Company profile | Colas: a century of innovation

On the occasion of its 100th anniversary, Colas recalls that innovation is the key to the sustainability and growth of a company.

Entering a market with a totally new product is risky, but that didn’t stop the founders of Colas – then known as Asphalt Cold Mix – from starting a company in 1922. It offered a cold spray process bitumen emulsion road surface, a mixture of fine droplets of bitumen and water.

“It was a game-changer for the road construction industry in the UK,” says Faïçal Lahmamsi, Managing Director of Colas UK.

Bitumen emulsion

Bitumen emulsion was easier to use than traditional asphalt because it could be applied at room temperature rather than having to be heated to temperatures above 120°C.

Lahmamsi says that from the first year of operation, the company was able to demonstrate the capabilities of this technique. The material quickly became popular as customers recognized it was easier to use and demand for road surfacing soared after World War I.

The company not only manufactured bitumen emulsions, it also offered road construction and maintenance services. It also obtained numerous patents relating to the manufacture of bitumen emulsions and in 1925 registered the Colas brand.

Colas was created 100 years ago to offer cold mix asphalt products

That year, Asphalt Cold Mix merged with a company called Cold Mix Manufacturing to form Colas Products. Building on the success of its products and services in the United Kingdom, the company decided to create subsidiaries in several European countries as well as in South Africa and Australia.

A pivotal moment in the company’s history was its acquisition by Shell in 1934. At the time, overproduction of oil meant that the supply of bitumen emulsion was an attractive proposition for oil companies.

Lahmamsi says the expansion of the bitumen emulsion product portfolio and the addition of hot asphalt techniques – and the acquisitions that have taken place under Shell’s leadership, have helped the company become resilient to fluctuations in the market suffered over the following decades.

Recycled road pavements

One of the first innovations held by Shell was Retread, an emulsion that makes it possible to recycle road pavements. The retread emulsion is mixed into an existing pavement and the surface is compacted. The binder and aggregate chips are then rolled to close surface voids before the application of a surface dressing.

Retreading is still offered by Colas – which has been wholly owned by the international Colas group since 1995, when Shell sold its stake in the company – alongside other recycling services. As UK road operators try to reduce their carbon emissions, these solutions are becoming more attractive than ever.

“We are seeing great interest from customers to engage with us and develop more in situ recycling techniques and cold techniques in general, so we will be bringing new in situ methods to the UK this year. “, says Lahmamsi.

In terms of reducing carbon emissions, he explains that the use of bitumen emulsion eliminates the need to heat the asphalt mix, which reduces carbon emissions compared to hot mix asphalt. He adds that recycling asphalt shavings means that a very limited amount of virgin aggregate is needed, resulting in additional carbon savings in terms of transporting and producing that aggregate.

Company innovations include Wattway road paving solar panels

The company invests heavily in the development of sustainable products. One of them is the 7mm thick Wattway solar panels which can be supplied in different sizes and glued to an existing road surface. Wattway can be used to power energy-intensive equipment such as streetlights, signaling systems or vehicle charging stations. The product is tested at two sites in the UK.

Wattway is one of the many innovations being developed by the Colas group, which has 800 companies in 50 countries.

“We invest a lot in research and development,” says Lahmamsi. “We aim to be a world leader in innovative and responsible mobility solutions.

“Research and development is important to us because it’s in our DNA to create solutions to specific problems, whether societal or customer-driven.”

We are seeing great interest from customers to engage with us and develop more in situ recycling techniques and cold techniques

He adds that another reason to invest in research and development is that the company’s goal is to be self-sufficient, rather than depending on contractors for products or services.

Colas has customers of varying sizes in different sectors in the UK. “We cover several activities,” explains Lahmamsi. “It starts with bitumen supply, bitumen production, quarries and asphalt plants. Then there is the contracting part of the business, which includes coating activities and civil works. We also offer specific activities such as surface treatments, traffic management, road signs, etc.

With a century of experience in the maintenance and construction of roads in the UK, the company is one of the key players in the market, signing major contracts with local authorities and national motorways. One of its most recent major contracts is the eight-year, £328m Area 9 Maintenance and Intervention contract for National Motorways. The contract starts in July and covers the strategic road network of Herefordshire, Worcestershire, Warwickshire, Staffordshire and Shropshire as well as parts of Gloucestershire, Derbyshire and Leicestershire.

Construction and rehabilitation of the airport

The company also has extensive experience in the construction and rehabilitation of airports. Between 1935 and 1942, Colas was responsible for over 700 military airfields in the UK, as well as over 1,000 overseas. The latest airport project carried out by Colas Resurfacing is Cork City Airport in Ireland. It is that he has also just started another program at Gatwick airport.

In addition, the company carries out marine and coastal engineering works and civil engineering works for rail. One of Colas’ current high-profile rail projects is East West Rail, a new rail line between Oxford and Cambridge.

“We have a long history in the UK and we have shown resilience over the last 100 years. We have a very ambitious growth plan that started from 2019, which is to increase our revenue significantly by 2024,” says Lahmamsi.

He adds that the plans are not solely focused on financial results: “Any growth plan, organic or through acquisitions, takes into account our commitments in terms of decarbonization, social value and the protection of the safety of our team.”

  • Published in collaboration with Colas

Do you like what you read? To receive daily and weekly New Civil Engineer newsletters, click here.