Founded in 1963, Chemical Grouting has developed technologies used around the world, including the jet grouting method, which uses high-pressure water that cuts through the ground and mixes with cement slurry. "We don't intend to monopolize our technologies, and we hope that engineers around the world will actively use them,” says company president Yuichi Tachiwada.
As a company that has specialized in underground construction work for more than 50 years, how do you foresee the evolution of the construction sector in Japan and what is your analysis of its current state?
Let me explain how we established our company. We were founded in 1963 which was just one year before the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. At that time, Japan was in a period of high economic growth. We started off as a subsidiary company of Kajima Construction Company, one of the largest in Japan. The company founder, President Rokuro Ishikawa, at the time spoke of the new era Japan was going to enter after the war. He had keen insight that “new cities will be developed high in the sky and deep in the earth" and that's why we started off as a company that specialized in underground construction work. Incidentally, construction of the Kasumigaseki Building, Japan's first super-high-rise building by Kajima Corporation, began in 1965, and became a model for the development of super-high-rise buildings.
Back then we lacked some technologies to perform excavation underground, so we had to send people to Europe or the United States to learn about grouting technology. In Japan, when you're trying to dig deep during underground construction work, you're going to face the problem of water flowing out almost everywhere, and the deeper you dig, the more water flows. That’s why we first had to think about how to tackle this problem, or else we would be unable to build quality underground structures, and this led us to chemical grouting.
It was the time when Japanese companies were trying to catch up and overtake Europe and the United States because Japan was falling behind in terms of construction technology. Although we reached a certain technological level for “chemical grouting” with our efforts to grow the technology and make it more mature, one company’s chemicals leached into underground water during chemical grouting work and caused a potential health hazard in 1973. Thereafter, chemical grouting technology was reinstated but under much stricter control. Just around the same time, we developed a new technology called the “Column Jet Grout method”. Since the "Column Jet Grout method" is a technology that cuts the ground with highly pressurized water and replaces it with cement slurry, it is more reliable and safer than chemical grouting.
The Jet Grout method has evolved to the "X-Jet Grout method," "Superjet Grout method," and "Jetcrete method". These days, Jet Grout methods are now being used not only in Japan but also in many countries around the world. Although “Chemical grouting” is not just a technology but also our company’s name itself, we were able to make a leap forward with this new technology of Jet Grout following this incident.
After the Olympics were over, big cities such as Tokyo and Osaka where populations are concentrated, required underground usage through the development of infrastructure which rapidly increased, such as subways, sewage, and water supply networks
The demand for such infrastructure development has continued to rise up until the 1990s. However, when all these cities matured, we entered another stage focusing more on the environmental issues that emerged. At the old factory site, oil and heavy metals that had been permeated into the ground remained intact, so there is now a need for technologies to purify the soil. Since the 1990s, we’ve been focusing on helping to resolve these kinds of issues.
In 1995 there was a huge earthquake in the Hanshin area of West Japan which devastated an area from Kobe to Osaka. At that time, we focused on helping to rebuild all the damaged infrastructure. We then began considering how to build stronger structural components to better prepare ourselves against the next massive earthquake. That led us to all those technologies that were developed as disaster preventive measures. The next milestone came in 2011 when, as you know, the large East Japan earthquake in the Tohoku area struck. Not long after, some big earthquakes occurred in the Kumamoto region as well. We saw seismic movement all over Japan, so we became once again heavily focused on rebuilding work.
Over the past decade we've really focused on the revisions to the laws regarding construction to work that have come about. Previously there was a requirement for resistance to earthquakes up to magnitude 5 but then the bar was raised up to 6 or 7, so we had a lot of work strengthening buildings and infrastructure, including nuclear plants. Right now we're focusing on the next potential earthquake which could hit anywhere from metropolitan Tokyo down to the southern areas of Japan and are engaged in preventive measures and construction work in those areas.
Since the turn of the millennium there has been increasing awareness of global warming because we are seeing the increasing impact of it. We’ve had the Kyoto agreement and COP meetings in response to this increased awareness. We’re seeing climatic changes like more powerful typhoons hitting countries and heavier rainfall leading to flooding, so we need to also work on projects that are defensive against these climatic impacts.
Koishihara River Dam project
I think that in other countries construction work span both the civil engineering work and architectural work involved, but in Japan we separate the civil engineering and architectural aspects because of the design requirements for disaster-proof structures. The majority of the budget of the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism is spent on disaster preventive measures and that is expected to continue so I think that the demand for civil engineering projects will be endless.
How has Japan’s declining demographic affected your company and how are you reacting to this particular challenge?
We’ve already known for some time that Japan obviously is facing an aging population and we know that we will be running out of workers in the construction industry. To that end we are advancing mechanization and automation. In order to operate these systems, however, it is necessary to have high-caliber technicians. Simple tasks can be mechanized, but unseen construction work in the ground needs experienced engineers, and we work together with our subcontractors in that respect. Looking to the future, we employed Vietnamese engineers in Vietnam and brought them to work on sites in Japan. They learn the techniques and the know-how and we hope that they can then eventually also contribute to their own country with that knowledge gained from us.
Along with the evolution of communication technology, we are building a system that enables information exchange even in remote locations, including overseas. Therefore, one day when they go back to their own country, we can stay connected and if they face any technical issues, we can find solutions together.
In your mission statement you say that your mission is to become a technology-oriented company. What is your road map for becoming digitally or technologically oriented, and what impact do you see technology or digital technology having on the construction sector in Japan?
I think that the core issue for us to tackle in construction and civil engineering is that many of the machines involved, such as excavators are powered by hydraulics, which is a very analog type of power source and it would be difficult to digitize. Our operations often require the human touch to perform just the right push or apply the right pressure, and if you try to do it by adjusting a setting on a machine it is difficult to translate those settings to analog functions. However, we're actually making attempts to try to quantify all these functions into parameters so that we can then apply the very latest technologies to them.
The way we try to encapsulate our functions is very sophisticated too. Instead of just using an engineer to scientifically model and develop certain technologies, we also use actual craftspeople who have the hands-on experience. So, it’s very important to have competence in both the hands-on skill and the engineering side in order to optimally advance the technology.
For example, you all know these rotating tables for sushi right? In the old days we actually used to have people behind the scenes making the sushi by hand, but now this is actually done by machines, so I think that's a similar transition to what we’re trying to achieve in our field. For us it’s more difficult because we need to transform the human touch into a series of mechanical movements. It's different from a simple transportation job.
I think Japan is really at the forefront of creating this kind of sophisticated machine, trying to mimic what skilled human workers are doing. That’s why we now have robots to make sushi. But we still depend on human touch and skills. I always think of this as the homework we need to do – we still need to keep our workforce and nurture skilled technicians while we are trying to transition things over to machinery and robots.
I would say that almost all the machines we’re using in our company we designed ourselves, whereas most of our competitors just get leased equipment from equipment manufacturers. As we work together with our partner companies to develop and maintain our own equipment because we want to make it in the way that's safe and easiest for us to use.
Could you elaborate on some of the initiatives and techniques that you've developed for the sake of environmental protection and sustainable development?
We're trying to use a lot of biotechnologies. For example, we have soil purification technologies using biological skills and also a soil hardening technology that works using biological reactions without cement. We have a research center close to Yokohama where people are doing research in our labs.
We already have pretty good purification technologies that remove volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in the ground. While many companies have proven successful in purifying sandy soil which has good water permeability, it is difficult to purify soil with poor permeability, such as clay, so we collaborated with a company called the EOS in the United States to develop a chemical that helps to remove the VOCs and succeeded in developing and purifying chemical substances that are useful in removing them. Thanks to the achievements of this project, we actually received an award from the United States government who gave us a certificate of appreciation.
We were seeing success at the laboratory level initially, but it's another challenge to turn it into a practical application. Eventually we were able to help at a factory which was having trouble with VOCs by using our new technology. We've seen that it applies well and we're getting further requests from the Tokyo metropolitan administration.
What role would you say that collaboration or cooperation plays in your business, and are you currently looking for any new partners, especially in overseas markets?
We were working with a Taiwanese company called J&L on biotechnologies and in fact, we already passed the laboratory testing stages to purify successfully using biological reactions. From this year onwards we think this technology is going to be applied in real scenarios in Taiwan. I think it was prior to the COVID pandemic that we were at an exhibition in Osaka and a lot of Chinese people came and they were very interested in our technology, but I declined their proposal because there were still issues for its practical application, but we found that there were similar issues in China. This seems to be one route for expanding overseas.
In terms of collaboration with foreign companies, which country do you believe has the most advanced technological know-how for you to be able to blend it together and be more competitive globally?
We’re working with countries like Vietnam, Thailand and Malaysia at the moment. As I was saying, we already have a worker exchange program – we're sending people from Japan to Vietnam as well. And we are finding companies that we can partner with and further expand some programs. With the advancement of telecommunications technology, information exchange has become easier, so I think we can also accelerate the sales of our technologies. In Thailand we have one project in process that we're trying to provide our technology to so that it can be applied in Thailand.
I think people are bringing a lot of attention to the SDG’s these days. When people talk about SDG’s, they usually focus on reducing carbon emission, but I think we also have some other ways to tackle this problem. More than 10 years ago I was thinking about a carbon dioxide heat pump that used the carbon dioxide to power itself, but it didn't go that well in terms of efficiency, so it wasn't a success.
I got this idea because back then I spent six and a half to seven years in Osaka and I went to see a tomato plantation and they brought me to their greenhouse. It was in June back then, so it was pretty warm outside, but they had heaters in the green houses, so I was asking them why they needed heaters when it was so warm outside. It was because they wanted to stimulate photosynthesis, which requires water and light as well as CO2. They were running the heaters to produce more CO2 because the atmospheric concentration was only about 0.6%, which was very low. That’s when I had the idea for that CO2 heat pump.
Are there any particular markets or regions that you consider key as part of your international business and in those regions what kind of strategy will you employ? Could please elaborate for us a little bit about your international business strategy?
I think this is also linked to this idea of us developing some technology to utilize the CO2 for our ‘Icecrete’ solution which is an environmentally friendly ground freezing method that means we no longer have to use cement to reinforce soil.
Icecrete, ground freezing method
We encourage them to use our technology because the philosophy of our company is that we don't want to monopolize our technologies. We want to share, even with other countries. I don't have a particular region or country that I want to share this technology to, but the idea is that if there is a country out there that needs that technology then we're happy to share it with them. There is a company called "KELLER", which is well known worldwide for having the same kind of technology as ours, and we provided our technology, the "Superjet Grout Method."
We want to send out a promotional message on this and we want the world to know about our technologies. I want to demonstrate our mentality that we are friends to all around the world. If we have more people collaborating, then we can protect the Earth together.
Let's say we come back to interview you again in a few years' time. What would you like to tell us about your goals and dreams for the company in that timeframe, and what would you like to have achieved by then?
One of the things I want to achieve is to have a better understanding of how markets are in other countries and how they’re evolving over time. Obviously, we want to come up with measures that would tackle the problems that global warming is bringing about, so we will certainly want to continue to develop technologies that would work on that.