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Evolution of concrete plants

by Craig Yeack

Ready-mix plants matter. The physical foundation of modern society is absolutely dependent on concrete infrastructure. More important are the resilient folks who work long, hard hours, day after day, to make it happen. Now more than ever, our people and concrete plants are faced with fundamental changes not seen in 70 years.

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Craig Yeack has held leadership positions with both construction materials producers and software providers. He is co-founder of BCMI Corp. (the Bulk Construction Materials Initiative), which is dedicated to reinventing the construction materials business with modern mobile and cloud-based tools. His Tech Talk column—named best column by the Construction Media Alliance in 2018—focuses on concise, actionable ideas to improve financial performance for ready-mix producers. He can be reached at [email protected].

SWEAT EQUITY

Let’s start back a few years. After World War II, the soldiers who made it home started and grew businesses in droves, including ready mixed concrete operations.

Dwight Eisenhower’s logistical genius shifted after VE Day to building out a modern transportation infrastructure at home. Thousands of GI’s scrounged up cash from friends and family to buy a truck or a plant and provide material for thousands of miles of Interstate highways, surface streets, and public works projects. Tract housing also emerged, fueling an insatiable appetite for concrete foundations, driveways and sidewalks.

Those who built the plants typically lacked formal education but seethed with determination. No problem could be thrown at them worse than what they had already experienced overseas. With levers, wheels, and dial gauges they worked problems to death with their sweat. They built the core industry as we know it today and set the bar high for integrity.

MODERN TIMES (AND TOOLS)

Fast forward through generations of local, then regional, and finally national consolidation of concrete companies. The ready-mix plant remains the foundational unit of our industry. Now the demands of working in harness with dozens of other plants has changed the game. Not only do the new business leaders need to be responsible, mechanically inclined, and team players—they also need to be digitally savvy.

Perhaps it’s not widely known, but producing concrete is one of the most complicated businesses on earth. Every day, we juggle constantly fluctuating product demand with real-time manufacturing and inventory replenishment. Not to mention delivering a quickly perishable product that has enormous structural liability—all placed by finishing crews who can easily destroy our hard work with careless mistakes. For arguments’ sake, concrete typically accounts for about 17 percent of an infrastructure project yet represents well over 40 percent of the liability.

Digitization is a competitive necessity for ready-mix producers to synchronize all these moving parts. Using modern tools to direct the finely choreographed play of a ready-mix operation not only cuts costs, but more importantly mitigates liability. In today’s plants, the folks operating the batcher, wheel loaders and mixer trucks are all coordinated by software running on phones, tablets and desktop computers. Integrated logistical systems match short-term demand with inbound material deliveries that are automatically receipted. The chess game of dispatch allocates manufacturing demand for trucks that frequently move between plants, often with the help of computerized optimization. Many traditional testing methods can now be done on the truck, which we could now call a “Mobile Manufacturing Platform.” The list goes on. The hard-working plant folks still work long hours, but now beat problems into the ground with a wrench and a computer.

Consider the example of tracking driver time from check-in to first load, and last load return to check-out. Historically drivers would frequently check in early, have coffee, chat, and get a gentlemanly start to the day before doing the pre-trip truck inspection and first load. The same happened in reverse, plus washout, in the afternoon. Competitive pressure has required producers to cut costs or be acquired by more efficient operators.

Now, driver start time is dictated to the minute by a first-round check-in system, interlocked with the truck’s onboard tablet. The tablet or a mobile phone is used for walkaround inspection and verification. Typically, the driver is allowed 15 minutes prior to first load for check-in and pre-trip inspection, and just a bit more for the afternoon exit. This simple digital process can easily save $11,000 per vehicle per year.

INVESTING IN THE FUTURE

The ready-mix plant is also an incubator of leadership. Programs like Concrete Industry Management at Middle Tennessee State University take kids, often with generational concrete industry experience, and provide higher education that’s steeped in the past but also focused on the current needs of our real-time industry. Unlike more generalized technical degrees such as electrical or mechanical engineering, these specialized programs anchor students in a clear and concise foundation, all starting with the day-to-day operation of a ready-mix plant.

Toiling at a ready-mix plant will never be for the faint of heart, so we must seek out native digital citizens that also have the physical skills and determination to adapt and overcome. Now instead of World War II vets, we look for workers who are mechanically inclined, steeped in personal responsibility, and natural team players. They take pride in improvising through any challenge thrown at them.

Looking forward, we need to continue investing in education and technology to ensure our plants remain strong hubs within the industry’s growing ecosystem of technology. With modern tools and a determined work force, we will face new challenges with a tough-minded resilience that stretches back for generations. Our uniquely talented people are leading the way to a bright future; and it all starts with the humble ready-mix plant.