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IHI provides first-class infrastructure both in Japan and abroad

Interview - September 4, 2023

Founded in 2009 – as a joint venture between the vastly experienced companies IHI Corporation, Matsuo Bridge and Kurimoto Bridge – IHI Infrastructure Systems specializes in the construction, maintenance and renovation of roads and bridges, bringing its expertise to major projects both in Japan and overseas.

KAZUYA UEDA, EXECUTIVE OFFICER, VICE PRESIDENT OF SOCIAL INFRASTRUCTURE BUSINESS AREA OF IHI CORPORATION
KAZUYA UEDA, EXECUTIVE OFFICER | VICE PRESIDENT OF SOCIAL INFRASTRUCTURE BUSINESS AREA OF IHI CORPORATION

There are two key challenges facing Japanese infrastructure these days. Firstly the aging infrastructure needs maintenance having been built in the 1960s. Secondly, a saturated market. What role can IHI Infrastructure Co., Ltd. play in upgrading civil infrastructure in Japan for the years to come?

As you mentioned, infrastructure in Japan is getting old, so therefore repair, maintenance, and renewal activities are required, and of course, this is one of the challenges the country currently faces. Renewal of aging infrastructure and renovation due to changes in environment and standards generally require higher technical capabilities than new infrastructure development. We have accumulated experience over a long period of time since the dawn of infrastructure development, which is a great strength in projects that require high technical capabilities.

As you know, Japan has been hit by a lot of natural disasters such as earthquakes, tsunamis, and floods. For this reason, the Japanese government set up a plan to secure the resilience of Japan. On this large scale, you need the renewal of roads and bridges, therefore the government has started initiatives to provide alternative routes should a natural disaster strike and suspend the operation of roads and bridges around the country. In this respect, the project is designed to set up new roads, and this project is currently ongoing. 

Regarding projects for the construction of new roads and bridges, the point is to avoid congestion during said projects. At the same time, we should reduce construction costs. In some cases, Japanese road construction is complex, therefore there is a need to mitigate any suspension of roads during construction. This is why in some cases we perform construction during the night when there is minimal impact. In order to conduct swift work like this we need a high level of technology. This is where IHI Infrastructure Systems Co., Ltd. can play a key role.

 

You alluded to how the maintenance of old infrastructure requires a high level of expertise as well as a high level of technology. I think this connects well to the biggest challenge facing Japan these days; the aging population. This is especially impacting construction workers as a demographic, with one in four construction workers being over the age of 65. Within this challenge you have two problematic points, the first being the transfer of expertise from elder statesmen to the next generation of employees, and the second being recruitment. And increasingly these days it is becoming difficult to attract young people to a career in construction. Can you talk about how Japan’s aging population is impacting your day-to-day operations?

Now because of the labor shortage, it is becoming more difficult to secure a sufficient number of engineers. In Japan now there are a lot of local infrastructure projects, but in order to complete these projects companies need to secure resources. After WWII highly knowledgeable engineers supported Japan’s infrastructure, but now due to the aging society, most veteran engineers are leaving for retirement. That is why a large focus of our company is now on how to transfer technology from veteran engineers to the next generation of employees.

In order to solve these issues we are implementing automation and digitalization, which in turn will enhance efficiency, however, I feel that we are no different from a wide range of different firms domestically that have resorted to this approach. We are also looking to diversify our business opportunities for potential employees, meaning that female and non-Japanese workers will be welcome and provided job opportunities. Additionally, we are inviting elderly engineers the chance to continue working for the company longer should they wish to do so. Since these activities lead to differentiation from competitors, we will take advantage of them by actively working on them.

Nowadays there is a push to respect the balance between personal and work lives, and this style of work is very different from the type I’ve dealt with in the past. In order to secure the necessary human resources and motivate those younger staff members we should enrich their lives and enable them to have a healthy balance between work and home life. At the same time, we need to successfully perform knowledge transfers from older workers to those younger employees.

We are making a lot of effort to visualize our knowledge and experience. By using the latest advancements in technology such as 3D imaging we can help younger workers visualize and understand the wealth of knowledge older workers possess. This approach is also reflected in the diversification of our staff. 

 

We saw in our research that you have established an IoT bolt monitoring system for long-span suspension bridges. This project is a collaboration between IHI Infrastructure, NejiLaw, and West Nippon Expressway to visualize bolt degradation. Could you tell us more about this project, and your assessment of the system now one year since its introduction?

Since Japan’s entire workforce is decreasing and the work-life balance improvements have decreased working hours, ICT technologies need to be used as solutions. Nowadays Japan has around 730,000 bridges, so with that high a number, it is practically impossible to check them all manually. Since human monitoring is impossible, IoT or AI bolts could be a solution. Implementing non-human monitoring, diagnosis, and inspection can all be done. The monitoring system for long span bridges using IoT bolts, which started operation in 2022, is currently being improved to a more reliable system in collaboration with NejiLaw, based on the operational status and acquired data at the site.

Over the last year, we have collected a large amount of data through such monitoring, but we feel there is still room for improvement. We need to expand the type of data we collect in order to understand more fully the current state of Japanese bridges.

IHI Corporation has been selected as a DX brand by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry for the second year in a row, and IHI Infrastructure Systems Co., Ltd.  also positions DX at the center of its transformation and promotes activities.



The Kosokudaishibashi Bridge, first erected in 1962 is one of the most famous bridges in Japan, and your firm has been selected for its refurbishment. From what we understand you are using a very innovative construction technique where in a two-week period you’ve switched the old bridge for a new bridge.

The two-week suspension of the bridge connecting to Haneda airport was completed on June 10th, 2023. This form of construction is very difficult and there are a lot of limitations because we have to mitigate the impact on the river.

In general, parallel construction is very simple. Fundamentally you set up the incoming bridge next to the existing bridge, then remove the old bridge and shift the new one into place. With the Haneda airport bridge, this is not the case as the area is very complicated. The direction is different so therefore we need to mitigate the impact on the river flow. Additionally, the shift isn’t a simple one either, so 3D movement is required to gradually replace the bridge with the new one. Road construction should be completed before the move, yet joint reconstruction can actually be done after the shift to the new bridge. In order to allow this seamlessly we need to reduce the impact of rain, therefore we should install rainproofing to the new pier and related equipment during the two-week period.

With the new bridge, the links on the side should be the same as the old one, and in order to achieve this we did a lot of calculations as well as size and length checks at the factory. The onsite inspection was also necessary to secure accuracy in terms of size. 3D scanning played a key role in staying within certain parameters and tolerance levels. In fact, the gap tolerance was only 12.5mm, which is very small I’m sure you will agree. Now you can see why such high-quality checks are required in the design and production phases.

 

Earlier you made reference to Japan facing a lot of natural disasters like earthquakes, and other countries along the Pacific Ring of Fire are also vulnerable yet lack the infrastructure and technology needed to withstand such disasters. What role can your firm play in supporting these developing nations that may need these technologies yet lack the know-how and expertise to implement them?

As a company specializing in the construction and maintenance of roads and bridges, we always consider damage to transportation infrastructure and demand for restoration due to natural disasters. In addition, our subsidiary company named IHI Construction Service Co., Ltd. (IIK), has strengths in the maintenance of Steel and PC bridges, water gates and concrete structures. By implementing this internal collaboration we are providing support to developing nations looking to utilize preventative measures against natural disasters.

We promoted the overseas deployment of maintenance and seismic reinforcement technologies developed in Japan, a country prone to earthquakes. After the Kocaeli earthquake that occurred in Turkey in 1999, we carried out seismic reinforcement work on major bridges in Istanbul through a Japanese ODA Loan. Since then, cable repair work has been carried out for the 1st and 2nd Bosphorus Bridges, which contributes to extending the life cycle of bridges in the country, and efforts to prevent disasters have continued.

IHI Construction Service Co., Ltd handles prefabricated simple assembly bridges with a simplified design. They are able to set up a tentative bridge in a very short period of time and it means that cities can avoid traffic congestion right after a disaster.

 

When we spoke with your predecessor last year he spoke on his plans to expand into Europe. Now that you sit in the role of president we are curious to hear your thoughts. How would you describe your international strategy and what markets do you plan on focusing on?

As part of our global strategy, we look to expand to all over the world, but I would say that our first focus needs to be Asia. In this particular region, we have two strategies. The first strategy is to complete projects led by the public sector or governments. Many countries in Asia require infrastructure maintenance and reinforcement, so we see good opportunities for IHI to be involved proactively in these projects.

We have a local factory in Vietnam and Myanmar to create materials and products used in the bridge-making process. In this respect, we are engaged and will be actively engaged in this type of activity. We also would like to actively promote development with financial institutions other than those funded by the Japanese government, as well as projects that utilize private sector funds, and promote localization with a view to the period after the region graduates from ODA. 

Europe, including Turkey, is expected to provide us with stable demand for infrastructure maintenance, however, when it comes to repair and maintenance, local people want to do the projects by themselves. In this respect, IHI wants to build good relationships with European business partners including members of the supply chain. Through collaboration with European business partners, we would like to absorb and expand initiatives for DX and carbon neutrality.

In Africa, there are recently new bridge construction plans in the near future, and it is expected  that the population will continue to grow over the long term. Therefore a lot of infrastructure projects will be coming. However, large-scale ODA projects are stagnant due to the uncertainty of the global economy. We see this period as an opportunity to develop new business models such as our interim disaster solutions. This plan is under consideration right now and we are hoping to move forward in order to support Africa.

In  the United States, we focus on the huge infrastructure market, such as the establishment of the Infrastructure Investment and Employment Act. We completed the widening of the Huey P. Long Bridge in Louisiana in 2012, as a member of the EPC. On the other hand, it is not easy for Japanese construction companies to be allowed to engage in public projects in the US. The barrier to entry is very high, so we are working tirelessly to find solutions there. The aim is to create a sustainable construction business in the United States.

 

As the new president of IHI Infrastructure Systems Co., Ltd., what are your dreams for this company?

The construction industry is led by people, therefore it is really important to have good human relationships. In this respect, IHI wants to contribute to regions in countries around the world in order to delight local people while also raising awareness of the excellence of our company. By doing so we can expand our business on a global scale and continue our meaningful contributions to society.

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