Global Engineering Capability Review

Thailand case study:

Sustainable concrete in a construction quagmire

Thailand's Engineering Index scores

Knowledge = 37th
Labour force = 55th
Engineering industry = 34th

Infrastructure = 65th
Digital infrastructure = 45th
Safety standards = 92nd

As building activity remains buoyant worldwide, Thailand has become a key producer of concrete and one of its core components, sand. Manufacturing concrete requires large quantities of coarse and fine aggregate made up of stone and sand, which is mined from lakes, rivers and the ocean floor. International demand for sand is rising, particularly in emerging economies that are in the midst of major construction and infrastructure development. (Sand is also widely used in the manufacturing of asphalt and glass, and in land reclamation and fracking.) [86] The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development estimates that 27bn tonnes of sand and stone are used in construction every year, and that this will double by 2060. [87]

However, unchecked sand extraction destroys the habitats of river and marine life, weakens the barriers and reefs that protect coastal communities, lowers the water table and pollutes drinking water. [88] Furthermore, while sand might appear to be an abundant resource, desert sand is mostly unusable in concrete because its grains are too rounded to bind well. Certain types of sand are particularly sought after, such as riverbed sand (targeted for its angular shape and gritty texture) and desalinated sand from the seabed. Thailand also has a sizable cement manufacturing sector that is both energy and carbon intensive. Developing sustainable solutions is necessary to balance economic and environmental needs.

Finding an alternative solution

To successfully manage the growing demand for concrete, Thailand will need to address the effects of producing this material in the conventional manner. The current process has significant impacts on the environment (through the destruction of river habitats and ecosystems, the pollution of potable drinking water, high energy consumption and CO2 emissions), on health (through the increased risk of water-borne diseases) and on society (through illegal extraction by criminal enterprises). The government will need to consider ways to curb the environmental effects, and to train future generations of engineers and labourers in more sustainable production methods.

Various alternatives to riverbed sand are being tested but are currently more expensive and less accessible to businesses. Waste or recycled materials can be substituted to reduce the use of sand and other materials, but this may carry additional transportation costs. [89] The introduction of alternative materials also requires making investments against a well-established product and will likely require changes to the existing supply chain. [90] Nonetheless, recent research may provide breakthroughs in the long term. Studies have found that up to 10% of sand in concrete can be replaced by recycled plastic without significantly affecting the structural integrity of the concrete, and researchers at Exeter University are using nano-engineering technology to develop new types of concrete that cut the use of raw materials by 50%. [91]

Thailand also needs to address the lack of English proficiency within the labour force, which can prevent professional advancement and employment. An inability to communicate in English makes it difficult to collaborate, and to compete for research grants or jobs with international employers.

To manage successfully the growing demand for concrete and cement, Thailand will need to address the effects of conventional production of these materials

The Thai government and academic institutions will need to consider ways to reduce the environmental effects of concrete and cement production and to train future generations of engineers in more sustainable production alternatives

A sand suction platform at Ban Khlong Muang, Krabi, Thailand

Going green

Growing environmental awareness is helping to foster the use of more environmentally friendly materials and production processes. This trend is also being driven by tighter environmental legislation. The construction materials sector is particularly resource intensive, with cement production alone accounting for around one-third of the country’s energy consumption. Recognising the drain on national resources that this represents, the government adopted the Energy Conservation Plan in 2015, with the aim of reducing energy consumption by 37% by 2036 (against a 2010 baseline). [92] For the cement industry, practical methods to achieve this could include changing the ratio of sand in concrete production and employing recycled materials.

Identifying the key engineering skills gaps in developing alternative forms of cement and sand (or ways of more efficiently using concrete) is vital to managing Thailand’s construction materials conundrum. The government’s Thailand 4.0 initiative aims to enhance infrastructure development and the national skills base, particularly through technological development. It has a lot of ground to cover: Thailand faces a shortage of skilled, young labour, in part because of its ageing population and low birth rate. Thai students tend to underperform their regional peers in Vietnam and Malaysia in STEM subjects, and a recent study of engineers working across Thai companies determined that less than 1% of those surveyed were certified as ASEAN engineers, a precondition for registration for work as an engineer in other ASEAN countries. [93] A broad consensus points to the need to invest in training. Fully 90% of the firms surveyed reported that training investment is important to them in addressing performance gaps, promoting continuous development of the workforce and improving productivity. [94]

Universities and industry can also help to close the skills gap. Research efforts are currently concentrated in a small number of universities and should be promoted across other institutions. Producing concrete’s constituent parts is a capital-heavy endeavour, and improved research and development capacity is necessary to create solutions. These must then be covered by concrete and cement technology courses so that future generations are trained in more sustainable processes. Although universities have made progress in the last ten years in co-operative learning and industry placements, the number of graduates who are able to take up skilled, STEM-related roles falls short of industry needs. [95] Increased government investment in STEM courses, including engineering, can help to remedy the shortage. Curricula should integrate a sustainability-specific component, building on initiatives such as the Master’s degree program in Industrial Engineering for Thailand Sustainable Smart Industry (MSIE4), which seeks to implement technology and university partnerships for a sustainable engineering industry. [96]

The adoption of sustainable materials also depends on consumer behaviour, given that current building decisions are based largely on price. As capital outlay tends to be low and costs remain a concern, it is important to educate consumers about the value of sustainable processes. Government policy can encourage developers and consumers to use innovative materials by providing incentives such as tax breaks, and the state can pave the way to best practice by using more sustainable materials in its own infrastructure projects.

International collaboration is an additional avenue for advancing a green agenda. Two agreements in particular help to enable closer work within ASEAN: the Mutual Recognition Arrangement on Engineering Services (MRA), and the free flow of skilled labour agreement under ASEAN Economic Community rules. Engineering trade exhibitions, such as the Manufacturing Expo 2018, also provide opportunities for collaboration, particularly in new and more sustainable technology and production processes. International certifications and private-sector engagement can facilitate rising standards. The Concrete Sustainability Council Certification, for example, originated as a joint international initiative between industry associations. [97]

A recent study of engineers working across Thai companies determined that less than 1% of those surveyed were certified as ASEAN engineers, a precondition for registration for work as an engineer in other ASEAN countries

Change on the horizon

Thailand has a thriving construction materials industry for international and domestic markets, but the associated extraction of sand and conventional production processes have significant environmental ramifications. Alternative materials and methods are required, but innovation in the sector is hampered by poor secondary-level education in STEM subjects and an engineering curriculum at the university level that provides limited opportunities for practical training. Although current students have more options for industry exposure than their predecessors, they would benefit from forward-thinking courses that address practical skills and capabilities. The labour force lacks the accreditation and English language proficiency that would allow it to compete for global contracts and research awards, and it requires investment in training. Increased research capacity will in turn lead to greater commercialisation and can be achieved through seed funding and international collaboration.

A clear need exists for alternative materials and methods, but innovation in the sector is hampered by poor secondary-level education in STEM subjects