Not waiting out the commercial building trough, a leader in insulated panels builds new wall brands
By Don Marsh
Excepting their own shelves’ Quikrete or Sakrete stock, real estate and construction staff at Home Depot, Lowe’s, Menards, Target or Walmart are likely to have one top-of-mind concrete brand. Fabcon has made a mark with big-box retailers and other national account-type customers, differentiating its insulated precast wall panels through finishes and textures, higher R values, life-cycle analyses, engineering support, short production lead times, and dedicated field erectors.
With one of its four plants idled, and core accounts limiting store expansion, Savage, Minn.-based Fabcon is using the current market window to look beyond a building wall to the project site perimeter. After securing a production license, it has adapted the precast site wall and fence designs of Utah mold and form manufacturer Verti-Crete to create Sentry-Cast. Walls and columns are offered with integrally colored concrete mixes, or stained finishes, in a variety of stone or brick patterns. Eyeing up to 24-ft. wall height installations, Fabcon engineers and production staff have tailored the system for commercial and government markets, the latter including department of transportation sound wall contracts.
“Sentry-Cast is a whole package. We are modeling it after what we have done in insulated precast walls: Focus on features important to building end users or owners,” says Fabcon Vice President of Sales & Marketing Jim Houtman. “We market toward end users and manufacture what they want versus what’s easy to make on our production beds. While an architect might be concerned with panel finish, we look at the larger picture, including functionality, life-cycle cost and integrity of product.
“A lot of Verti-Crete and similarly licensed product has been centered on residential and some housing developments or light industrial applications. When we took on the product, the idea was to engineer it for department of transportation sound barrier walls, and security for commercial developments where owners need more robust, longer service-life structures.”
The site wall and fencing product brings Fabcon many new property end user or owner prospects, he adds, but also has potential with national account customers. Big-box retailers encountering neighbors’ resistance on a prospective store site, for example, can show opponents how a project includes an aesthetically pleasing site wall to buffer the commercial activity. “There is a real need for quality, robust fencing in private, commercial and government markets,” Houtman affirms.
Hollow Core 2.0
Engineering to position Sentry-Cast for DOT applications compelled Verti-Crete to approach Fabcon on designing a smooth or decorative face structural block as an alternative to larger, dry cast segmental retaining wall units, which have seen push back from some states. Product engineering and trial fabrication netted Fabcon another non-building wall system: the 2- x 4- x 2.25-ft. Sentry-Cast block, whose hollow core is designed to be filled on site with local aggregate materials.
The Sentry-Cast block design extends an engineering philosophy engrained at Fabcon since its days as a pioneer in prestressed, hollow core wall panels. The new unit’s significant weight reduction compared to solid block offers greater shipping economy, accelerated construction potential, and versatility regarding aggregate and fill specs needed to attain target structural weight.
Fabcon worked with Verti-Crete on developing the forming technology, overcoming form-stripping challenges, and modifying a prototype to ease production. Product refinement and pursuit of state DOT approvals continue, with emphasis on structures up to 8 ft. high, built with conventional block, and walls 12 ft. or higher, where engineering factors call for design changes in the first course of block, or incorporating geogrid into the installation. Available in the same range of color and stain options as the wall product, Sentry-Cast block has debuted with a variety of textures.
The Fabcon Way
“Optimizing the quality and cost efficiency of our portfolio through manufacturing innovation has helped Fabcon weather numerous economic storms and remain an industry leader,” said CEO Mike Le Jeune, reflecting on the company’s 40th anniversary in 2011. “Because of [our] pioneering efforts and culture for embracing change, we are entering new markets as well as growing our commercial construction business.”
Fabcon is producing Sentry-Cast wall panels at its headquarters and Pennsylvania plants, and launching the block product from the former, which lies about five miles past the southern portion of the Minneapolis-St. Paul beltway, Interstate 494.
At Savage, the Sentry-Cast production line includes multiple panel, column and wall/column cap, and block molds, plus finishing and staining stations. It is adjacent to one of two portals along tunnels housing Fabcon’s patented rolling-bed insulated panel casting lines.
Three 500-ft. beds shuttle to formwork and pouring stations, containing all equipment in a small, quality-controlled area, compared to the large space fixed-bed production entails. The company has replicated the rolling-bed method at its Ohio and Pennsylvania operations. Augmenting fabrication and productivity at each are a) proprietary, 3D design software that interfaces with a computer-aided manufacturing system to project a laser image of panel designs and openings directly onto the casting beds; and, b) a segmented screed that enables automated equipment to bypass obstructions in the concrete, such as structural connections and/or blockouts, that would otherwise need to be hand finished.