Science & Innovation: Bridging gaps with made-in-Malaysia UHPC

This article first appeared in Enterprise, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on July 10, 2017 - July 16, 2017.

With Dura’s bridges, the construction cost can be lowered by 30%. We do not have to do any temporary work or piling, for example. We just precast the material, bring it to the area and have it fitted. Everything is made at the factory and reassembled at the job site. Just like Lego. > Voo

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Sustainable development is often cited as the best pathway for governments to build resilient cities, improve livelihoods and safeguard the natural environment. But sustainable infrastructure, more often than not, comes with a steep price tag and is usually not viable for large-scale implementation. 

Dura Technology Sdn Bhd, which is majority-owned by timber-related Leweko Resources Bhd, is challenging this notion. The company has come up with a local solution to increase the lifespan of infrastructure, particular in the country’s hinterlands, that is not only sustainable but also affordable. 

It is doing so by supplanting structurally deficient bridges with durable, low-maintenance structures made from its own version of ultra-high-performance concrete (UHPC). Dura executive director and CEO Ir Dr Voo Yen Lei, who is a civil engineer, says the main pitfalls of traditional bridges are their susceptibility to corrosion and other forms of damage, which takes a toll on government spending in the long run. 

Voo would know. Born and bred in Sabah, he understands the need for long-lasting sturdy bridges in a state that wishes to gazette more wooded areas as permanent forest reserves and, at the same time, improve the livelihood of its people. 

“Today, civil engineering is all about going green and towards sustainable construction. The premise is always about restoring energy and making something affordable and long lasting with little pollution and even less embodied energy,” says Voo.

Being eco-friendly means producing the same thing using less energy. “Take the production of steel. Let’s say we need a certain amount of energy to produce steel and 50 times that to produce an equivalent weight of aluminium. Concrete is much more sustainable because it has less embodied energy and produces less carbon dioxide compared to steel structures,” he says.

UHPC is a greener alternative. According to the US-based National Precast Concrete Association, the combination of its superior properties facilitates the ability to design thin, complex shapes, curvatures and highly customised textures — applications that are difficult or impossible to achieve with traditional reinforced concrete elements.

However, the sturdy material was not an affordable solution for most countries as it was predominantly made by French-Swiss cement maker LafargeHolcim. The company’s Ductal brand is the most renowned in the construction industry, says Voo. 

“The first UHPC structure was built in Canada in 1995 by Lafarge — the biggest cement producer in the world. It had the latest and best concrete technology in the world,” he says. 

“It is still the biggest name when it comes to UHPC technology. But the problem with its technology is that it has not been able to turn it a mainstream product, due to its high material and initial set-up cost. It has intellectual property rights on its product, Ductal, which is like the Rolls-Royce of UHPC. ”

That is simply because Ductal is at least four times more costly than Dura’s innovative UHPC, which is sourced and precast at its factory in Chemor, Perak. 

The superiority of the material attracted Voo who, at the time, had just completed his master’s degree in civil engineering at the University of New South Wales, Australia. He started researching UHPC for his doctorate in 2001, during which he managed to come up with his own recipe for the compound material.

“When I returned in 2005, a listed company, Leweko, decided to invest in what I had to offer. I spent six months using the local material to refine the recipe and drastically bring the cost down,” says Voo.

He says Perak is the best place for the company to be located as all the raw materials are at hand. “We have the best and cheapest raw materials in the entire country and our investor is also located here.”

The Leweko founders placed a huge bet on Dura’s UHPC recipe. “The chairman’s son and I were classmates in Australia. He knew the work I had been doing and spoke to his father about investing in my technology. My friend was later diagnosed with cancer and passed away, but his father was determined to take this forward,” says Voo.

Leweko initially invested RM15 million in the company. In the first four years, Dura focused on research. “We had no business at all. I believe my boss is a true gambler because he is from the timber industry and has no knowledge about UHPC or anything like that,” says Voo, who holds a 30% stake in Dura.

“During the R&D stage, we came up with the processes and had to figure out how to bring the technology to market. We also patented the recipe and the manufacturing process. There is a difference between cooking one packet of instant noodles and cooking a hundred packets. You cannot use the same set-up.”

According to a journal published by Chicago-based Precast Concrete Institute (PCI), a leading global industrial body, UHPC was not considered a viable option for precast concrete components in the US as there were many perceived obstacles, including the high cost. In addition, there was the domination of proprietary, pre-bagged UHPC products and the lack of domestic steel fibres.

Voo thinks Dura may have the largest UHPC-only plant in the world. Lafarge may do one-off UHPC projects, but its main business is still selling cement. 

“UHPC is a fraction of its business as it is more interested in selling it as a raw material than in constructing the finished product. We, on the other hand, do the finished product,” says Voo.

Basically, Dura has commercialised, industrialised and made UHPC affordable. “But we only focus on building bridges. Our major clients are government bodies such as the Public Works Department (JKR), the Department of Irrigation and Drainage and the Ministry of Rural and Regional Development.”

Voo stresses that the lower price tag does not mean Dura’s UHPC is any less durable than the more expensive alternatives out there. “This is like KFC. The franchiser gives the franchisee the knowledge of how to cook the chicken. But to maintain one’s cost, it needs to localise it by using locally sourced chicken and domestic labour.”

Recognition 

Although UHPC has been around for more than 20 years, there is no building design code for the material, which posed a challenge for Dura in the early days. Design codes are standard construction guidelines to ensure safety, reliability, productivity and efficiency.

“Bridges carry a lot of public liability. So, the authorities will not accept new technology that does not have a design code. In Malaysia, our bridges must comply with British standards. But this material is new and does not have any design codes or standards yet. This process of coming up with a code and standards usually takes 20 to 30 years,” says Voo.

It is a chicken and egg situation. If you do not build using the material, you do not have the requisite experience to come up with the standards. But you cannot build without standards. “How then, do we convince the authorities?” Voo asks.

The company managed to go ahead because under Malaysian law, a certified engineer can approve the material and certify that the bridge is safe to use. “In countries such as the US and Canada, even though engineers can give their stamp of approval, the government policy does not allow it,” says Voo. 

Dura established its credibility when it completed its first government contract in 2010. With the support of Negri Sembilan JKR director-general Datuk Seri Ir Dr Roslan Md Taha, the company built a 50m medium-traffic single-span bridge in Kampung Linsum in Rantau. Roslan preferred that the bridge did not have columns as timber logs flowing downstream were causing damage to the columns in the river. 

“Roslan is a man with a great vision. In Malaysia, many bridges, especially in rural areas, are built in such a way that there are many columns lodged in the river floor. But our country is blessed with heavy rainfall and a lot of timber flows on the rivers. During the flood season, logs that are carried by strong currents tend to demolish the columns and destroy the foundation and, eventually, the bridge,” says Voo. 

However, the only way to build a bridge without columns is to use steel, which has two disadvantages — higher upfront cost, as steel structures are more expensive, and more maintenance because they rust. “So, UHPC was the most sustainable solution. With this material, you can build long-span bridges in rural areas at affordable prices,” says Voo.

The bridge earned Dura a place in the Malaysian Book of Records for being the first of its kind in the country and the longest UHPC bridge in the world. Since the Kampung Linsum project, Dura has built more than 100 bridges in the country for contractors engaged by various government agencies.

“We built another two bridges for JKR in 2011, five in 2012 and eight in 2013.We have already built 14 bridges for the government alone. By the end of this year, we would have a built a total of 113 bridges,” says Voo.

Eager to further develop the technology, he serves as an adjunct professor at University Putra Malaysia and helps students pursuing their doctorates in UHPC.

Dura has won several awards, including PCI’s 2016 Design Award Winner for Best International Transportation Structure for the construction of a 100m single-span bridge in Batu 6, Gerik, Perak. Following the recognition, PCI members and Fédération Internationale du Béton (fib, also known as International Federation for Structural Concrete) representatives from six countries visited Dura’s facility in Perak and inspected some of the completed bridges.

After the visit, JP Binard, chair of the PCI Prestressed Concrete Piling Committee and UHPC Bridge Subcommittee of the Bridges Committee, noted in his report, UHPC: A game-changing material for PCI bridge producers, that Dura had successfully completed more than 70 bridges, including structures with high average daily traffic. “Dura boasts the longest simple span with UHPC in the world as well as the longest bridge. These feats are neither epic nor heroic. They stem from using a well-researched material in practical applications to be more competitive than other material solutions.”

The world’s leading design code developer and a non-profit body aimed at improving the technical, economic, aesthetic and environmental performance of concrete structures was so impressed that it invited Voo to be one of its keynote speakers at the fib symposium in Maastricht, the Netherlands, in June. 

What makes UHPC sustainable?

Voo says with UHPC, the cost of having to construct temporary post-tensioning and temporary falsework and supports have been reduced substantially. “We have changed how bridges are built. Most of the time with bridges, the major part of the cost is not the material but the construction cost because traditionally, we had to do a lot of temporary work like diverting the river. And once the construction is completed, we need to remove all the temporary structures. 

“With Dura’s bridges, the construction cost can be lowered by 30%. We do not have to do any temporary work or piling, for example. We just precast the material, bring it to the area and have it fitted. Everything is made at the factory and reassembled at the job site. Just like Lego.”

As UHPC is considered five times stronger than steel, Dura has branded its version of hardy concrete material as “like concrete, like steel”. “With such a high strength material, we are pushing the boundaries of conventional construction methods. It looks like steel, it behaves like steel, but it does not have corrosion issues or high costs associated with it,” he says.

It is also more eco-friendly. Voo says it only emits 43% of the CO2 emitted in the construction of steel structures while the pollution level is only half. It also has a service life of 300 years without the need for maintenance. 

“I admit that the initial cost of our product is slightly more than conventional products, but normal concrete or steel will start cracking in 30 to 50 years, depending on the condition and maintenance. For bridges that are not durable, the authorities have to constantly maintain and repair them, which costs time and money,” says Voo.

Other countries have started to see the advantages of Dura’s UHPC. The company recently inked a joint-venture agreement with Canada’s Facca Inc to build bridges in that country. 

“We are transferring Malaysian technology overseas, which rarely happens. Malaysia is usually an example for countries such as Zimbabwe and Afghanistan, but very seldom for a highly developed country,” says Voo.

“The trial mix is ready and the Canadian company is testing the product to prove its durability. In two years, we expect some bridges in Canada to have been built using Dura’s UHPC. Canada has had a design specification for UHPC since the mid-1990s, but it has not been used because the material was expensive and only used in specific projects.”

But bridges are not the only thing that can be built with UHPC. It is also a “near perfect” building material despite its complex recipe, stresses Voo. 

“My expertise is in building bridges, so I am going to stick to building bridges. It is better to do one thing to the best of my ability than to do many things and excel at none. But experts in other fields of construction have seen what UHPC can do,” he says.

“We entered into a joint venture with Tiong Seng Holdings, a construction group and property developer listed on the Singapore Exchange, three years ago. It has the exclusive rights to our technology and material in Singapore.”

Tiong Seng uses Dura’s UHPC to precast the bathrooms used in its condominiums. “Three years ago, Singapore’s Building and Construction Authority asked me to give a presentation to all of its contractors because the city state wanted to introduce the material. Being Singapore, it did not want to use the material for structural components first. So, it allowed the material to be used in non-structural components. 

“Tiong Seng approached Dura and we entered into a partnership. In Singapore, high-rise buildings are in demand, so the precast bathroom body is very critical,” says Voo.

“The developer has already built 7,000 units using UHPC. With the material, you can build a thin structure that is very strong and affordable.”

As Tiong Seng owns precast moulds, all Voo had to do was provide his patented UHPC recipe and technology. 

Dura is currently negotiating a joint venture in China. “The country has already picked up this technology and built a bridge using it. It refers to the technology as super tough concrete (STC). It is its own recipe, which is only used for decking purposes such as for asphalt, not the entire bridge. The bridge is still made from steel. So, it is interested in seeing how we have done it.”

Voo has big plans for his China foray. In fact, it is a major part of the company’s globalisation process. He says China is keen on UHPC as STC is relatively more expensive. “I can sell Dura’s UHPC at half the price, using the local ingredients. A lot of the time, it is about knowing how to cook and use different ingredients.”

This is bound to accelerate its business further and increase its profitability. According to Leweko’s 2016 annual report, Dura chalked up revenue of RM10.1 million, down 42.1% from RM17.5 million in the previous financial year, due to projects being postponed by its clients.

But Voo is not fazed. He has set his sights on the international market. And as the company gets ready to make an impact abroad, he sees only great things ahead.