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Stand - And Deliver

Boosting the education of precast industry workers is a major goal for J. Kirby O'Malley. One of the ways I want to give back is by working to increase

J. Kirby O'Malley, NPCA

Amid today's down economy and slumping precast market, emphasizes the new chairman of the National Precast Concrete Association, the time is ripe for producers to examine their operations, adjust their way of doing business, and recommit to core values of fabricating the best product for the best price. Now is the time to make sure you know your costs Û and deliver, asserts 2010 NPCA Chairman J. Kirby O'Malley, president, Garden State Precast, Inc., Farmingdale, N.J. Now is not the time to be philosophical. It is time for action.

The industry has had a really good run over the last decade, notes O'Malley, who was named chairman at NPCA's annual meeting in late September. Now, it's back to the basics. We need to remember what made us better companies back then and focus on that for the future. The challenge we face today is how to continue to run our companies, employ a workforce, make high-quality products, keep employees safe, hold prices down, and, let's not forget, make a profit Û all at the same time Û while not compromising our core values.

Though O'Malley cautions producers against getting too philosophical about what they do in a down period, a commitment to core values is an important part of Garden State Precast's way of doing business. And, he urges fellow precasters likewise to be rigorous in establishing priorities: It's all about the core issues. Know what your core values are, such as building a quality product with on-time delivery, and never change them. They got you to where you are. Never compromise those, but ÎspinÌ everything else as fast as you can.

NEW TECHNOLOGIES KEY TO HIGHER PRODUCTIVITY

While core values remain constant, adopting new technologies is an indispensable strategy in today's business climate. If you are still filing papers the way you did 10 years ago, you're going to go out of business, O'Malley warns. You have to come up with a better way. And, it's not just administration, but production and customer service.

In the old days, we just looked up on a bulletin board and assigned jobs that way, O'Malley recalls. It was all manual. But, in the last decade, producers have had the opportunity to migrate to better systems, whether it's a simple Excel spreadsheet or a proprietary program. A push of a button will tell us everything about a job and what is scheduled. That's better management, and that's better customer service. Our company had to invest to do so, but it made us more efficient and productive.

Self-improvement applies to the production floor as well, O'Malley tells Concrete Products. Producers must adapt to the latest technology, he affirms. If you still are batching concrete the way you did 20 years ago, without the new additives that make it more flowable, you are headed for trouble. You still must make good concrete Û that's a nonnegotiable core value Û but, the way you make the concrete has changed tremendously.

Small changes in basic plant operations have generated increases in productivity, O'Malley reports. Years ago, you would have an overhead crane with a pendant for control, he elaborates. Today, the controller walks around with a device in his pocket. Now, a guy can be on a form 15 ft. away, and he doesn't have to get down, get the pendant, and walk over with the pendant in his hand. Little things like that have made a constant improvement in production, and they need to be adopted.

Among changes O'Malley witnessed over the last decade that have immensely improved the precaster's lot are high-slump, self-consolidating concrete mix designs. There is no question that self-consolidating mixes make a better-looking product, O'Malley says. I think most of us producers have gone to a hybrid mix, however, so the mix is not truly self-consolidating. But, it is based on the materials we have. Nonetheless, the concept has improved our product, made it more flowable, and increased our concrete strengths.

'OPEN TENT' KEEPS NPCA STRONG

Despite a down market for precast, the National Precast Concrete Association has continued to experience robust growth. NPCA is an Îopen tentÌ, O'Malley emphasizes. We invite everyone who makes precast products to be a part of the group. We have no ÎhighÌ threshold or ÎlowÌ threshold. Whatever size company you are, if you have the same core beliefs that we do Û quality product, at a reasonable price, delivered on time Û you are welcome to join. And, that has been fruitful for the association, as there is something here for everyone. That's been our key.

Significant member benefits include the organization's promotion of plant certification, and NPCA urges state agencies to specify precast products from certified plants. Our goal is to have every state and province require NPCA certification, OÌMalley asserts. NPCA is the only association that encompasses pipe, precast and prestressedÛand, we go across all product lines, instead of being product-specific.

NPCA will continue to aggressively promote plant consultations in advance of plant certification inspections. Unlike other certification programs, we do the consultation before the inspection, and it helps plants increase their inspection scores, OÌMalley reports. Inspection data indicate that our plants are getting better and better, which means weÌre raising the quality bar in the industry.

Additionally, NPCA offers producer members an array of marketing and sales tools, as well as assistance in communicating with local specifiers. In early 2010, for example, the association will release a Life-Cycle Assessment Report highlighting the longevity of precast products as a factor in earning credit for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification by the U.S. Green Building Council. Thus, the report stands to enhance precast's appeal among engineers, architects and specifiers seeking LEED points.

Also in early 2010, NPCA will release a Life Cycle Analysis tool that will enable users to comprehensively quantify and interpret the environmental impact of precast concrete structures throughout their entire life cycle. The LCA study is a joint project of NPCA, the Precast/Prestressed Concrete Institute, and the Canadian Precast/Prestressed Concrete Institute. Further, the three associations will disseminate precast product LCA data to promote AEC community awareness of precast's ÎgreenÌ benefits.

PRECAST UNIVERSITY, EXPO SPUR EDUCATION, INNOVATION

Boosting the education of precast industry workers is a major goal for J. Kirby OÌMalley. One of the ways I want to give back is by working to increase educational opportunities for production employees, he tells Concrete Products. I first became involved on the leadership side of NPCA through the Education Committee, because I believe so strongly in equipping my workforce with the tools to do their jobs better, learn new skills, and advance in the company.

Accordingly, one of his proudest achievements is the launch last year of NPCA's Precast University. In 2008, the committee unveiled Precast University. Now, through NPCA, a production employee can advance from entry-level laborer to master precaster in a management role, OÌMalley affirms. Only a small percentage will likely take it that far, but the opportunity now is there for those who wish to pursue it. An educated workforce is a core value of NPCA, and weÌre making it happen.

Precast University is a major attraction at The Precast Show, an expositionÛnow in its second yearÛcosponsored by NPCA and the American Concrete Pipe Association. Staged this year at the Phoenix Convention Center and Sheraton Downtown, Feb. 18Ò20, The Precast Show features 200-plus supplier exhibits, showcasing new equipment, products and services. Offerings range from cranes, forklifts, mixers, batch plants and forms to accessories, such as admixtures, sealants and lifting devices, to bar-coding systems and innovative plant-management software.

Although the last two years presented challenging conditions for a show launch, OÌMalley says the numbers are proving it was the right choice. This year's show will be down some in terms of square footage from 2009, he notes, but, we anticipate an equal numberÛor moreÛexhibitors. The days when an exhibitor would erect a batch plant on a show floor are giving way to new technologies like virtual reality. In the next few years, I expect virtual reality to become a major element of trade shows, and it will be just like the equipment was there.

Increasing their exposure to innovations unveiled at The Precast Show, Garden State's supervisors will split up the show floor, divvying up the exhibits. Later, over dinner, they will report back to the group what theyÌve observed. That way the group doesnÌt have to follow each other around, OÌMalley explains. The Precast Show is the best place for this kind of collaborative effort, whereby we absorb maximum information in minimal time.

In addition, through Precast University, The Precast Show provides industry-specific education sessions conducted by leading experts in the field, who offer technical training, as well as tracks in business management, finance, safety and sustainability. Since weÌre a small company, we donÌt have a corporate director of research and development or a corporate director of safety, OÌMalley remarks. Instead, we send our supervisors to Precast University. More than 75 hours of instruction will be offered at The Precast Show, and we plan to avail ourselves of all the training we can. We meet ahead of time, decide who will take what class, and then every person has to write up a report on each class, stressing how what he learned can immediately make our company better.

Precast University soon will leverage the Internet's reach to educate more stakeholders, launching a new online learning portal in 2010. We have spent the past few years putting the foundation in place for a major new initiative to push member benefits down into the plant, OÌMalley says. While we continue to present Precast University courses in person, we will offer more training through our online education portal, so employees can take coursework at their convenience, and our producer members can save money.

As in the case of show-floor exhibits, OÌMalley anticipates that virtual reality will play an ever-increasing role in Precast University training programs. We are just beginning to get into the opening stages of it, he asserts. It is the latest and greatest technology, and that ties into our core belief that we train supervisors and managers using the best technology.

INDUSTRY BENCHMARKS BELIE POSITIVE PROGNOSIS

Each year, NPCA produces a Precast Benchmarking Report, based on a survey that measures production levels, sales mix, plus salaries and benefits. In 2009, the benchmarking report showed about a 10 percent decline in the precast concrete industry.

The 2010 report based on 2009 data has yet to be released, but OÌMalley is not optimistic about its findings. I donÌt have the figures, but it will show some parts of the country did very well, while other parts have really fallen off, he predicts. I suspect 2009 will be down by the same percentage as in 2008. In 2010, weÌll likely start to recover from that very low level, but my guess is that weÌll only gain a couple of points.

The Pacific Northwest is doing fairly well, as is the Gulf Coast, OÌMalley observes. The rest of us are just bumping along, he says, but the good news is that the precast sector is positioning itself for future long-term growth as a versatile and sustainable material in the new green building environment.