tullamore Court Hotel, Offaly over 23 and 24 April, with key addresses from Dr Alan Ahearne, economic adviser to the Minister for Finance; Norman Lewis, innovation expert; and the Minister for Communications Energy and Natural Resources, Eamon Ryan TD.

During the Nineties, investment in R&D meant that Banagher Concrete developed several new product lines that led to opportunities in the export market, namely its concrete ‘w’ beam, which rivals steel in terms of its load-bearing capabilities.

“The Celtic tiger may be gone, but it certainly left some good things behind, and infrastructure is one,” Deegan said.

“We don’t have an indigenous steel industry here in Ireland, so we decided to research and develop a concrete product that competes with steel beams.

“In the UK, a lot of bridge systems were developed and taken so far, but we have taken them further and now we are exporting w beams into the UK because it doesn’t have the facility to create these.”

Three weeks ago, Banagher Concrete provided a bridge for the Edinburgh Trams, and it is currently working on the N80 in Glasgow.

“The only reason we got those jobs was because we were able to compete with the other construction technologies that they had, and ours were more efficient and added value.”

While large concrete beams do not travel so well due to their weight, Deegan said there is also the opportunity for knowledge transfer and partnerships.

“Right now, we’re are looking at acquiring or partnering with companies in Poland because it is starting into serious infrastructure build in the near future, which will be based on design, build and public-private partnerships.

“We have developed very efficient systems here that are easily exportable.”

Banagher Concrete has also made advancements in stadium technology, with Thomand Park under its belt.

“We’re trying to zone in on the UK with the Olympics coming up, and of course, there’s the Lansdowne Road stadium,” Deegan added.

However, one of the real innovations for the company during the boom times was speed of erection and continuity in the bridge-building process, thanks to working on projects such as the M50, M2 and M3.

“From start to finish, it’s possible to build a bridge in 30 weeks. In the past two or three years, all the major contractors have been delivering road projects on time and within budget,” Deegan explained.

However, innovation has not stopped with the end of the building boom: “We continually carry out R&D because we have to be developing new products all the time to stay within the market.”

As road-building projects have dried up in the past year or so, another area Banagher Concrete has diversified into is alternative energy products and products in biodiversity.

“The focus shifts. You can’t always rely on making cigarette boxes because some day people may not want to smoke,” Deegan said.

Right now, Banagher Concrete is looking at bio-gas tanks: sealed tanks for farmsteads that use effluent to produce gas as a renewable energy system.

And some of these innovations are going back to first principles: “We have developed a simple tank system with a turbine that a farmer can use to generate power, and this basically works like a mill wheel that traps and releases water under a controlled situation.”

In a way, the post-building boom in Ireland has been a blessing for some companies in the construction industry, who were too busy manufacturing to spend much time innovating.

According to Deegan, now is the time for outsourcing the build-up of knowledge, as well as engaging in knowledge transfer with other economies.

By Marie Boran

Pictured: Peter Deegan, technical director of Banagher Concrete, speaking at Engineers Ireland’s Annual Conference 2009