Doing things the right way doesn’t necessarily mean doing them the conventional way.
By Ron Hyink
Vern Dundas has been in the precast concrete business for more than 40 years, so it’s a quick study to realize that he knows a trick or two about manufacturing the stuff. And Precon Precast Products of Lethbridge, Alberta, the water and wastewater products company he steers as vice president, has provided him with the tools to take full advantage of that knowledge. But Vern and company don’t follow the traditional plan, if there is such a thing, when designing products or taking care of employees. They do things a little differently.
At first glance from the outside, Precon looks much like any other precast plant – a very clean plant, actually. Step inside the offices, and the first thing that catches the eye, as you may have guessed, is the cleanliness. Then your attention immediately focuses on the two or three monitors at each computer station. The multiple screens are huge time savers, especially for the drafting and sales people, according to Vern, because the programs they need are always in front of them, rather than just one at a time.
“Our owner is very into computers,” said Vern as his eyes panned the width of one of the workstations. He explained that everything is linked together by a software program on a server. “We can find anybody very quickly. All our projects, all our quotes – everything is all linked to this one program, even drawings. I can sit at my desk, and I know the production, I know everything that’s going on. I don’t have to walk in here.”
Even the conference room is linked into the computer system. “We can sit in here and have a meeting, and we can drag everything up on the computer, add notes and everything,” said Vern. “We have of course conferencing, but not video conferencing yet – that’s one of the things that’s coming.”
But where the computer system’s rubber really meets the road is in drafting. It’s not unusual to do the drafting on computer these days, but Precon has been doing it for a long time. Vern explained that the former way of producing manholes was to simply take the contractor’s orders – a dozen of these, a dozen of those – and then out in the field he stacks them until he gets to grade. “We thought 20 years ago, this isn’t the way to do it,” said Vern, “and of course there wasn’t a software program out there (to handle it), so we built our own.”
Today, of course, commercially available programs can solve these problems, but Precon has a bigger and better future for its own proprietary programming. “We are developing a new program. It’s still in its infancy but growing,” said Vern. “The first phase is pretty much up and running, and it’s been two and a half years. The next phase – or phases – would be to integrate the whole thing.”
If all goes as planned, when complete the computerized system will allow the entire process – from customer call to quote to drawing to production – to be seamlessly managed online. “Then you go through shipping, bill of lading, accounting, and it goes all out the door with just the push of a button,” said Vern. “And then hopefully they push a button and send us a cheque.”
The beautiful part of it, according to Vern, is that the labor rates and all the production materials are tied in as well, so if the cost of rebar goes up, for example, just enter that increase in one area of the program. “It will go right through the entire line of products that we do and change the pricing.”
Stepping out into the production facility, where workers are measuring wall panels with lasers, something is not adding up. Why are they measuring wall panels in an underground products plant? The answer is the Multi-Panel vault.
Vern explained that many of the structures used in western Canada can tip the scales at 140,000 to 150,000 pounds, and are much too big and heavy to be lifted easily. “Nobody can lift them,” said Vern, “so we said let’s break them into pieces.” The precaster tried panel structures, where panels slip down channels cast into corner posts, but they were hard to install and to get everything lined up.
Then one day, one of the truck drivers had the brilliant idea of casting the corner in with the panel. “Big light bulb!” said Vern, and the idea took off from there. With seals installed at each joint, the backfill holds it all together. “We have connection devices, but we can take them out once it’s backfilled.”
But the system is not without its skeptics. “A lot of people don’t believe that thing is leak-proof,” said Vern, who refutes the idea with an example. One installation, he said, called for a vault to be buried 7½ meters deep – but the water table was at a depth of 1 meter. Needless to say, it was a rather sloppy work site, and in fact the contractor had to dewater the excavation for about four months – an estimated 4 million to 5 million gallons of water – out of the hole before the installation could proceed. “We put the structure together, backfilled it, and there wasn’t even so much as seepage on the inside.”
While other precasters may be using similar techniques, this design is a Precon original. An installation video of Precon’s Multi-Panel vault is available for viewing on the company’s Web site at www.precon.ca.
Check structures and baffle structures
Walking farther out into Precon’s yard, the company’s name adorns each and every product with extremely large lettering. Using a stenciling system to mark its products is something the company picked up about five years ago. In addition to the company name, the name of the product and the weight in both kilograms and pounds are all stenciled on. At a job site where product is awaiting installation, it commands attention and is downright attractive with its clean lines.
Two types of these products were traditionally cast in place, but Precon went to work and designed its own custom ones for precast concrete. They are the check structure and the baffle structure, both of which help prevent erosion from streams and stormwater.
All water in southern Alberta flows from west to east. Where the Rocky Mountains cut across the province, the Continental Divide marks the boundary with British Columbia. By the time the water flows from the mountains to Lethbridge’s elevation, it has dropped dramatically to the 3,000-foot level. And on it goes across Canada toward the east. Without these check structures and baffle structures in place to ease the water down as the elevation drops, the countryside would erode away.
Beginning in the upper elevations, the check structures straddle open ditches, or canals. “The canals start up here in the mountains in big man-made reservoirs all over southern Alberta,” said Vern. The reservoirs divert the water into the canals, which serve as a water supply during the irrigation season. As the elevation drops, more check structures are added to ease the flow of water. “If you have a serious drop, you may have five or six of these in a one-mile canal.”
The baffle structure is actually an energy dissipater for water used in a creek bed at the termination of an underground pipeline segment. As the water flows into the structure – sometimes at tremendous pressure – it hits the baffle, which on some structures is 200 millimeters thick and heavily reinforced, then spills onto riprap (large rocks) and continues downstream. Water hammer, which is a pressure surge resulting from kinetic energy, can be particularly devastating to a baffle structure.
It’s a very complicated design, technically speaking, said Vern, and is based on U.S. Bureau of Reclamation specifications. “That particular structure is something that you better know what you’re doing before you build it,” said Vern, because if it’s not done right, it will eventually disintegrate.
Pushing the envelope
Vern is the kind of person who is not afraid to try different things. He started out in the concrete business by pouring sidewalk blocks in Saskatchewan for a dollar an hour, lifting 125 pounds all day long. He has come a long way: Today he is excited to be building a new plant about 10 blocks north of the current location. So where is he steering the company for the future? “We just want to see what we can do,” he said. “We started with nothing and just want to see how big we can actually grow it – not necessarily dollar-wise, but just see what we can do.”
But along the way, there are a couple of principles to stand firmly upon. One is competitive bidding. “We do not undercut pricing – we refuse to do it. You can work anywhere for nothing,” said Vern. “We look to do a better job and provide more value for what you’re getting.” Another principle is sticking with his suppliers, who are considered more as partners. “We do not beat up on our suppliers – we’ve had suppliers for 26 years.” Even if the supplier increases prices, Precon does not seek another bid. The idea is to keep the supplier in business so that Precon doesn’t have to look for another one. “So therefore, we need them to make a profit. And that’s our philosophy.”
Perhaps the things that Precon does can be described as untraditional. But through it all, they have done the things that have worked for them for many years. That makes it a kind of tradition.
For more information about Precon, visit www.precon.ca.