October 14, 2022
The most exciting trend I have seen is building materials producers taking more technical ownership over the use and performance of their products. While this may seem obvious, many building materials segments are so heavily guided by codes and standards that the material producer can be put in a position where their expertise is marginalized by an outdated standard or supervisory relationship with an Engineer of Record. Ready-Mix concrete is a classic case, but even that has been changing over recent years. More technical ownership by the material producer can lead to more innovations across the whole space, from wall products to print-on-demand concrete.
An often unappreciated fact about sustainability transitions is that they do not happen to just a single industry at a time. So when multiple industries are dynamic, options that used to seem simple are no longer viable. An example of this happening in my time in Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) was around power plant usage, known as load. If we improve a coal power plant by putting a shiny new CCS plant on it, we would expect that people would want to use it all the time, it would be base load, because it would make cleaner electricity. The thing was though, the whole electricity system was changing at once and so other technologies, like wind, solar, and new natural gas were also being built. It turned out that this would cause the new coal plant with CCS to perform load following duty to back up wind and solar power. The problem was that no one thought to design the CCS plant for load following duty.
Having a strong sustainable product strategy means thinking beyond just your product to things like alternatives and supply chain. A great example is happening right now in concrete sustainability. It seems like there is a relatively straightforward path for improving the embedded carbon footprint of concrete materials, which is increasing SCM usage. But other dynamics in sustainability are happening that make that playbook a little less viable.
Fly Ash comes from coal plants, which are in short supply and will continue to decline. Slag cement is more difficult to source as high energy intensity steel production moves further away geographically from concrete production. So now the playbook has to change for materials producers.
One of the most striking things about technology development is that innovation usually happens at the intersection of traditional “technical disciplines”, but most training only happens in the middle of one. For example, I was able to see problems in plant process control and electrical power grids, then use my knowledge in chemical analysis to solve an issue. I think it's the same in every industry. In particular for concrete, I think teams that have an appreciation for not only concrete but also sustainability, materials science, and software technology will have a huge leg up on the competition.
Most of my free time is spent with my family. Managing two young boys is challenging but incredibly rewarding. Outside of that, I enjoy road cycling, traveling, and economics (believe it or not).