Going the distance against alternative materials takes a commitment to quality, attention to detail and a dose of perseverance.
By Bridget McCrea
Strolling down the aisles of the WEFTEC Technical Exhibition and Conference, Dean Frank is always surprised at the volume of new construction materials available on the market. Frank, director of Industry Standards and Certification Programs for NPCA, says the number of different materials increases every year, making it that much more difficult for precasters to stand out in the marketplace.
Take outdoor grease interceptors, for example. Long the domain of precasters, these products are now being built out of everything from high-density polyethylene (HDPE) to steel. HDPE has taken a big market share of the sanitary concrete pipe market. In the septic tank arena, Frank says competition from plastic and fiberglass is on the rise. “It’s just amazing how many different competing materials are out there now,” he says.
Also coming out of the woodwork are more composite materials, which are used primarily on structural products such as bridges. “I’ve heard of a pedestrian bridge being built completely out of composites,” says Frank. The structure was produced off site and installed quickly, just like a precast structure would be.
“Certain product lines are certainly threatened by the increased competition,” says Frank. He sees issues like low quality, the need to compete on price and producers’ need to effectively promote their precast products as key challenges for the industry. “Everyone is out there touting these new high-tech products, whereas precast is viewed by some as low-tech and old. It’s an image that we’re constantly battling.”
Where price is king
Precasters nationwide are finding themselves competing in a market against alternative materials like fiberglass, plastics, composites, steel and cast-in-place concrete. A member of the ASTM committee, Gary Munkelt, consulting engineer at Souderton, Pa.-based Gary K. Munkelt & Associates, sees fiberglass (for septic tanks), HDPE (for pipe) and polyethylene drainage systems as the most prevalent competitors.
“Contractors like HDPE because it’s light,” says Munkelt, who sees some engineers exploring the newer options, while others stick with precast based on its proven longevity, rigidity and resistance to breakage.
At Mel C. Marshall Industrial Consultants Inc. in Vancouver, British Columbia, Mel Marshall, president, singles out PVC as yet another material that’s on the menus of specifiers right now. Driving the trend, he says, is the need for lighter, more flexible materials and the perception that these alternative products are easier to install than their precast counterparts.
Marshall says the perception is unproven. “These products may be easier to handle because they’re light, but they’re often more difficult to install,” states Marshall. “Plus, when you consider that most of the products being made by NPCA members are going into the ground, weight is a good thing.”
Getting that point across isn’t always easy. In the construction industry all of his life, NPCA President Ty Gable says that good or bad, precasters are operating in an environment where the low bid generally gets the job. That downward pressure on pricing combined with escalating business costs and a slew of new competitors is making it difficult for precast manufacturers to compete in the marketplace.
“This is one of the most competitive industries on the planet. Price is king,” says Gable. “As a result, manufacturers worry so much about cutting their price and wind up selling product for much lower than they should be.”
To avoid that trap, Gable says precasters must know their costs and be aware of their bottom line. Simply slicing 10 percent off a bid in order to beat a lowball offer doesn’t cut it, he says. “You have to know where it bleeds, and many companies don’t know this,” says Gable. “You also have to be courageous enough to walk away from a job if it looks like you could lose money on it.”
Shameless promotion, please
Instrumental in stating the case for precast among engineers, specifiers and other key players in the construction industry, NPCA has helped make significant inroads for manufacturers looking to stand out against the growing pool of alternate materials available on the market. Many times, precasters will find themselves up against cast-in-place options, says Gable, who sees “time” as the biggest advantage of precast in such scenarios.
It’s an advantage that must be expressed clearly when bidding on projects, says Gable. Since time is money for contractors, telling them that they’ll save “X number of hours or days” by using precast can be a very effective sales pitch. Other advantages to promote are the fact that weather won’t be an issue, quality will be consistent and delivery can take place at the contractor’s request.
When going up against plastic, fiberglass and composites, Gable says a precaster’s selling points should include lower overall cost (based on the fact that many of the newer materials are more expensive than precast), concrete’s strength and reliability, and ease of installation.
“With many of these other materials, the envelope must be prepared, the soil just right and the product set in place and backfilled in stages,” says Gable. “Precast, on the other hand, doesn’t depend on the soil envelope for its structural integrity. It stands on its own.”
Munkelt says promoting precast’s long life span and proven reliability can also go a long way in helping manufacturers win bids against alternative materials. “We have concrete pipe out in the field that’s 100 years old and still going strong,” says Munkelt. Also working in concrete’s favor are its environmentally friendly and fireproof qualities, both of which can help persuade specifiers to choose precast over plastic or fiberglass.
Sometimes, precasters need to get back to the basics when stating their cases, says Marshall, who points out some of concrete’s most traditional selling points: “Concrete is relatively inexpensive and very competitive. It’s simple, readily available and able to be molded into any shape you want. It’s also high-strength, durable and an environmentally friendly product. There are many good reasons to use concrete.”
The problem, says Marshall, is that not all precasters go the extra mile to get these points across, and as a result wind up losing bids to competitors who have more marketing or promotional power. “Most don’t do the kind of marketing that they should be doing,” says Marshall, who urges precasters to bone up on the good and bad points of the competitive materials, and to use that information when stating their cases for precast.
“A lot of alternative materials have already come and gone, but concrete has stood the test of time,” says Marshall. “Precasters need to press on this and other points. There’s a lot of work that needs to be done to educate specifiers on all of the advantages of concrete.”
Frank concurs and says precasters also must focus on producing the highest-quality products possible. Known for its durability, concrete should be able to stand the test of time – something that’s not always easy to achieve when competitors are undercutting prices and forcing precasters to operate on slim margins. “Price is generally in direct correlation to quality,” says Frank.
Expect to see stiffer competition ahead, says Gable, as downward pressure on pricing continues to characterize the industry. Cast-in-place will continue to be a primary competitor for NPCA members, he says, with other materials also jumping into the fray. “We’re definitely going to see more competition from plastic, composites, fiberglass, steel and other materials as we move forward,” remarks Gable. “Precasters have to be fanatical about controlling costs in order to compete and to survive long-term in the market.”