Precasters reveal their top technology tools for 2007.
By Bridget McCrea
Bridget McCrea is a freelance writer who has covered manufacturing, industry and technology for more than 11 years.
A ll of those tech tools and software upgrades are staring you in the face, waiting for you to invest in them and integrate them into your business. The first step is easy: Shell out a few bucks and go back to the office or plant with the product (or service) tucked under your arm.
The second step isn’t as simple, as many shelves filled with dusty software boxes and discarded gadgets will confirm: While you have every intention of making full use of those tech tools, it doesn’t always work out that way. So make 2007 different. Make this the year where your precast firm invests wisely in technology for your office, plant or field work.
If you’re not sure where to start, listen to a few precasters who would unabashedly call their firms “tech-savvy” and find out what technology they’re using to work smarter, better, faster and more profitably in today’s competitive business environment.
Self-consolidating concrete (SCC)
It’s been around for a few years now, but ask most precasters what innovation has had the greatest impact on the way they do business and they’ll probably say self-consolidating concrete. The materials can be poured into forms, flowed around congested areas of reinforcement and into tight sections. It resists segregation and allows air bubbles to escape – all without the need for traditional consolidation methods (such as concrete vibrators).
“SCC has revolutionized the precast industry,” says Harold Messenger, vice president of product development at Oldcastle Precast Group in Rehoboth, Mass. “We’ve converted 90 percent of our plants to SCC.” Key benefits, says Messenger, include the elimination of noise and vibration in the factory – not to mention that the technology saves time and cuts down on the amount of work involved.
Other benefits are less wear and tear on the equipment, thanks to the “very fluid mix” that SCC produces. That, in turn, translates into higher-quality products, says Messenger. “Because you don’t have to vibrate it, there are no bug holes and the material flows into the form,” says Messenger. “That means you can have a much more heavily reinforced product of very high quality.”
Improved computer-aided design
In a perpetual state of “upgrade,” today’s CAD programs hardly resemble their predecessors. For that reason, precast firms like Oldcastle continually upgrade their CAD systems to include lasers and other tools that have “changed the way we go to production,” says Messenger.
Right now, the firm is converting CAD into useable shop tickets that are generated automatically. Where the approval process once created a paper trail (starting with a drawing that was shuffled to and from the customer then delivered to the plant for production), CAD allows precasters to handle the entire process online.
“Instead of taking two or three weeks, we can do it in a day or two,” says Messenger, who credits a combination of electronic CAD and the Internet with allowing the company to shave significant time off the design process. “If we’re using a design-build team – and if everyone is in tune with it – it can be done in a day or less.”
Ask Rob Buck what technology has had the most impact on the way Utility Vault manages its facilities, and his answer comes quickly. About four years ago, the Auburn, Wash.-based precaster installed a program called Faciliworks, a desktop interface that can coordinate and track schedules, employees, suppliers, tools, parts, procedures, budgets and purchasing.
“It took us a few years to research and decide which program to go with,” recalls Buck, safety coordinator. “It’s working out pretty well.”
The program’s most useful feature is its tracking of Utility Vault’s equipment – from forklifts to mixers to steel-tying guns. All equipment is entered into the system, and when it’s time to perform maintenance on the equipment, Faciliworks alerts the company’s manager to the issue and what parts or service are needed.
Buck says knowing which pieces of equipment are being repaired too many times is enough to save the company significant cost. Buck anticipates a time when the program will also handle lockout and tag-out procedures (two functions that he hasn’t explored yet).
Keeping track of the many pieces of precast out in the yard, in production and on the drawing board is no easy task for manufacturers. Some have found success using inventory management programs combined with bar-coding or other tagging processes. At C.R. Barger and Sons in Harriman, Tenn., Eric Barger, president of precast operations, says his firm is using a proprietary database system that works in conjunction with bar code gun scanners to track every product that it makes.
“When a customer calls with a question about a tank, we can look at the invoice, where the tank is, the testing that took place on the tank, the air content, density and air temperature, and everything else that has to do with the product right through our program,” says Barger.
Wilbert Precast Inc. of Spokane, Wash., is using a proprietary system that connects its headquarters with its Yakima plant, thus enabling both locations to view inventory, delivery scheduling and other key pieces of information.
“Our complete trucking schedule and information about every load is accessible to everyone in the office,” says Dan Houk, president. “When a call comes in from a customer, it’s just a matter of a few keystrokes to find out exactly what time the truck is leaving the plant and when it’s expected to arrive at the customer’s location.”
Good inventory management systems needn’t be proprietary, as many other precasters have already learned. Options range from Microsoft-based solutions like White Plains to more sophisticated alternatives from companies like Red Prairie, Manhattan Associates, SAP and Oracle.
Another option is a Material Requirements Planning (MRP) system, which is designed for smaller manufacturers that specialize in build-to-order products. Such systems can handle the special considerations that precasters deal with, such as measuring inventory, manufacturing inventory and determining whether each order is attached to a specific customer.
Cell phones and smart phones change at the speed of light, making those communication devices that you just bought obsolete almost as soon as you walk out the door of the Cingular or Verizon store. Rather than trying to keep up, most precasters stick with what works. For many, that means Nextel two-way radio-type phones, and for others it means Blackberry or Palm Treo smart phones that incorporate e-mail and the Internet into the mix.
At Yavapai Precast in Prescott, Ariz., the company relies heavily on its Nextel two-way radio/phones for maintaining communications among its key personnel. “It allows us to solve problems quickly,” says Mark Boehle, precast sales manager. Even more beneficial is the fact that many of Yavapai’s customers carry similar units, which means the precaster can establish direct contact with them without having to dial the phone. “We just program their numbers in and talk to them directly,” says Boehle.
Jim Boyce, owner of Empire Precast in Rochester, N.Y., says his latest tech investment is a Palm Treo that incorporates not only a phone but also e-mail, instant messaging and Internet access in a single device. For about $400 (plus the airtime and data charges), Boyce can receive e-mail from his managers, review documentation and plans, and even check the weather while on the job site.
“One of our issues involved documenting things fast enough to get change orders or back charges done in a timely fashion,” says Boyce. “With my Treo, I can create and edit Microsoft Word documents and e-mail them, rather than having to run back to the office after the job is done. It’s been a great time saver.”
One technology that has been around for a while but not all precasters have bought into is the idea of purchasing molds that allow for easier setup and manufacture of their products. Yavapai Precast is one of the pioneers. A few years ago, the firm started using a product called Hydrostrip, which allows it to inject compressed air into its molds via a connection (the “Hydrostrip”). The technology makes popping the product out of the mold infinitely easier, according to Boehle.
“We pay a little more for the product, but it’s well worth it,” he explains. “It’s less labor intensive in that it takes our guys much less time to manufacture. It basically pops a piece loose from the mold instead of our having to fight with it or get it loose with a forklift or a crane.”
Another innovation of particular use for precasters is the sensor, which allows manufacturers to measure certain aspects of the production process and product, thus ensuring the highest quality possible. At Utility Vault, Buck says the firm uses sensors to measure moisture content, temperatures of its admixtures and other important procedures.
Installed in the company’s mixers, the sensors transfer the information directly to computers that reveal, for example, just how much water needs to be added – and at what temperature – to keep the product consistent.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s Jan. 15 or Aug. 15, our employees know that the concrete is going to be exactly the same and that it will set up at the same rate,” says Buck. “They know it will react the same way, and that their jobs – and the concrete – will always be consistent.”
As technology continues evolving faster than most of us can keep up with, expect to see more innovations coming down the pike. Whether the equipment or programs are used in the office, in the plant or out in the field, many of the new technologies will help precasters gain an edge, save money and be more productive in the competitive business world.