Like the rest of UK civil engineering, the geosynthetics industry has not escaped the problems of the cut in highways investment, the strong pound hitting exports and the economic collapse of South East Asia. But it is not all bad news. Continuing innovation and technological advances, further specialisation and developing niche markets, together with increased awareness of the benefits - both in terms of cost and technically - among mainstream civil engineers means that the industry seems to be in a relatively healthy state.
Steve Corbet of consultant Maunsell says that the industry appears to be maturing and he expects there will be some rationalisation in the next 12 to 24 months. But this has not stopped further developments being made. 'State of the art in the industry has not finished,' he says. 'A number of companies are developing new products, specifically for soil reinforcement.'
Corbet is the former chairman of the UK section of the International Geotextile Society and is now an IGS international council member. He says one of the main developments in the industry is the Environment Agency's methodology for cylinder testing of protectors for geomembranes, published in March this year. This site specific test for the resistance of geotextiles to damage allows design and installation to be checked. Corbet says that now the EA will only grant a landfill licence if the geotextiles used pass the criteria satisfactorily.
Corbet adds that consulting engineers are more confident of the benefits of geosynthetics because of their increased usage, which can now be backed up with case studies. The design code BS8006 has also helped, he says.
The main barrier to further acceptance is still, he feels, the need to prove that geosynthetics offer technical advantages over more conventional methods, such as the use of geosynthetics in reinforced earth walls versus concrete gravity structures. For example, the Kobe earthquake in Japan showed that reinforced soil stood up to seismic shock better than concrete. 'But it all comes down to cost,' he says. Proving the technical benefits is the only way that margins will increase, he adds.
Bob Warwick, managing director of manufacturer Geofabrics, believes that one of the biggest problems for the industry is the lack of education on the benefits of geosynthetics. He says it is a 'sad reflection' that many universities do not have modules covering the subject, so many engineers are not aware of the advantages offered. This, he says is why the technology is still not wholly accepted in the civil engineering industry.
He also cites the EA's testing methodology as a major advance and adds that European-wide test requirements in the pipeline and standardised index tests under TC189 have helped, with those covering permeability and pore size about to come out.
The strength of the pound has also meant that imports, which he says are the main competition for the UK, are now cheaper which has seriously affected the market. Another problem has arisen because of the fall in highways work, with many main contractors now moving into the field, especially for landfills, although he is keen to point out that this has met with varying degrees of success, due to lack of expertise.
Peter Langley, marketing manager of manufacturer Tensar International (part of the Netlon Group), agrees that there have been problems with exports, but he says the UK market is still buoyant and a big growth area is eastern Europe, where it is now easier for clients to get hold of (and pay for) geosynthetic products. The company has recently launched new range of ultra high strength knitted geotextiles suitable for a variety of applications including embankment reinforcement over soft ground, load transfer platforms and asphalt reinforcement.
John Hunt of geosynthetics manufacturer Huesker Synthetic says that as the industry continues to grow, it has started to become more specialised and increasingly, niche markets are being created. Previously, one product would be used for a variety of applications, he explains. Engineers do recognise the benefits of geosynthetics, he adds and they are starting to demand better engineering performance from the products.
One way of coping with these demands is to operate on a continual programme of product development, constantly improving the standard and quality of products. Huesker works on this basis, and a recent launch is a new version of the company's established product Hatelit, an asphalt reinforcement grid used for bituminous overlays of cracked concrete pavements.
In particular, the product has been made easier to install, which has been one of the main problems with this type of reinforcement in the past. And while the drop in the roads programme has affected the industry, he says increased spending on maintenance should help the geosynthetic industry.