Should I Seal (SIS): An environment saving tool born from collaboration

Road Sealing

This is the story about new product development and how two New Zealand companies took on a collaborative quest to innovate a new product through a successful scientific and commercial alliance inspired by the humble tomato sauce.

It’s an insight into how two seemingly unrelated companies can look to what they know (and what they don’t) and what they could do together. These companies identified where opportunities existed and by building an understanding of their respective capabilities, were able to deliver transformational innovations.

Most of New Zealand’s 11,000kms of state highways and 50,000kms of local roads are sealed in ‘chipseal’ – a thin layer of aggregate chip set in bitumen. Maintaining the New Zealand roading infrastructure costs over NZD $2.5 million per annum.

As road travellers and workers alike can testify, the laying of the bitumen is a hot, dangerous, and poor environmental process, but absolutely necessary for economic development and road safety.

Downer New Zealand is a leading provider of engineering and infrastructure management services in New Zealand. The company’s specialist research and design facility, Road Science, is based in Mount Maunganui and boasts a specialist research laboratory and state-of-the–art manufacturing plant.

In 2013, Road Science scientists and laboratory technicians set out five key objectives for innovating new ways of preparing and applying bitumen products:

  • greater safety  
  • greater viscosity     
  • longer application windows
  • storage stability
  • more friendly environmentally outcomes

After reviewing new developments globally and finding little of interest, Road Science investigated alternative sectors, including paint and perfume, to understand the processes of emulsification before ultimately taking inspiration from the food industry and conducting successful experiments to suspend bitumen in a water-based solution.

Emulsification is the process of combining two liquids that cannot be mixed. It is, in essence, the same process by which many foods, including tomato sauce, remain suspended and pourable without the elements separating or settling.

Emulsification enabled Road Science to develop a product that could be applied at significantly lower temperatures. It reduced the risks of burns and eliminated the risk of explosion in what is essentially a petrochemical by-product. The emulsified product had greater viscosity leading to reduced runoff even on the steepest slopes.

The new product also delivered two additional benefits:

  1. It was able to be applied at lower ambient temperatures which increased the workflow horizons, and was easily stored for more than three weeks which meant the supply chain and weather-related operational delays could be more easily mitigated.

  2. The emulsified product generated a lower carbon footprint and required significantly less addition of environmentally harmful additives such as diesel and kerosene.

However, the successful application of the emulsified bitumen was weather dependent.

In late 2013, Road Science met with New Zealand’s national meteorological service, MetService, to discuss how weather guidance might extend the application window, the logistics of supply chain management, and contractor compliance by quantifying the ambient conditions required.

Experienced MetService Meteorologist, Developer and Business Analyst, Nicola Weston, together with Business Development Manager Peter Fisher, worked extensively with Road Science to establish the environmental matrix and parameters required to ensure the application of a robust long-lasting roading material.

Nicola Weston says MetService integrate observed data from over 200 weather stations and historical weather modeling data, to deliver incredibly accurate guidance about the ‘window of opportunity’ for roads in any forecast location in the country.

MetService developed an algorithm based upon application thresholds that would indicate by icons in an easily accessible online dashboard display, when environmental conditions, in any part of the country, would enable the successful laying of new road surfaces.

The intelligence MetService provides Road Science, enables them to plan with a high-level of accuracy when environmental conditions will enable the successful application of their emulsified product. It also provides Road Science the capability to monitor their contract applicators to ensure they’ve conducted the road surfacing with a high degree of environmental compliance.

Through this MetService and Road Science collaboration, a new innovative online tool called Should I Seal (SIS) was born. SIS provides clear advice to Downer’s roading sector when to spray bitumen emulsion.

SIS revolutionises the chipsealing process by integrating forecasting technology to reduce the risk of wash-off from a rain event. Workers can use the tool on their PCs, smartphones and tablets delivered over MetService’s MetConnect cloud-based web interface. Once logged in they are taken to an interface with simple icons showing whether or not it is safe to seal on a particular day. Factors taken into account include product type, humidity, temperature and rain forecasts over a seven-day horizon.

Auckland Transport Maintenance Contract Manager South, Peter Scott had the following to say: “Downer NZ’s introduction of Road Science emulsions aligns with Auckland Transport’s commitments to balancing sustainable economic, social and environmental principles and practices, in terms of seeking to achieve outcomes that benefit Auckland Council ratepayers, road network users, Auckland residents and other stakeholders.” (Peter Scott 2013).  

The relationship with Road Science is a superb example of how companies can collaborate to deliver outcomes of greater value across multiple horizons: commercial, environmental, and health & safety.

“It’s been a wonderful journey. I’m very pleased with the outcome but there’s more to come. As an agile, inquisitive company that believes in the benefits of powerful weather intelligence, we will, as part of our quest for continuous improvement, be looking at adding further value to this innovative industry service.” (Peter Fisher, Business Development Manager, MetraWeather.) 

MetService and Road Science will be presenting their story at the NZTA/NZIHT 15th Annual Conference in Queenstown, 2–4 November 2014.

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