Robotic arms for tunnel-boring machines, concrete reinforcement made of old wind turbine blades and machine learning to reduce concrete waste are among innovations emerging from the $16.7-billion civil construction program for the U.K.’s London to Birmingham high-speed railroad. Construction began late last year.
The ideas are products of structured programs established by project owner HS2 Ltd. to stimulate innovation, mainly by small and medium enterprises.
One innovation involves cutting up old, composite wind turbine blades for use as concrete rebar, rather than burning resins off the blades to recycle them. If successful, the rebar would initially be used on nonstructural elements.
The National Composite Centre and the joint venture of Skanska Construction U.K. Ltd., Costain Ltd. and Strabag A.G., which is building the rail tunnels from the London terminal, came up with the idea last year and won HS2L support. NCC is now preparing for seven months of studies and development leading to trial manufacturing and testing.
A robotic arm mounted on a tunnel-boring machine will have more immediate use. The contract’s Align joint venture of Bouygues Travaux Publics, VolkerFitzpatrick and Sir Robert McAlpine developed the arm for repetitive and potentially dangerous work. It will be used this summer on two TBMs on the 16-kilometer Chiltern twin tunnels.
Tasks include removing wooden spacers between the tunnel’s 112,000 concrete lining segments and inserting connection dowels between them. Having invested “a lot of work” in developing the device, “we would be happy to share with tunneling teams working on other projects across the world,” says Didier Jacques, Align’s underground construction director.
These innovations are among 100 or so in HS2L’s portfolio drawn from the project’s supply chain, says Robert Cairns, HS2L’s innovation manager. About 70% involve SMEs, he adds. SMEs from outside the railroad project are the prime targets for HS2L’s parallel Innovation Accelerator program. The accelerator provides funding and four months of support with resources and access to main contractors and other key industry players.
Among the first innovations chosen is one that aims to improve concrete delivery to jobsites and eliminate waste, which amounts to 5% of the total production, according to its developer Cloud Cycle Ltd. The system monitors in real time the slump and temperature of the concrete and location of ready-mix trucks. “We can make sure the concrete is delivered right the first time and every time,” says Phillip White, founding CEO.
If applied across HS2, the ready-mix concrete monitoring system could save 420,000 tonnes of concrete and 50,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide in its production, estimates White.