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Disrupting the concrete industry: pioneering de-carbonization and self-healing concrete

Interview - May 14, 2021

Aizawa has positioned itself at the forefront of major innovations in the concrete industry aimed at both reducing carbon emissions and strengthening the resilience of concrete structures to aging and natural disasters. In this interview with the Worldfolio, president Yoshihiro Aizawa discusses the importance of developing new concrete solutions for a de-carbonized world, and gives more details about some of Aizawa’s products and technology that have kept the company ahead of its competitors.


What should Japan do to meet the requirement of new social infrastructure for an aging population and what role can Aizawa play in that?

Japan’s shrinking population is causing problems for the old infrastructure which dates back to the 1960s, and on top of that there is an increased environmental awareness, leading to a need for de-carbonization to slow global warming and this is having a pronounced effect on the infrastructure sector so companies must adapt their operations to anticipate and satisfy these requirements. The problems we face aren’t just specific to Japan but also have global influences.


What aspects of infrastructure are most in need of change in order to support the adaptation to these new requirements that you described?

Companies are looking to make advancements in the field of de-carbonization and although we are trying to increase our market share, the market may be reaching saturation point. Our company is closely related to traditional business offerings which are more vulnerable in an increasingly volatile market so the main challenge now is to come up with new materials and alternative materials for conventional concrete. In respect to de-carbonization, our focus is on developing carbon neutral materials that look like concrete to bolster our intellectual property assets and have this become an integral part of our business model.


Can you tell us a little bit more about your products and your activities in the ‘smart concrete’ business?

Our ultimate goal is to create a kind of non-breakable concrete. The idea is similar to that of the human immune system in that the material will be capable of healing itself. The unavoidable fact is that all concrete is liable to cracking no matter how well prepared and applied it is. Variations in temperature over time will crack it, so our company has been one of the first to advance this idea of unbreakable concrete and we are doing so through Basilisk, a self-healing concrete that we developed and promote in Japan


One of the main ingredients in concrete is limestone and we know that this results in concrete adding up to 8% of all C02 emissions into the atmosphere. Do you think there is any alternative raw material to limestone that could be employed to transform the concrete business?

When we come up with solutions, such as non-breakable concrete, we are driving demand towards newer materials but there is also the need for reducing CO2 emissions which must be kept in mind when considering the maintenance and extension of large project lifecycles. Many older projects built with concrete now have cracks and could also benefit from a self-healing material and we are promoting the development of self-healing concrete as a way of lowering maintenance costs.

Theoretically, a carbon neutral concrete can be produced but it's still at the research stage and many construction companies are looking into how CO2 usually released into the environment can be locked into the concrete as a kind of CO2 sink.


Given the rising demand in densely populated areas for more compact projects in terms of area, what are some of the challenges that that presents and how is your company responding to it?

It’s not only the size, shape and layout of projects in metropolitan areas that are changing. It’s also the lifestyles of the people living there. De-carbonization is one aspect, but lifestyle requirements such as the transportation infrastructure that supports people’s daily commute must be conveniently laid out and these decisions are also political in nature so it’s not just the aging demographics of Japan that are at play here.


Can you tell us how you are maximizing the benefits of precast concrete and how are you minimizing the logistical burden it creates in the supply chain?

The precast concrete business aims to create precast components which are standardized in order to be assembled at the construction site, thereby saving on labor costs, the space used, and lead times. In conducting this business, reliability is a keyword for us. The concrete must be reliable over time and to this end we prestress the concrete before we produce the precast components.

The prestressing of concrete has been a feature of the manufacturing process for many years, especially in Japan because of the country’s vulnerability to earthquakes, and together with the assembly of the precast components almost like Lego bricks, this represents an improvement over the older buildings made out of traditional concrete which were more susceptible to collapse.

Pre-stressed concrete is the only material which is not vulnerable to earthquakes which is why it's known as a resilient material. This type of material allows for swaying during an earthquake and retains its original form. My job now is to introduce this pre-stressed concrete into our manufacturing process so that it can be used in precast components. Prestressed concrete was actually first used in France to make bridges that were considered at risk of cracking.


Do you see the countries situated around the Pacific Ring earthquake zone as an opportunity for your pre-stressed concrete business?

Actually, we are in talks with Saudi Arabia at the moment, which is opening its economy up and has 400,000 houses to build for their middle class. They want to apply our technologies to their pre-stressed concrete manufacturing over there. It’s almost on a similar scale to the restoration of Japan that happened in the past. This is a good example of technology transfer between countries and the deal is almost done now.

It’s very difficult to properly implement pre-stressed technology. Although, it was first intended for bridges in France to improve their longevity, it’s now being adopted in much more varied scenarios and the main issue now is how to standardize its implementation and application.


How do you intend to transform your company into a manufacturer of ‘smart concrete’ in future?

We already see ourselves as positive disruptors of the traditional concrete industry by pioneering de-carbonization and self-healing concrete. We already handle 1,000,000 tons of concrete per year, so you can imagine the size of the task to introduce those innovations at this scale whilst lowering the environmental impact at the same time. We expect to be conducting this integration over the next year or so. And we’re not trying to be overly monopolistic of this new core technology. We’re working with affiliate companies to continually improve our methods.


Can you tell us about the different types of concrete formulas that you are developing to serve the varying climates of overseas customers?

There are a variety of solutions to help optimize the formulation and mixing of concrete in different climates. For example in warm climates we can add crushed ice to the mix, or add liquid nitrogen to cool it down. In colder areas such as northern Japan and Russia we would conversely heat up the mix to attain the optimal temperature required although the temperature of the mix is not the only factor in achieving the optimal type of concrete.


What is your international strategy going forward and which countries are you looking to further expand your operation into?

Although we do construction projects abroad such as a bridge in the Russian Far East that was requested by President Putin himself for the OPEC summit there, our company doesn’t have any express plans to penetrate foreign markets. What tends to happen is that we are invited to undertake projects abroad on an ad hoc basis by foreign companies and governments. So, Mongolia, Vietnam and Singapore are among those countries interested in the technology transfer involved in having us conduct infrastructure projects with them.


Your business has four main sectors – ready-made mixed concrete, precast concrete, foundations and housing. Which sectors of your business do you see those four as having the most growth potential?

None of these businesses is given priority over the others. We seek to develop them in a uniform way so for example when it comes to de-carbonization and smart materials we would look for ways of introducing these innovations to all four activities wherever it is possible to do so. We don’t even differentiate sales figures between these divisions. We’re a traditional concrete manufacturing company that is innovating across all its businesses, and the relationships we have with our affiliate companies also play a major role in formulating optimal solutions for our customers’ various requirements.


With that unique idea of disrupting the traditional concrete business, how are your competitors reacting and what are some of the challenges that you're facing as a disrupting company?

We’d like our activities to encourage not just our affiliates but also other companies in related businesses to think more inventively and not stay stuck in the old ways of doing things, particularly since the government’s initiative on de-carbonization is not being implemented as quickly as one would hope. The process of adopting and integrating new materials into new and existing processes will be a gradual one but now is the time for companies to show how well they can go about achieving this, otherwise they will be left behind in future.


When you eventually hand the presidency of the company to your successor, what achievements would you like to have attained and what legacy would you like to leave to the company?

It may be hard for Europeans to understand the Japanese interpretation and approach to capitalism because in Japan the sustainability and longevity of companies is a higher priority so a longer-term view is often taken in formulating strategy. This is a family company founded by the grandfather and there is a son who will be taking over and then grandsons and so on. So the main legacy would be the successful continuation of our business and leadership.