With a long and successful history for its geopolymer systems across the world, Uretek is looking to inject some innovation into the UK rail industry
Founded back in the early eighties, Finnish company Uretek has grown steadily in delivering an innovative geopolymer injection system to a range of applications and industries across the world. Specialising in foundation stabilisation and ground engineering, the company has grown through global licensing programmes and acquisitions. Today Uretek’s proprietary technology is represented in over 50 countries and has been successfully deployed in over 100,000 projects around the world. “In 2012, Uretek UK became a wholly owned subsidiary of the company after over 25 years delivering the solution under a licensing agreement,” explains Roland Caldbeck, MD for the UK company.
“Historically, the focus for the business here has been on the residential market working primarily through the insurance sector and loss adjusters to stabilise houses as an alternative to underpinning. However, there has never been a lot done to penetrate the commercial and infrastructure sectors in the UK and experience from other Uretek partners around the world shows that there is a lot of opportunity here. Therefore, this has been a major part of the UK’s strategic development and rail is a key part of this.”
Roland describes the company’s technique as innovative but deceptively simple, involving drilled holes of 12-14mm, which are then injected with highly expansive geopolymers. “There are two main applications for this,” continues Roland. “One is for lifting structures with the expansive pressure that is generated and the other is to consolidate weak ground, making soil better able to carry a load and therefore overcome subsidence.”
Decades of solely dedicated experience and unrivalled knowledge of its own geopolymer solutions makes Uretek the leading provider of this system to the global market. “We are using our own technology,” notes Roland. “We invented, developed and specialised the range of geopolymers in our service offering and have world-leading expertise in its application.” One critical advantage of the technology is its controllability compared to other, traditional methods. Because the expansive pressure is generated by chemical reactions in the materials, as opposed to hydraulic pressures used in grouting, Uretek’s operators are able to work within extreme tolerances.
“Over 25 years we have perfected the combination of raw materials and processes to be able to consistently deliver accuracies unavailable to other methods,” says Roland. “For instance, we have recently been employed within the aerospace and automotive sectors to achieve tolerances as low as a quarter of a millimetre, using our techniques.”
When it comes to the rail industry the principle advantage Uretek can offer is the lack of disruption created by its solutions, which doesn’t require any excavation and is therefore safer and quicker. However, despite these advantages and a developing portfolio of infrastructure projects the company is still relatively unknown within the sector. “The biggest challenge is that the rail industry is a heavily regulated and very conservative market, so it is very difficult to push innovation and gain acceptance here, particularly in the heavy rail sector,” explains Roland. “There is also a misperception that we only offer a temporary fix and whilst our system can be used this way it is just as applicable as a long term solution. We’ve done some work in rail where we were brought in on an emergency basis to stabilise a track in order to keep it open. They were looking for a short-term fix, but quickly realised that we could have provided a long-term application.”
In its endeavour to enter the rail industry further, Uretek has been focusing significantly on establishing relationships and gaining experience in the market, and sees facilitating education on both sides as critical to moving forward. “We’ve done a couple of interesting programmes within the rail industry to date,” outlines Roland. “We worked on the Ilford Rail depot where they had an issue in needing to stabilise the depot for ongoing development work. The problem they had was a strict time frame with a lot of other development work that needed carrying out. They opted for us because we were able to save them substantial time and other works were able to take place concurrently. So whilst we were carrying out the stabilisation another team were able to work on the roofing, which they wouldn’t have been able to do with other techniques. We also worked at the Farnham rail depot to stabilise the slab mounted tracks, which were experiencing settlement issues. Within a five-week period, 6000 square metres of slabs were stabilised and lifted to tolerances of plus or minus ten millimetres over ten square metres, with no disruption to the shed’s operations.”
As Uretek makes inroads into the rail industry it is keen to develop relationships with engineers and decision makers, and understand further the engineering requirements and demands on the rail. “The industry, quite rightly, is very engineering dominated and we don’t have enough knowledge of the market in general at the moment, so we are looking to address and develop this by working closely with the engineers,” says Roland. “The key issue is gaining the acceptance from high levels of management because by working with the engineers, they come to understand and appreciate what we can do, but if the project has already been signed off at a higher level then it can be a source of frustration. Therefore, we need to help educate that industry as well as learning ourselves, and show people what we can do.”
However, Roland is positive in that, despite these challenges, overarching market conditions at present are working in Uretek’s favour. “The lack of construction and the process’ speed is a key advantage, which translates into massive cost savings in the rail market with less possession times and thus, less disruption. Historically, cost consideration hasn’t always been highest on the industry’s priority list, however, now that we’re in a period of austerity there is a greater need to look for cost savings and this is where the opportunities for innovation lay. As people are tightening their budgets they are having to look beyond their traditional reliance and I think they will be amazed at what they find.” Roland also spots a similar opportunity in the trend towards becoming more environmentally compliant as Uretek’s method has a much smaller carbon footprint than more traditional alternatives.
“Whilst these megatrends are big positives for us we still need to focus heavily on gaining the validation and acceptance within the market and we will be working closely with engineers to increase the understanding within the industry as we move forward,” Roland continues. “As a company we are increasingly decentralising in order to be closer to our customer base in order to achieve these relationships and therefore develop our own understanding of the customers’ needs and requirements. In this way we can continue offering the tailored solutions, backed up by our extensive knowledge and experience that we have gained from other markets.
“We are not looking to turn our back on the residential market where we have already established a strong reputation, but at the same time I see the infrastructure and, in particular, the rail industries as the major growth areas as we look ahead. Most of the work we have been doing in the rail sector has been emergency, last minute work where other methods haven’t worked because of access or time constraints. However, we want to be the first choice rather than the last resort, so whilst we look to double the size of the business over the coming years we will also be trying to make this strategic transition towards becoming the preferred partner.”