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Impressions of the 4th Asian Regional Conference on Geosynthetics, Shanghai 17-19 June 2008

The 4th Asian Regional Conference on Geosynthetics, organised by the Chinese Chapter of the International Geosynthetics Society, was held in Shanghai from 17-19 June 2008. About 500 people attended, of which 100 were from overseas. A trade exhibition was also held in conjunction with the meeting. The meeting provided an opportunity to assess the state of the geosynthetics industry in China.

The papers presented at the meeting provided little in the way of new developments or applications for using geosynthetics. However, there was growing evidence that engineers have been very conservative when specifying geosynthetics for civil applications. It was also pleasing to see the active contribution by a large number of Chinese academics and research students. Several papers highlighted the important contribution geosynthetics had made to the successful completion of major Chinese construction projects such as the Qinghai to Tibet railway.

China's geosynthetics industry has developed quickly in the past five years. The initial goal was to locally manufacture the geosynthetics needed for China's development. While most of this demand is now met by locally made equipment, the government and privately owned companies continue to invest in imported manufacturing equipment to make high end products. These companies have the most experienced textile engineers and produce better quality products.

China's production capacity is huge with over 200 factories making geosynthetic products. Local suppliers produce about 1.6 million m2 of polypropylene biaxial geogrid each month using locally made machines. This strong competition between producers is lowering prices and improving product quality. As patents expire, geosynthetics are becoming just another commodity, with prices based on raw material costs plus a processing fee.

Competition has forced some companies to close and led to inferior products being offered for sale. At the same time, it has encouraged other producers to raise the quality of their existing offerings and develop new products. For example, China has developed an innovative geocell for use on walls and is developing a reusable carbon fibre reinforced geosynthetic mat that can be laid as a temporary roadway over soft soils and carry a load of more than 40 tonnes. This commitment to research and development is providing opportunities for Australian geosynthetic engineers to work with Chinese manufacturers to develop new products for both the Australian and international markets.

Given the rapid development of the industry and the variation in the capabilities of producers a good knowledge of the Chinese industry is important when choosing a partner.

The establishment of foreign owned companies in China has also allowed technology to be transferred to local producers as staff "jump" from foreign enterprises to either set up their own factories or to take up senior positions with Chinese manufacturers.

However, if China is to compete effectively in the international market it will need to either upgrade its domestic standards or adopt international standards for geosynthetics. There is also a need for the International Geosynthetics Society to agree to common standards and testing methodology that would be recognised by all countries. While this is an ambitious target, an initial step could be the acceptance by major producing and consuming countries of equivalence of standards and testing methodologies. The Education Committee of the IGS could also build on its excellent series of papers by using the internet to hold Webinars to educate engineers around the world on the use of different geosynthetics.

Despite the rapid development of China's geosynthetics industry there remains considerable variability in the quality and consistency of products made by Chinese owned factories. Other issues that need to be addressed include: poor packaging; reliance on Chinese domestic standards rather than international standards and the need for product liability insurance. If Chinese manufacturers offered product liability insurance, project engineers would have more confidence in using Chinese made geosynthetics.

Based on my observations, over the next five years we could see:

  • Chinese made geosynthetics becoming as common in Australia as Chinese made clothes. This will include basic products such as geogrids and non woven fabrics as well as high end geosynthetics such as the woven fabrics produced by Ten Cate's new factory in Zhuhai and the GCLs used for saline and contaminated environments made by CETCO in Suzhou.
  • Engineers having a much larger range of geosynthetic products such as non woven fabrics, geocomposites, geogrids and GCLs to choose from when designing projects. This will require government departments to be willing to include categories for geocomposites as alternatives to their current requirements for woven and non woven fabrics.
  • Rising prices for petroleum based products putting more pressure on engineers to look at alternative ways to save money for their clients.
  • Australian government authorities recognising testing undertaken by independent Chinese testing laboratories.

Bruce Bennett