Business Masterclass with Tom Glasby - video transcript

This is a transcript of a speech from Tom Glasby, Earth Friendly Concrete Manager, Wagners, at Brisbane City Council's Lord Mayor's Business Forum on 23 September 2013. Tom shares his experience and insights on taking an innovative product to market.

Tom Glasby - Well firstly, thank you very much for the warm welcome. Good evening Lord Mayor Graham Quirk, Councillor Simmonds and all the distinguished guests here from council and government, ladies and gentlemen, it's a pleasure to be here talking to you about some of the innovations we've done at Wagners. So just to set the scene, a little bit about Wagners. We've heard about family companies. Wagners is a truly family company. It's completely owned and operated by four brothers that are the directors and it's a company that's grown very large over a relatively short period of time.

So Wagners' only been, this Wagners Group has only been in operation about 25 years. The sort of make-up that you can see there, it's essentially a heavy construction materials company. We've had innovation featuring in the growth of Wagners right throughout its history. So we do contract concrete, contract quarry here in Australia and all around the globe on projects. We operate a precast facility out at Wacol which is a very large Queensland precast operation. Just finished all of the tunnel segments on the Legacy Way project.

We are one of the very few, if not the only, truly independent cement company in Australia. We have an operation out at Pinkenba where we do our cement grinding and making slag for my earth friendly concrete and fly ash and all those sorts of things. We do our own steel reinforcing. The composite fibre business is a business that is all about innovation. It was nothing 10 years ago. It was one bay in a workshop and it has grown to one of the flagships of our business if you like and I'll talk a little bit about that as well.

We've got about 750 people all up of which about 100 or so would be in our overseas interests. So the composite fibre business, you can just see a shot there from the factory floor. They just look like sticks of 100 by 100 steel but they're actually made out of quite a high-tech glass fibre product. CFT composite fibre technologies, they're cross arms for electricity poles and we make lots and lots of them.

The business over the years has spread out into the civil construction area as well. So we do bridges and boardwalks and anything that requires lightweight, high strength type of products. The one in the top right is freshwater apartments. It runs along the Brisbane River, one of the few structures that didn't float away in the great floods so you can be very confident in building more of them. The big part of the business is up in the top left as you can see the cross arms.

So the experience of that business going from one bay in a workshop to a business now that employs about 150 people over 10 years. Some of the learnings are, they're not all great stories, but essentially everything cost two to three times what you think it was going to cost. So if you're starting out on a new business venture you really need your financing and capital. The money's not going to come from nowhere.

Development of new products is a time consuming and somewhat frustrating business. For every couple of steps forward there's at least one step back. So things essentially can take three times longer than what you thought of for development. Record keeping is extremely importing for R&D tax claims, for government grants and all those sorts of things. So if you've got a new innovative product make sure you're doing the good record keeping.

Essentially CFT works for Wagners because it fits with the whole of the business. So it's a construction product in a heavy construction materials business and it's all about innovation and it can fit across our business model. So the other businesses that are competing for work overseas also help to sell CFT. One of our very first orders was to Malaysia so it's not only a domestic product - nearly all of the transmission companies now have turned their standards over to CFT rather than a timber or steel cross arm - but it's also an international product.

So my bit is earth friendly concrete. So what is earth friendly concrete? Why is it earth friendly? It's essentially concrete without any Portland cement whatsoever. So you might have heard of the cement industry being accountable for up to five to eight per cent of greenhouse gas emissions. I'm not going to go into why but basically every ton of Portland cement you produce inevitably you produce one ton of CO² emission. That's just the chemical transformation in the manufacturing process that goes on.

We don't use any Portland cement. We use two commonly available recycled waste products from industry. So slag is a waste product that comes from steel production. Fly ash you're probably more aware of comes from coal fired power plants. There's a long history. The generic technology is called geopolymer. There's a long history to that and that's actually a good thing.

So the Russians, as far back as the 1930s, were making alkali-activated slag cements. Good thing about that is that there's a whole stock of structures in the world made out of this type of product so we know its durability track history is very good. We looked at this product and we did it within the CFT business. So I've just introduced the CFT business. It's all about innovation. They learned all their lessons over 10 hard years and they were looking for the next best thing, the next innovative thing that we could bring to Wagners which we thought was geopolymer concrete.

So we've been working on it now for a good seven years. We've got some pretty good partners that have worked with us to get admixtures that work with it and all the rest of it. Essentially we now have a commercial product that is a like for like replacement with normal concrete.

So just the environmental part of it, why is it sustainable? It's the CO² emission saving is the big ticket item. So if we take a normal commercial grade of 40 MPa concrete we're saving almost a quarter of a ton of CO² emission every time one metre cube goes out in a truck. If you do the math that's a heck of a lot of savings. The other thing is, of course, is we're using recycled waste material.  So that's the environmental benefits of it.

It's not just an environmental product. If it was your market would be fairly limited. Things have got to stand up. This is a structural product we're talking about. The structural properties of this concrete we know pretty well because it's been around in the world for a good 70 or 80 years and it's actually got some pretty good durability enhancements over normal concrete.

I'm not going to go into all the technicalities but we can make every grade of concrete imaginable with a number of substantial benefits over normal concrete. So over that seven years Wagners are a company that do it themselves first. That's how we do things.  

So we've got a ton of properties that we can build stuff on and so in the early years of development we built everything ourselves. So we've got bridges in our batch plant yards, we've done R&D bridge beams out of our Wacol facility but we've also done a large range of commercial projects now. So just showing some of them. This is a slab. You can see it's just normal looking concrete. Grey goes hard, all that sort of stuff. That was out of the port of Brisbane that we did as a trial back in 2010.

Commercially we're getting to the point now where we're actually winning some substantial projects. So we hope this will be a breakthrough project for us. The Global Change Institute Building out at the University of Queensland is a five storey building. The three suspended floors in it are made up by those very large beam elements there which are all earth-friendly concrete, precast earth-friendly concrete. The building is meant to be a reflection of next generation of technologies and sustainability. So it's got a wonderful array of sustainable technologies in that building.

The EFC has hydronic pipes going through it. So instead of using air-conditioning you use heating and cooling of spaces via feeding through hot or cold water. It's a very low energy way. There are a number of technologies in that building but the geopolymer concrete was one of the substantial ones in it. That's just a shot of the beams going into the building. So you can see it's not just a lab project anymore, it's actually a really commercially going concern.

This is our Dowstress facility. We see some of the great - we see this product as having a lot of international potential and one of the things about it it has very, as I mentioned before, very high durability resistance - more so than normal concrete because of the different chemistry and particular sulphate and acid resistance. These are tunnel segments which we've made for Legacy Way. We did a complete ring out of geopolymer concrete. They never went in the- they weren't part of the contract.

They never went in the tunnel. There is part of a demonstration. But we see ourselves and we're heavily targeting the middle east for that where they're building a lot of infrastructure at the moment and they have a lot of problems with high sulphate ground waters. So how have we got this concrete to this point? One of the hurdles that you strike with building products if they're new they don't fit into codes and standards.

So we've crossed that barrier by partnering up with some really good independent engineers that have been able to watch the testing and verification that we've done and given us independent certification. We've worked with a fellow called Dr James Aldred for about three, three and a half years now. He's written an independent engineering report under first GHD and secondly AECOM. that's some of the stuff that you really need to do, particularly in the construction industry.

Not that it's a conservative industry. It essentially is but, of course, these are very important structures, high risk at stake. Some of that testing is like full load bearing. One of the good things about precast beams is you can see you can fully load test them before they even go out the gate. That's been very helpful to us for getting some of these projects up when you haven't got any commercial projects up.

So if we look at some of the experiences we've learned out of that, the way that we've got this project going as quickly as it has got really has been the amount of product testing that we've done. So we've looked at the concrete structures code, which is essentially a performance-based code and we've just tested all of the performances because you can't rely on the past data for normal concrete.

As I mentioned before it fits well with the Wagners Group and, as an example of that, we're doing a major cement upgrade at our Pinkenba plant. One of the things driving that is that we see we'll need our own slag grinding facility for EFC into the future. We're also building an airport into Toowoomba, a totally private airport into Toowoomba which will be called Wellcamp Toowoomba Airport. All of the pavements in the apron and runways of that project will be EFC. It's something like about 60,000 square metres of 400 thick pavement. That will be a wonderful product verification exercise for us as well.

Awards are helpful. So we always try and put our hand up to get awards because that gives you free advertising promotion that you can't even buy. So it's like third party endorsements. The other lesson really for us is market development needs to fit your business. So with this product, because we've been developing it bit by bit, there's no point in spending a lot of money on advertising and promotion in the early part when you actually haven't got the product or the market that you want to go. So we've been pretty strategic and picked out the markets that we want to aim at and how that will fit the Wagners business.

I mentioned the Wellcamp airport so that nice property you can see on the right that's going to be the runway going right through it. So we will have an airport built there. It's supposed to be taking the first commercial flight in late 2014. The little schematic over the left there's an industrial park that goes with that. The little grey bits over the left, they don't look much, but that's actually about 60,000 square metres and that's apron way and taxi ways.

So when you're sick of all the congestion out there at Brisbane Airport take a trip up the range and we'll see you right up there. Very low parking fees I'm assured too. This is our Pinkenba cement operation where we're putting in a whole new grinding line. At the moment we bring the slag in already ground. We hope to be making our own slag for our EFC concrete in the not too very distant future.

I mentioned to you awards are important to us. So we won the 2011 overall climate smart sustainability award. We were very happy that Brisbane City Council wrote us up as an innovation case study just last year and it's amazing how far you can go with your promotion on those types of awards. As I said it's not something you can buy. You've actually got to win them. So I think they're a good way to go forward.

Our future marketing, so we're sort of walking before we can run with this product. We got out of batch plans on every street corner. We do batch plans for projects, so concrete for projects. At the moment we're doing the Darwin project up at the INPEX on-shore gas facilities. We see it fitting well into that business. So projects where EFC can add particular value, whether it's through the environmental credentials of it or the durability and structural performance of it and particularly suited to precast as well.

So in a 10 minute snapshot, that's where we are with our innovations with Wagners. So thanks very much for your time.

Go back to the Business Masterclass - Innovation and new idea videos.

11 February 2016