H+H: State of the Concrete Industry

H+H: State of the Concrete Industry

Marketing Manager at H+H, Jenny Smith-Andrews delves into the situation currently affecting the concrete industry and the steps H+H is taking to provide continuity of supply for its customers.

There has been much speculation about the widely reported shortage of pulverised fuel ash (PFA), an ingredient used in the manufacture of concrete building materials, and what this means for product availability.

It was always going to be tough to predict the construction landscape post-Brexit although at H+H we were pleased with the increased demand we felt throughout 2016 regardless of the political bombshell that dropped in June.

We are also very confident of continued demand throughout 2017 as the Government makes further commitments toward housebuilding.

The Government’s plight to increase the volume of homes built in the UK was reflected in the recent Housing White Paper released last month. What’s more, there in an increasing consensus that SME builders will be part of the solution.

The recession caused a severe reduction in their numbers and the reliance has fallen to the top 10 housebuilders to fulfil the required output levels.

The Government aims to encourage a wider range of housebuilders, freeing up land and opportunities for smaller builders.

This commitment is likely to see an increase in new homes over 2016 numbers, and there currently seems to be little sign yet of any slow-down in consumer confidence or the housing market.

This is also reflected in the views of the Danish owners of H+H who rather than pulling out of investment opportunities within its UK based factories, have ramped up activity resulting in a million-pound upgrade, beginning in 2017, in our Borough Green plant based in Kent (one of three large facilities in the UK).

In readiness for this project, we have been planning and building stock to cover the demand during the closure and working closely with our partner customers to ensure they are aware of our activities.

It is important to note that whilst the factory is being upgraded arrangements have been made to ensure continuity of supply to customers; so it is business as usual at H+H.

This is hugely positive and will see an increase in output levels coming out of the Borough Green facility. Like many manufacturers following the 2008 recession, we strived to make our plants work harder – postponing non-essential upgrades and keeping expenditure to a minimum – a process called lean manufacturing.

This process, however, isn’t sustainable forever, especially when production figures increase and the upcoming upgrades to Borough Green will be undertaken to meet the demands of a strengthening UK market for decades to come.

The Borough Green factory has been in operation since 1989 and continues to supply high-quality aircrete into the market. Upgrades to the facility will include replacement and maintenance to more than 85 per cent of the machinery, making it the largest autoclave aerated concrete factory in Europe.

We are targeting a productivity increase of around 25 per cent to satisfy growing demand.

The upgrade will allow us to continue to manufacture the same, high quality, aircrete blocks using PFA as the main constituent. A by-product of coal fired power generation; PFA makes up 70 per cent of the raw materials in each aircrete block.

There has been much discussion in the press over recent months about the availability of PFA in the UK. With the reduction in the number of coal fired power stations, supplies of fresh PFA have become less readily available.

To add to this reduction, there has been a succession of warmer winters in the UK over the past five years, leading to a decline in the reliance of the power generated by coal powered stations.

The reduction in fresh PFA has caused challenges across the entire concrete industry. In Europe, H+H produces its aircrete blocks using sand as the major constituent and while this is an option for us here in the UK if required, we will continue to use PFA, in the short term.

Rather than seeking an alternative material, which could undermine the performance and environmental benefits enjoyed by aircrete in its current form, we have been developing our manufacturing processes to enable the use of stockpiled PFA.

There is a considerable quantity of such material, built up over the previous century when the UK relied primarily on coal power generation – easily sufficient to supply our needs for many years to come.

Stockpiled PFA does not have the same performance characteristics as fresh material which has meant certain changes to our production process have been required to utilise it, to enable us to provide the same high quality end product.

With the PFA shortage issue now resolved, and a continued strong demand, it is business as usual for H+H and it’s great to see that our production volumes have significantly increased during 2016.

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