Going for Gold

A Liebherr 630 EC-H 40 Litronic whcih can lift 5.8t at 80m reach on site at Las Bambas, Peru

Did you know that tower cranes are used extensively in the gold mining process? Neither did I until Cranes Today magazine asked me to investigate for their September issue. The first step was to find out more about gold mining itself and the key processes that strip the gold from the source rock. Expert Paul Wheeler at the Cambourne School of Mines explained:

“The chemistry of the process is that gold has great affinity with cyanide, so if you add this gold with large surface area (after crushing) to react with the cyanide solution the gold will then form a solution as a cyanide complex. What you can then do is add carbon into this mix and the carbon has an even greater affinity with gold which gets loaded on to the carbon from the solution.”

The final outcome is a substance called loaded carbon which is then taken to an elution plant where an acid wash strips the gold from the carbon after which the smelting process can take place. “It is a big industrial chemical engineering process as we are talking about very large volumes of rock to get small quantities of gold.”

This big industrial process needs cranes to change the crushing plant, insert equipment, maintain the motors and gearboxes and tanks. Firms such as Liebherr, SA French and ETAC all took the time to tell me more about how their cranes are used in the  mining industry and a full report will be in Cranes Today very soon.


Tunnel Vision

Over the past couple of weeks I have been looking into the research that is underway at UK institutions related to tunnelling. There was more than I expected. My 2000 word article is currently 3124 words. But I can’t bear to cut anything out. Should I omit some of the amazing work underway at Cambridge University which is using increasingly sophisticated sensors to give real time data that can be compared with the centrifugal and numerical model data? Or should I edit back the report on work at Edinburgh University where explosive spalling of concrete during fire and the influence of ventilation are major research topics?

Edinburgh University’s testing rig for studying the explosive spalling behaviour of concrete during a fire

I could miss out some of the incredible work being done at the University of Leeds Institute of Resilient Infrastructure where world leading research is being carried out into the cumulative effect of seismic loading on tunnels – something that design codes don’t currently cover. They are going to use sensors on two live tunnels in Chile where there there is an astonishing amount of earthquakes every month. Have a guess how many (the article will tell you – unless I have to cut that part)!

With the raft of tunnels planned in cities around the world the research at Imperial College London into the effect of tunnelling on existing tunnels, surely must be included. More specifically the university has carried out an incredibly detailed study into the impact on cast iron tunnels. Similarly Nottingham University is focused on the interaction between tunnels and buildings and its research is giving more effective tools for evaluating the effects of tunnelling on piled structures. City University too is focused on tunnel/structure interaction as well as undertaking research supported by the Pipe Jacking Association.  A current research project looks at the effect of tunnel excavation on escalator tunnels. Another focuses on ground support at the tunnel face and the effects on stability and surface settlement.

New technology and construction methods too have to be included. Dr Alan Bloodworth, who this week took over as the head of the UK’s only dedicated tunnelling and underground space MSc at Warwick University, has been studying sprayed waterproof lining systems, examining whether composite action occurs between the primary and secondary sprayed concrete linings due to the bonded waterproof layer (it does). How can I cut that?

And what about the future? Universities have research plans a plenty. I simply must include those or how will people know that Cambridge wants to create virtual tunnelling models and research the redistribution of loads around cross passages; that Edinburgh is working on new design strategies for mitigating concrete spalling in tunnels during fire or that Leeds University will create a virtual platform where the public can view the earthquake response of tunnels in Chile?

As I said there was more than I expected. There is nothing boring about tunnels!






Don’t be afraid of flexibility

The Major Projects Association (MPA) last week held its latest event on gender balance examining “three things that work”. PwC, Royal Mail Group and HS2 Ltd shared their experiences of improving diversity and inclusion with attendees and I summarised the event for the MPA in a report that can be viewed here

As usual the content of the meeting was thought provoking and useful, with each company outlining initiatives that were improving their businesses, but there was a recurrent issue that the meeting kept visiting – flexible working.

There are many reasons why employees, particularly female employees, need to work flexibly. But there are also many reasons why they may not feel comfortable asking to do so. From a fear that they many be viewed as less committed, or a (reasonable) expectation that the request will be rejected, many people don’t make flexible working requests. Some will then struggle to work the hours required, others will simply leave. Both scenarios are bad for business. And yet as Pauline Broadway, business change director at consultant Afiniti pointed out, flexible working is a two way street benefiting both business and employee. With strong communication, good planning and continuous reviewing, teams can operate highly successfully with members that may be part time, work in different locations or work alternative hours.

In fact Andy Woodfield, partner at PwC and leader of the company’s successful reverse mentoring programme, observed that when employees worked flexibly the whole team’s performance improved. Why? Because the flexible employee uses their working time as effectively as possible motivating the team around them and driving progress.

Of course there are many companies that have not yet come around to the benefits of flexible working, or believe that they can’t accommodate it. But these are not reasons not to ask for it.

With two young children myself I always work flexibly and I am proud to do so. Maintaining my career while supporting a family is a difficult balancing act, requiring intense focus that was not so crucial when I had more time on my hands.

The growing number of success stories of flexible working, the need for companies to ensure that they retain more female staff, the acknowledgement that diverse companies are more profitable, and the technology revolution that enables us to be “in the office” from anywhere means that there are more opportunities than ever for people to work flexibly, so don’t be ashamed to ask. It might even be better for the company too.

*Of course for working parents things don’t always go to plan and I’ve previously blogged about that here: http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/bernadette-ballantyne/working-parent-problems_b_7395686.html






Rough times

Demand for rough terrain cranes fluctuates along with the oil price meaning that manufacturers of these versatile, robust lifting machines have had a hard time of it lately. In fact mobile cranes in general have been hard hit as the oil price maintained a steady fall since 2014. So how are manufacturers managing the soft market? Cranes Today magazine asked me to find out.

The Sany SRC 885

The answer is that manufacturers are doing a lot. From improving their own production methods and product designs to reducing prices and launching new machines, there is a lot going on in this segment. I was particularly interested to learn that most of the investment in new cranes is being aimed at the higher capacity end of the market from 80T upwards. Greater capacities and longer booms are where the development effort is focussed. To find out who is launching what, which booms are longest and what is new look out for the July issue of Cranes Today.

Grove GRT8100 - image 2 - lo-res
The new Grove GRT 8100

Beware of the (gender pay) gap

If you are a woman working in engineering, (or any other job for that matter), it is likely that your male colleagues are getting paid more than you. This is particularly true for women over 40, according to figures from the Office for National Statistics, which estimates the average gender pay gap (between median salaries) in the UK to be 19.2% rising to 35% for over 40s.

Gender pay gap for median gross hourly earnings 1997-2015 (ONS)

Is this true for your company?  Noone knows – YET! Current reporting requirements are voluntary and only five companies have bothered to do the maths (well done Tesco, PwC, Deloitte, Genesis Housing, and Friends Life). But this is changing and becoming mandatory. From April 2018 anyone working in a firm with over 250 employees in the UK will know exactly what the gender pay gap is because firms are going to have to report it both as an average and a median value.  These numbers will be published by the government and ranked in sector based league tables.

For companies in engineering, infrastructure and construction the gaps are going to be big – huge in fact. Thanks to the great work done by the IET we know that only 6% of engineers are female. We also know that this is a sector which struggles to recruit and retain women so the high salaries are going to male employees. And for all of the excellent work that some companies are doing to encourage more diversity into the sector, there are still many firms that don’t think they have a problem.

This reporting requirement then is set to be a wake up call for companies to address the cultural and structural issues that have historically ensured that men progress to higher positions and get paid more. Financial security company Friend’s Life for example has used its gender pay gap data to recognise that its talent pipeline was weighted towards men and introduced a range of measures to support women moving into senior roles. As the firm said: “We take the old adage, ‘What gets measured, gets managed’, one stage further. We believe that, ‘What gets published, gets managed better’.”

It is therefore going much further than the mandatory reporting requirements and examining:

  • Workforce profile overall, at management levels and by grade
  • Gender pay gap by grade
  • Employee engagement response rates and scores
  • Length of service by age group and gender
  • Sickness absence levels
  • Sickness levels by major disease state
  • Grievance cases by gender, including cases upheld
  • Employee Assistance Programme uptake
  • Duration of absences over one month

Its efforts have already led to an increase in women in senior roles at the company – something that engineering firms could learn from.

Last week I was at a session on the new reporting requirements run by the Employment Law team at Clyde & Co, which was organised by the Major Projects Association as part of its Gender Balance Initiative. The big message from this to firms was ACT NOW. Although the reporting deadline is April 2018 the pay data has to be taken from April 2017. So if companies want to know what their gender pay gaps look like before being forced to reveal them (and explain them) to the entire world then undertaking a trial run is a good idea. Whether companies will do this or not remains to be seen but the clock is ticking and those that make the effort to understand, and act, on the issues will be identified as the most inclusive, and attractive to women. And for engineering companies seeking to both meet the skills gap and diversify their organisations this will be a huge advantage.

  • A summary of the MPA gender pay gap reporting event is available here

GCC construction

image 3

How will the low oil price affect the dynamic construction markets of the GCC in 2016? This was the question that MEED set out to answer in one of the biggest projects that I have worked on this year – an analysis of the outlook for GCC construction. The full report can be purchased here

Not surprisingly given the record lows in oil prices the overall climate is one of fiscal belt tightening. Capital expenditure overall is set to fall as budget deficits rise. Data from MEED Projects  showed that in 2015 awards worth $88bn were made, a 22 per cent reduction on 2014. Forecasts for awards from MEED Insight show a further, although much less pronounced, drop in 2016.

The findings for the individual GCC markets were as varied as the countries themselves. In 2015 the UAE recorded its first fall in project awards since 2011, whereas Kuwait reached an all time peak. However with the £4.3bn contract award for Kuwait’s airport expansion rejected by the State Audit Bureau, the market remains challenging from a bureaucratic perspective. By the end of 2015 Saudi Arabia had already begun cutting back spending and started to put projects on hold. More of this is expected in 2016 with the budget for transport reduced by an enormous 60 per cent. Doha and Dubai meanwhile pledged to increase spending in 2016.

For more analysis visit MEED


Modernisation critical for Iran’s construction industry

“Whoever can help Iran modernise its construction sector will be in a good position to develop business in Iran.” said Dr Bijan Khajehpour, managing partner at Austrian based consultant Atieh International when I interviewed him for MEED’s “Opportunities Iran” insight report.

The report offers an extensive overview of the business needs across all key business sectors. My research focussed on construction and I was fortunate enough to talk to leading engineers and consultants who shared their view on the needs of the country. Below is a brief summary, but for the full report and for information on other important sectors follow the link to MEED.

Construction difficulties

Iran’s construction industry has had a challenging few years. Not only has the country, and the sector, come through a recession but economic pressures including the removal of energy subsidies and the effect of sanctions forced up the price of construction commodities and made materials and equipment more difficult to obtain. The property market, traditionally a key investment option for Iranians, was hit hard by the devaluation of the Riyal and a disastrous social housing programme which absorbed liquidity that would otherwise have financed other real estate investments.

Despite this construction’s contribution to GDP remained stable at around 9 per cent over the past five years contributing 863,908 billion Riyals in 1392 (2013/2014), equivalent to around $35bn. But in real terms the sector shrank along with national GDP. The World Bank reports that productivity in construction declined by 3.6 per cent in 2012 and 3.1 per cent in 2013 as imports of construction materials dropped and inward investment dwindled.

The sector then is ready for some good news and the lifting of sanctions which will bring increased revenues from unfrozen assets and increased oil production, has come at a welcome time. “Both in terms of transfer of technology and access to better financial solutions, the lifting of sanctions will be very good news for the construction sector,” said Dr Khajehpour, managing partner at Austrian based consultant Atieh International, who was talking to me ahead of sanctions being raised. His firm has been advising investors in Iran for over 20 years. “Once sanctions are lifted Iranian banks will have better access to international banks and funds, and can extend better and smarter facilities to constructors,” he says.

Government spending may dominate social infrastructure but in the real estate sector small private investors prevail and renewed activity is expected here too. “Now we are going to see a phase of new investment and higher demand for housing units because now the feeling is that sanctions will be lifted, construction materials will be more easily available and potentially a bit cheaper. There will be demand and a flow of both Iranian diaspora going back and international companies going to Iran.”

Housing shortage

Housing and residential development in particular has experienced a turbulent decade and today there remains a mismatch between supply and demand with an estimated shortage of 1.3 million residential units. In an effort to solve this the Ahmadinejad government created the Mehr social housing scheme. Launched in 2007 the aim was to bring 2 million homes to low income families over a five year period – a scheme so huge that private investors stepped away from the low income market. The model saw the government give land to developers and contractors to build on with finance provided by the state’s housing bank, Maskan Bank. Buyers had to raise 100 million Riyals as a deposit, the housing bank then paid the contractors to build the units. When completed the property and the debt were transferred over to the new owners who would pay back the loan and make a monthly rental payment to government for the 99 year land lease. “Initially citizens in need of social housing believed in it. Some families used all of their savings to participate. They really believed that the government would deliver but when news started coming in that they were not delivered on time or the quality was not good a lot of people stopped signing up,” says Khajehpour.

Financially the scheme encountered many issues. Bank Maskan relied on credit lines and other financing facilities from Iran’s Central Bank and this demand quickly accelerated from 50 trillion Riyals in 2008, which at the exchange rate of the time would have been around $5.1bn; to 150 trillion Riyals or around $14.5bn in 2010. This rose again to 450 trillion Riyals or $36.6bn by the end of 2012 by which time electricity subsidies had been removed significantly increasing construction costs (see chart). According to the IMF the housing bank was absorbing around 40 per cent of Iran’s base money.

Looking to the future Mehr can offer many lessons for the new schemes which must be built if local demand is to be met. “Mass production was a good idea and necessary,” says Mohammad Mehdi Banaei, a systems dynamics and public policy specialist at the Ifsahan University of Technology, who has written several papers on the scheme. “When you do something in a hurry it is possible that you don’t consider all aspects of it and Mehr was like that.”

Future opportunity

As the government grapples with the low income housing shortage investors are expected to turn to more lucrative markets such as high rise offices, hotels and hospitality related developments. International hotel chains are understood to be exploring major cities already.

Such developments could also see larger development firms enter the market, which has traditionally been dominated by smaller investors. Khajehpour says this is less to do with the size of development and more to do with new energy efficiency requirements. “Since energy and fuel subsidies were partially lifted, there is a focus on energy efficiency. There are hundreds of new regulations on what materials you have to use, what windows you have to use, what kind of energy efficiency standards have to be observed in larger cities. Urban construction projects have become too complex for the average small scale investor and that is why I see the necessity to move towards larger companies,” he says.

The requirements for buildings are covered in chapter 19 of the Iranian building code. “It has become mandatory in the past few years and it is anticipated to have a large effect on the energy consumption of the buildings in Iran,” says Nader Shokoufi, a structural engineer at Iran’s Tavon Consulting Engineers and a former chairman of the Young Managers Group of the Iranian Society of Consulting Engineers. He explains that many of Iran’s buildings lack proper insulation but rising energy prices and the new regulations mean a new focus on efficiency. Added to this are several government initiatives that are also stimulating activity. A clause in the annual budget allows the Ministry of Petroleum to invest in energy saving measures with a view to boosting exports. This year $2bn is expected to be invested. “Through this clause, the government insures the investment and promises to repay the investment by paying back the export price of the energy saved, so the facility that does an energy saving can get double savings, one through saving on the energy bill and one through getting back the money saved based on the export price of the energy,” explains Shokoufi. To verify the work the Ministry is looking for at least 500 measurement and verification companies to validate the work of the newly emerging energy saving companies (ESCOs). “A good market is opening up in this field,” says Shokoufi.

At the same time a new organisation for new energies is working on new forms of contract for renewable energy focussing on wind and solar. Further clauses to help investment in solar heating and PV panels are also being developed.

Such developments then are bringing new investors and companies to Iran. “You have completely new dynamics in energy efficiency and environmental solutions which is actually welcome news,” said Khajehpour.

Get the full MEED Insight Iran report here: “Opportunities Iran”

Transport infrastructure such as railway projects and airports are seeking investment for modernisation and expansion