The technological evolution of tunneling machines has contributed greatly to the expansion of ground transportation worldwide

Published: 2 April 2019 - 1:45 p.m.

Why is transport infrastructure so important to a nation’s development? The answer is that once goods are produced, they need to be transported to the ports and airports to be shipped to other countries. In other words, good infrastructures are synonymous of a country’s development and economic growth.

In the case of the UAE, our Leaders have developed a very detailed plan, known as Vision 2021, in which they want to ensure sustainable development while preserving the environment and to achieve a perfect balance between economic and social development. To do this, the UAE Vision 2021 highlights the importance of infrastructure and aims for the UAE to be among the best in the world in the quality of airports, ports, road and rail infrastructure.

Throughout its history, ACCIONA has participated in this effort alongside governments and users to put into practice its long experience and deep knowledge on several hundred projects that today form part of the infrastructure of many countries across the world.

In the past decade alone, the company has built for example over 1,700km of roads corresponding to hundreds of projects.

We apply the most advanced and sustainable building solutions in all our projects in order to maximize their usefulness and minimize the environmental impact. Thanks to the effort of our professionals, we have introduced new working methods that have given rise to more sustainable processes, both in economic and environmental terms.

In the construction sector, the excavation works during the execution of infrastructures is one of the biggest energy consumers, and the correct guidance of these earthworks is vital. The technological evolution of tunneling machines, which accelerated at the end of the 19th Century and finally took off in the first half of the 20th, contributed greatly to the expansion of ground transportation worldwide. The excavation of tunnels to break through mountain ranges or circumvent difficult passes facilitated the ferrying by rail and road of passengers and freight, with their subsequent social and economic benefits.

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Álvaro Aguilar, ACCIONA Middle East business development manager

One of the critical factors in tunneling is selecting or adapting the right tunneling boring machine (TBM) and the actual need of it against a more traditional method. Selecting the specific equipment for each project is what makes ACCIONA a world leader in this sector. To meet all these challenges, in any location in the world, we own different types of TBMs: open-type main beams, single shield, double shield, earth pressure balance, hydro shield, and so on. Our engineers and technicians are able to adapt them to any eventuality the project presents. These machines are colossal in size, worthy of admiration in themselves: they reach up to 100 meters long, with excavation diameters up to 18 meters and can weigh 2,800 tons. That is, they can be as long as nine buses, as high as a five-story building and heavy as 7 fully loaded Boeing 747s. Watching these huge cylinders open up the earth is a unique spectacle. No less astonishing is contemplating how they leave behind them a structure of perfectly assembled segments that hold up the tunnel safely. And, in production terms, our tunneling machines are powerful beasts, boring through over 1,000 meters of rock a month.

Of the more than 600 kilometers of tunnels that we have built throughout our recent history, TBMs have played a key role with more than a third of total production. These machines have participated in some of our most emblematic projects, such as the Dubai Route 2020 with the Metro Red Line extension to the Expo 2020, Legacy Way highway (Australia), the Follo Line railway tunnels in Oslo (Norway) and Bologna (Italy) or the Fortaleza (Brazil) and Barcelona (Spain) metros. The use of TBMs has generated enormous benefits in these and other works that the company carries out in any location, since with its use, we are able to increase the safety, the soil stability and associated damages are reduced, a higher drilling performance is achieved and the tunnels are completed in a single phase with a higher quality finish.

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Digital transformation plays a leading role in the excavation and demolition equipment and the construction sector anticipates a technological surge: 100 billion euros is the combined value that the Davos forum has calculated for digitization from here to 2025. That is to say, the crossed effect of the industrial renewal through the emergence of the Internet will be equivalent to what the whole planetary economy generates today. The most reliable studies tell us that in recent decades, many industries have boosted their productivity above 150% and construction starts to share this trend through leading digital applications that reach unprecedented levels of efficiency. Furthermore, studies suggest that companies that are digital get 8% more income and are 20% more profitable than those who do not. Besides, the gradual increase in the use of technology has also as a direct consequence in the improvement of the quality and safety of works and projects, reducing human errors and risk of accidents. Therefore,, the training of future professionals must be oriented, without further delay, towards this new paradigm.

Theory without practice is a pie in the sky, and at ACCIONA, we are developing several pilot projects on digitalization that we are being applied in large projects around the world: augmented reality; solutions to develop pavements adapted to new challenges and achieving an efficient, smarter and safer mobility, while maintaining sustainability principles; the use of eco-friendly materials for a new concept of asphalt pavements for a sustainable environment, to name just a few.

We are living in an exciting time of increasingly accessible technologies that allow us to develop vehicles and manage fleets that are intelligent, flexible and adaptive to the environment, like automated guided vehicles (AGVs). In the near future, companies will comfortably operate fleets from an office through artificial intelligence and network infrastructure. In the construction field, the need to standardize the different types of vehicles and their connectivity will make each work a small smart city where all the teams collaborate, move, communicate and act under the same standards of communication and supervision.

The construction sector cannot stay behind. That is why this new era is seen as a new opportunity based on regulation, technology and talent. We are immersed in the fourth industrial revolution which, like the previous ones, generates fear of the unknown and panic to the unprecedented. However, we have to accept it, see the opportunities ahead, and adapt to the change. Only then, we will be able to make the most of its advantages.

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