Building sustainable infrastructure

This article first appeared in Enterprise, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on December 31, 2018 - January 06, 2019.
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When it comes to technology transfer in Malaysia, it is usually by a foreign company to a local counterpart. However, Dura Technology Sdn Bhd CEO Dr Voo Yen Lei is taking his innovation to countries such as Canada and China.

His company specialises in ultra-high-performance concrete (UHPC), a high-strength and durable form of concrete that he uses to build bridges. It is lighter than normal concrete.

“It is at least four to five times stronger and at least 100 times more durable. UHPC is good for government infrastructure work because it needs something that is long lasting and requires less maintenance,” says Voo.

These qualities mean that building with UHPC will result in cost savings because less manpower, time and equipment will be needed during construction. Longer structures can also be built without the need for more supporting beams, thus saving on material.

“If you are using the conventional method to build a bridge of 40m, you will need seven beams. If you are using my product, you only need three. So, with UHPC, 37% less material is required. The embodied energy, which means the energy that is required to make the bridge, is only 80% for UHPC while carbon dioxide emissions are about 25% less,” says Voo.

He did not invent UHPC. That was done by Hans Henrik Bache in 1986 in Aalborg, Portland. And the first company to really latch on to the possibilities of this new material was French-Swiss cement maker LafargeHolcim. In fact, its Ductal product is considered the Rolls-Royce of UHPC.

There is just one problem with that. The Rolls-Royce is expensive and it cannot be used as a mainstream product. That is where Voo comes in. He had just completed his master’s degree in civil engineering at the University of New South Wales in Australia when he started researching UHPC for his doctoral thesis, in 1997. He came up with his own more cost-effective recipe of the material.

When Voo returned to Ipoh in 2005, he spent six months using local ingredients to refine his UHPC recipe so he could bring the cost down significantly. Leweko Resources Bhd, a public-listed company that was owned by the father of one of his university mates, took an interest in his work and bought a 51% stake in his company.

Since then, Voo has built more than 100 bridges using UHPC in Malaysia, including the world’s longest UHPC composite bridge built to date, which is located in Perak. He is expanding the company’s product range in the country to meet the demand of the local industry.

“We have a few collaborations worldwide. In Asia, we are working with our partners in India and China, in addition to our long-time partner in Singapore. Dura is also in Australia and Canada, teaming up with local contractors doing infrastructure works,” says Voo.

It was not easy for him to get to where he is now. It took six years of losses while he did his research and pilot projects. He only succeeded because he had support from the right people who believed in him.

“In life, it does not matter how clever, beautiful or rich you are. Everything is a matter of timing. I had people who were willing to try this out in the beginning,” says Voo.

One of the people who trusted him to build a bridge was the director-general of Negeri Sembilan’s Department of Works, who gave him the first local government contract in 2010.

“I am so lucky to have had people invest RM15 million in me. The person invested in me because his son was a classmate of mine in university. We were best friends. So, when I finished my PhD, my friend asked me to start this. But before the company could set up a factory, he died from cancer. Before his death, he told his father that this needs to be continued as it has potential. His father treats me like a son,” says Voo.

According to Leweko Resources’ annual report last year, Dura recorded revenue of RM16 million and operating profit of RM1.9 million in 2017, which helped to boost the group’s revenue.

“There is a Chinese proverb that says those with perseverance will succeed. I know a reputable professor from the US who once made this comment about me: ‘It does not matter whether it is UHPC or something else, but any product that passes through your hands, you will see it through.’ So, it is not all about the product, it is about the attitude. If you have a good product — something that is good for the people, country and environment — that is a plus point,” says Voo.

His business is expected to grow as there is demand for more green and sustainable structures, not just within Malaysia but all over the world. This is partially driven by factors such as the rising cost of raw materials.

“Apart from that, with schedules being so tight, contractors are always looking to cut down on time, proposing aggressive schedules that are sometimes not realistic. I believe we are moving towards a design-build process where we come in as a total solutions provider to the contractor and client. The rising popularity of pre-fab and modular construction will also contribute to our growth,” says Voo.