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Mark Sugden is a senior associate in the Advanced Engineering Group and leads the Construction Sector Group at European intellectual property firm, Withers & Rogers. Here he shares his thoughts on how the material shortage in construction is forcing innovators to find more sustainable alternatives.

Britain is currently facing a national shortage of construction materials that in the short term at least, shows no sign of improving. In the absence of materials such as cement, timber and steel, innovators are looking for more sustainable alternatives as well as ways to streamline manufacturing processes to reduce the reliance on these materials.

  

Much innovation is already underway within the sector, as developers and contractors focus on helping the UK to meet its net zero by 2050 target. Patent protection will play a vital role in the race to net zero, by ensuring innovators can protect their inventions and secure market share.  

 

The UK is currently experiencing the fastest rise in construction activity since 1997, which is being undermined by price increases and a shortage of materials. In part, the shortage can be traced back to the beginning of the pandemic, when many manufacturers were forced to slow down production, which in some cases led to factory closures. Despite early signs that some materials were in short supply, construction work continued on many sites throughout the national lockdowns. This, combined with a boom in building and home improvement activity in 2020, which has continued into 2021, depleted the supplies further.  

 

With roughly 60% of materials used in UK construction projects being imported from the EU, Brexit has also caused a great deal of uncertainty around the supply of construction materials. Despite the UK-EU trade deal, many supply lines have become lengthened for the UK. Alongside these difficulties, the construction sector is also experiencing a shortage of haulier drivers, which coupled with the recent ‘pingdemic’, is further impacting materials shortages.  

 

While there is no quick-fix solution, materials shortages have encouraged some innovators to accelerate their R&D activity to find sustainable alternatives. With sustainability now a top priority for the construction industry, these innovations could provide a green solution to the problem of materials shortages.  

 

It is likely that a combination of new manufacturing or construction methods, new building material compositions, and improved renovation techniques, will be needed to help ease materials shortages and facilitate net zero development. It is important that new and advantageous innovations within the construction industry are considered for patent protection in order to realise their full potential. In a competitive and evolving industry, it is vital that companies protect their innovations to prevent them from being copied by competitors.  

 

Saint-Gobain, a leading materials manufacturer is just one company developing innovations that could help to tackle the sector’s current challenges. The manufacturing giant has created a new gypsum board (patent application EP3792232) with increased strength, that reduces the amount of wood needed on site to construct internal walls. The panels used to make the board are strong enough to build a new internal partition, without the need for them to be mounted onto a wooden frame. With the Timber Trade Federation (TTF) predicting that timber shortages are likely to get worse over the coming months, any innovation that can reduce the amount of wood needed to build a structure is vital. It also has the added environmental benefit of minimising the number of trees needing to be felled.

  

Chicago-based USG has also explored the potential of gypsum boards, having been granted a patent (US10421250) which focuses on the material’s components. The innovative material used to make the boards reduces the need for additives, meaning less water is required to produce it. With standard gypsum, there is often excess water at the end of the manufacturing process which must be removed using a pump, powered by an energy source. By reducing water usage, this invention can help the sector to move closer to its carbon neutral goal.   

 

Areas such as road construction are also a focus for innovators of sustainable solutions. MacRebur, the plastic road company, has developed a new material (patent number US10808365) that is created using waste plastic. As well as repurposing unwanted plastic, this patented technology reduces the amount of bitumen required for the road surface material and protects the environment.

  

Patent protection provides businesses with an exclusive right to market their innovation for 20 years, so they can recoup the cost of their investment and generate profits. Offering innovators the opportunity to increase their competitor advantage and protect their invention from the risk of competitor theft, patents can also help to position businesses as industry leaders. At a time when there is so much demand for sustainable materials, this type of commercial protection is essential. In the UK, a granted UK patent can also enable innovators to reduce their Corporation Tax through the Government’s tax reduction scheme, the Patent Box.

With construction sector activity likely to remain buoyant for the foreseeable future, demand for sustainable materials that can be sourced more readily, and help to streamline manufacturing processes, will be in high demand. By securing patent protection on route to market, innovative manufacturers of all sizes have an opportunity to position themselves as market leaders. 

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