Technological Centre

Francisco Vea Folch: “We run the greatest risk if we do not innovate, because in this uncertain and changing world, immobility will lead us to disappear”

Construction is one of the key sectors in Spain that, like many others, must face the main current challenges, such as the lack of digitalisation or the reduction of environmental impact. Today we talk to Francisco Vea Folch, Director of Innovation and New Technologies at Simetría Grupo, a company that has been working for more than 80 years in different fields, such as construction, energy, water, waste, building materials, gardening, security and real estate, under the principles of innovation, sustainability and efficiency.

Francisco Vea Folch, Director of Innovation and New Technologies at Simetría Grupo.

  1. How have you managed to position yourselves in all these sectors over the years?

Well, as you say, we have more than 80 years of experience behind us in the field of construction. Our first diversification action was to create, in 1971, a tile company (Saloni, which we sold a few years ago) and, in 1973, to open our first quarry. It was a first action that, seen now, I consider natural, since we diversified in our value chain, specifically in the manufacture of construction materials.

In the 1980s we started with the real estate business, so that we included the final part of the chain, with the development and sale of land and real estate. However, from the 1990s onwards, the strategic decision was taken to start diversifying out of construction and start diversifying into services, more specifically citizen services. To this end, in 1990 we created Casva, our security company; in 1995, Tetma, for waste treatment and Centre Verd, for garden maintenance; and finally, in recent years, we created Indertec, for energy services, and Ciclagua, for integrated water management.

The common denominator, from my point of view, has been knowing how to identify at each moment in our history what new needs were arising in cities, such as waste treatment, energy efficiency or water management, and knowing how to offer a competitive service at all times, while at the same time meeting the needs of our customers. For this reason, experience and a vocation for service are two of our main values.

  1. What challenges did you face and how did you overcome them?

Like any company with a long history, we have had to face different challenges that, on some occasions, have put us in check. However, I believe that we have been able to overcome them thanks to two fundamental pillars.

First and foremost, and without a doubt the most important: the team. I believe that our group is characterised by a team that is very committed to a job well done and with a great spirit of effort and self-improvement. This has shaped our innovation-focused culture, constantly looking for new ideas and approaches to address emerging challenges in our sector. This culture has made us more flexible and adaptable, allowing us to respond to changes in the market, regulations and customer demands, and to adjust our operations and strategies as needed.

The second pillar has been collaboration and partnership. Establishing long-term strategic collaborations with other companies, academic and research institutions and public bodies has allowed us to create an ecosystem around us that has made us stronger.

  1. Do you believe that innovation is a key element in adapting to changes in the different sectors in which you operate? Why?

Without a doubt, innovation is crucial for us. We understand that innovation allows us to remain competitive and to tackle projects that could end up being business in a few years’ time. As the great Xavier Mercet says: “Innovation is putting the future of the company on today’s agenda and starting to take action and carry out projects today that will end up shaping the future of the company in a few years’ time”.

However, innovation does entail a risk, as some of the projects and investments we make do not end up being as successful as we had hoped, but, in my opinion, we run the greatest risk if we do not innovate, because in this uncertain and changing world, immobility will lead us to disappear.

  1. In addition to innovation, you also work under the principles of sustainability and efficiency, why do you consider these three pillars fundamental?

Experience has shown us that a company focused solely on economic results can be very successful in the short term, but this does not guarantee its long-term sustainability if it does not know how to maintain a balance with other aspects. I am referring, for example, to being more respectful of the environment and constantly striving to reduce our environmental footprint and, on the other hand, returning the company’s growth and prosperity to the society and community with which it interacts. That is why sustainability and social responsibility are some of our strongest principles.

You also ask me about efficiency. As you know, we operate in a market that is highly regulated and highly competitive, which results in very narrow margins for action. This is where efficiency plays a key role in order to be profitable. This led us to organise, a few years ago, a line of work called ‘Efficiency Project’, in which we collect ideas for continuous improvement and implement them to improve three clear aspects that we believe contribute directly to our efficiency: productivity improvement, cost reduction and risk mitigation.

 

“What we like most about CETIM is its proximity and ability to adapt to the changes that arise in the projects”

 

  1. You are currently collaborating from Becsa, your company integrated in Simetría and specialised in the construction sector, with CETIM in two R+D+i projects. What advantages do you find in collaborating with centres like CETIM?

What we like most about CETIM is its proximity and ability to adapt to the changes that arise in projects. Increasingly, innovation must be developed in shorter timescales and at the same time we need to be able to pivot our ideas and prototypes in an agile and dynamic way, in order to adapt solutions to the changing needs of the market. Both aspects are characteristics of CETIM and that is why we like them.

  1. One of the projects in which we are collaborating is SMART CONSTRUCTION MANAGER, which you are leading at Becsa, seeking to digitalise construction management processes. Do you believe that new technologies are essential to face the challenges of this sector? Why?

I deeply believe that new technologies are and will be essential to address the future of the sector. Construction is one of the least digitised sectors, but where the biggest investments in digitisation are expected in the coming years.

The emergence of new technologies such as Cloud Computing, Digital Twins, Blockchain and, above all, AI, I believe will make it possible to automate processes that until now were very complicated to carry out due to their complexity and lack of repeatability. This has changed with the emergence of Artificial Intelligence, so I think that the digitalisation of processes in construction is going to be a “megatrend” that will accelerate in the coming years.

  1. In addition, you demonstrate a high commitment to occupational health and safety, proof of which is the 0ACCIDNTES project, in which CETIM also collaborates. What do you think is the value that this type of initiative brings to the business fabric?

Becsa is, as they say in the sector, a tractor company. Therefore, it has a commitment to society to improve the working conditions of its employees in its work centres and, therefore, of all the companies/self-employed people who participate in its projects. Becsa has internalised that working conditions must continue to be improved in order to eradicate accidents at work in those activities that have inherent risks and that, month after month, the statistics show accidents with significant consequences in these activities.

The 0ACCIDNTES project arises from the need to contribute our grain of sand in these activities to achieve, between all of us, a reduction in accidents in this area and, furthermore, to improve the working conditions of its projects, of the companies and self-employed workers who participate in them, as well as to generate means in the application of this technology that in the medium term can be a reality exportable to the whole sector. Likewise, thanks to these initiatives, the business and technology sector is mobilised so that new technologies can be applied to obtain a satisfactory result.

  1. Both projects were born in a working group of the Construction Technology Platform (PTEC). What do you think of this type of organisation and do you think they are necessary to promote the development of collaborative projects between companies?

Of course, forums like these are necessary, where we can sit down with all the actors in the sector, such as material manufacturers, software companies, technology centres, construction companies, etc. and share problems and concerns, which we can solve in a holistic way and not just from a particular point of view. I believe that this is one of the determining factors for the success of innovation projects.

  1. What do you think are the future challenges we will have to face? How are you going to address these challenges at Simetría Grupo?

I believe that the main challenges in construction are the following:

Firstly, to be able to industrialise construction. For this, enabling technologies will play a key role.

Secondly, the decarbonisation of construction. We will have to be able to reduce the footprint of construction through the use of renewable energies, bio-based materials or simply be able to enhance the circular economy in construction, as we are one of the most waste-intensive sectors in Europe.

Finally, we need to be able to offer projects, materials and solutions with new functionalities that were not needed until now. For example, resilient materials or materials that combat the heat island, intelligent buildings that improve comfort, etc.

I believe that these will be three of the main vectors of change and innovation in the sector and from Simetría we will work from today with centres such as CETIM to create solutions that meet these new needs.

IN DETAIL

Simetría is a group of companies with over 80 years of experience in sectors such as construction, environment, energy, water, security, etc. To cover these different areas, it has several companies, such as Becsa, which has been creating all kinds of constructions (roads, industrial building, building rehabilitation, etc.) since 1969. The group’s fundamental principles are innovation, sustainability and efficiency.