With proprietary technologies such as Kanacrete, Kanaflex is developing innovative materials and products to replace conventional reinforced concrete for the infrastructure of the future. We spoke with president Shigeki Kanao to learn more about Kanacrete and some of Kanaflex’s other groundbreaking technologies.
Japan’s construction boom occurred more than fifty years ago around the time of the 1964 Olympics and as such, a lot of the infrastructure today needs maintenance and repair. Your company has developed technology such as piping rehabilitation methods. What is your assessment of Japan’s current construction needs and how are your rehabilitation methods contributing to that?
As you pointed out, since 1960 Japan has been blessed with high economic growth and this is the time in which it built most of its infrastructure. Therefore, most of it is already more than 50 years old. Most of the key infrastructure that we use in our daily lives such as bridges, tunnels, buildings, and sewage and water supply systems, is old and decrepit. The question of how to rehabilitate it is a big challenge for this country.
Reinforced concrete is a key material in construction. The cause of aging is the rusting of the steel bars due to water infiltration. Kanacrete is a high strength lightweight fiber reinforced concrete that we have developed and does not contain any steel bars. It is already in use as a panel for construction. It has also been applied to civil engineering materials and has been adopted for use in slabs to build a bridge on a highway under the approval of the Japanese Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism (MLIT).
Kanacrete lightweight ceramic material with special fibers with a non-reinforced type of structure. It is very light, with a specific gravity about half that of conventional reinforced concrete, and it also has around twice the compressive strength and three times the bending strength of conventional reinforced concrete.
In the case of Kanacrete, how do you control the curing process for international climate differences?
Kanacrete can change its specifications according to environmental, climatic, or temperature conditions. Especially when concrete is used in cold climates, a phenomenon called freeze-thaw may occur, where water penetrates the material inside and freezes, causing cracks in the concrete. However, our Kanacrete is not affected by freeze-thaw.
We have been manufacturing conventional concrete products for 30 years, but concrete is a popular material all over the world, and in some sense, anyone can do it. Therefore, it is not a very interesting material to work on. We have knowledge about plastics as one of Japan’s top plastic pipes and industrial hose makers, so we thought we could make good use of fibers and eliminate the need for steel reinforcement.
Roads in Japan are aging in the same way. The main reason is that the concrete slabs underneath the asphalt have rusted and are falling apart due to the reinforced concrete’s aging. Kanacrete floor slabs have been used to repair these roads. Take, for example, National Road 6, one of Japan’s main highways: the road was repaired in a few hours, with very little interruption of traffic, with cars taking to the road immediately after the repair works were finished.
As a Japanese company, you must contend with the fact that the domestic market is shrinking, along with the opportunities in it. Are you looking to export Kanaflex overseas?
With local subsidiaries in the United States, Spain, and China, Kanaflex is globally recognized and used as an international brand. We are thinking of introducing our products to the USA and Europe first. The biggest obstacle are national regulations, as each country has its own. However, we got approval from the United States government for the Kana Hyumu pipe. It took six years to get approval, but now we can start our business in the US. We have also received invitations from many other countries.
In the US, President Joe Biden has set out the Infrastructure Law, with a budget of about $1 trillion for infrastructure. Since Obama, there has been somewhat less focus on infrastructure. The damage to roads in the US is very severe compared to roads in Japan, and I think it was a wise choice for the US to make such a drastic investment in infrastructure.
Can you elaborate on your cost-effective solutions for repairing sewage pipes?
Over time, corrosive gasses can erode the concrete in sewage pipes, causing leaks and possible road collapses. As well as being dangerous, replacing old and damaged pipes is time-consuming and expensive. This is one of the most serious problems facing Japan today. Our KanaSlip is a rehabilitated pipe, such as a sewage pipe, that can reduce a process that used to take weeks to just one day by simply inserting it through a nearby manhole rather than demolishing the road. The use of KanaSlip results in an extremely simple and economical non-open-cut pipe restoration method. Self-supporting renewal pipes that are produced in a factory are drawn through the aging sewer pipes and then all that is required is to perform the pipe end processing. As well as being strong and flexible, the pipes are resistant to toxic gasses and have a life cycle of 50 years.
Could you elaborate on the strength and advantages of your pipes?
Civil engineering materials play a major role in land catchment and drainage below ground in cities. They support the creation of a comfortable environment by preventing disasters in a variety of locations, including housing developments, soil improvement on artificial islands, roads, viaducts, sewers, agricultural land, golf courses and parks. A diverse line-up of products is available, each designed to meet the characteristics of the site and its application.
Electrical equipment materials are used for the networking of power and communication lines, the lifelines of today’s society; they are used for burying power distribution lines underground and electrical piping in intelligent buildings. Our corrugated hard synthetic resin pipes were originally developed by using a molding method to meet the increasingly sophisticated and complex needs of work in this field. Pipes such as Kanalex ML combine economic efficiencies with a lightweight and flexible product.
Furthermore, hoses and ducts are used for various applications, including industrial ones such as construction, light and heavy industries, land, sea and air transportation, mining, and agriculture, as well as consumer industries such as automobiles and home electronics. We have realized efficient feed and transportation systems such as Kanaline NS hoses and NSD Type ducts by offering highly machinable, durable, flexible, and economical materials. They are strong products both in their flexible or rigid forms, depending on the customers’ needs. The range of potential applications for these systems is limitless.
Your company has two technology centers for R&D. Can you tell us about your approach to technological development?
At our Technical Center, which houses our R&D team, staff carefully analyze feedback from various locations and work to develop and improve products in response to this information. The large number of patents and utility models acquired demonstrates the advanced nature of our development capabilities.
The Japanese economy is currently in the doldrums and GDP has shown no signs of recovery for the last 20-30 years. However, the time is now ripe for new ventures. To achieve this, we must not only patent our technologies, but also change our way of thinking to a more flexible conception. In recent years, we have gained the support of Japan’s governing party, the Liberal Democratic Party, and have been able to get government officials to discuss the need for infrastructure regeneration at the highest level. We believe this is a result of our proposals, which mix our engineering expertise with the demands of the government, which is working to change the law concerning this matter.
Could you tell us about a unique technology that Kanaflex has developed?
KanaStone is a composite panel of natural stone that is produced by cutting thin slices of natural stone such as marble and granite and backing them with an original panel developed by Kanaflex. This has achieved a lightness, strength and ease of installation that goes beyond the conventional norm for natural stone. It also has the incombustibility performance required for interior materials and excellent water resistance.
Kanastone Super is a new product made by making Kanastone even thinner and easier to install in both dry or wet conditions. KanaStone Super has a sandwich structure of metal plates, and compared to conventional KanaStone, the metal plate reduces the deformation of the composite plate so the panel warps less.
The construction industry is a big emitter of CO2 and, at the same time, the infrastructure boom across Asia is demanding more concrete. In this context, Kanaflex is at the forefront of achieving the SDGs. How are your products contributing to the transition to a carbon neutral society?
For the last 30 years, my personal and primary preoccupation has been the loss of rainforests. As you probably know, there are tropical rainforests in Malaysia and Indonesia, and the building and civil engineering industries use timber from these forests. 80,000 square kilometers of rainforest are being lost every year.
We have developed a composite-replacement panel, which replaces wood. Made from Kanacrete, it has the same specific gravity as wood, and can be cut and nailed. In Japan, the US, and other countries, this kind of wood formwork is used when building a reinforced concrete building. By stopping this, we can help to protect rainforests. Every year, millions of hectares of rainforest disappear from the face of the Earth. This is a problem. We have been conducting research and development into this for a long time, but until now, all the alternatives to wood were very expensive. However, what we have developed is cheaper than conventional wood and has a long durability. Also, when it is broken up and disposed of, conventional wood is treated as industrial waste and when it degrades, it releases phthalates and dioxins. This is also not good. Our panels, instead, are completely recyclable: they can be crushed and used directly as a bulk material for asphalt, for example.
Are you looking for local partners as you seek to expand internationally?
Yes, of course. We are also looking at financial institutions and investment funds, but they usually have a short-term view. Instead, we hope that they will think in the long term.
Imagine we come back for your 60th anniversary and have this interview again. What goals would you have liked to have accomplished by then?
I want to develop original products like the ones I described today, and I want to contribute to the development of social infrastructure. For the time being, I believe that Japan is facing a mature society and will continue to shrink. Japanese industry will not be able to survive unless there is some breakthrough. For this, money is needed, but I believe the single most important thing is thinking. It is not good to have the wrong mindset, to hide complaints, to tamper with data, or to only make things look good on the surface.
I have a small company in China, and I used to go there a lot, and what is different there is that top management does not take as long as their Japanese counterparts to make decisions. If a Japanese company goes to China to discuss business, they say, “I will take it back to the board of directors in Japan”. They cannot decide on the spot. However, young Chinese managers decide on the spot. I think that is the main reason why Japan has gone down the drain.
I hope that young managers in Japan will be able to implement fast decision-making and take on new challenges.