This month we are pleased to feature Piedmont Precast as part of our Meet a Precaster blog series. Answers were provided by Frank Bowen, plant manager.
Don’t forget to check out all of our Meet a Precaster blog posts and if you’re an NPCA producer member and would like to be featured in a future Meet a Precaster post, please send an email to NPCA’s internal communication and web manager, Sara Geer.
1. Where are you located?
2. How did your company get its start?
Piedmont Precast’s roots evolved from funeral supply industry demands. From the early 1900s, Caleb Edgar Bowen established himself as a well-respected general contractor in Atlanta. He was responsible for the construction of the H.M. Patterson & Son Funeral Home located at the intersection of Spring Street and 14th Street in midtown Atlanta. When it was completed in 1928, the pace of the construction industry in Atlanta began to slow down. As a result of the Great Depression, this downturn made it clear to Caleb that sustainable employment was needed for his family. As Caleb’s health was in decline, his eldest son, Frank Bowen Sr., who had helped his father produce concrete throughout Atlanta, took an offer as a funeral director at H.M. Patterson & Son Funeral Home at his father’s request. It was while working there that he realized local cemeteries needed burial vaults. In 1937, with a background in construction and a concentration in concrete, Frank Sr. began the Wilbert Vault Co. in order to fill this demand. The funeral home is still a customer of ours today.
3. What value does NPCA bring to your company and to the industry?
NPCA is no longer an abbreviation that requires a followup explanation. The certification program has proven to be a rigorous and well-respected examination of a plant’s manufacturing ability. Now ANSI certified, the program gives plants the stamp of approval for engineers, specifiers, architects and DOTs. These key parties dramatically influence installers and general contractors on current precast concrete requirements. The result is “grade-A” precast delivered and installed to jobs where second guessing is not an option. This gives the customer confidence in precast concrete.
4. How have the relationships you’ve developed through NPCA membership impacted your business?
Prior to becoming a certified plant, we had, what we thought, a well-established network of producers through relationships created by our licensed burial vault product line. However, at the World of Concrete show in 2008 we met with Dan Houk of Wilbert Precast to talk about the benefits of NPCA. The result was an introduction to hundreds of other precast manufacturers and associates. Exposure to new vendors, precast plant tours, introduction to new stream-line manufacturing procedures, and many other eye-opening operational strategies helped us sharpen our own plant into a fast-adapting operation capable of much more than we ever could have expected.
5. What are the top advantages of precast concrete products?
I’ve provided the best points from my favorite article to explain this:
- Since precast is manufactured in a controlled casting environment, it is easier to control the mix, placement and curing
- Quality can be controlled and monitored much more easily
- Since a precaster can buy materials for multiple projects, quantity discounts can lower costs
- Weather is eliminated as a factor – you can cast in any weather and get the same results, which allows you to perfect mixes and methods
- On site, precast can be installed immediately, there is no waiting for it to gain strength and the modularity of precast products makes installation go quickly
- It’s easy to make many copies of the same precast product; by maximizing repetition, you can get plenty of value from a mold and a set-up
- Accelerated curing, by heating the precast parts, greatly increases strength gain, reducing the time between casting the part and putting it into service
- With the ability to so tightly control the process, from materials to consolidation to curing, you can get extremely durable concrete
The fifth bullet point is always my favorite. This is often seen when we modify cast-in-place retaining walls. Converting installers who are comfortable with cast-in-place walls to become comfortable with modular precast only takes one job. The installer quickly understands the advantages of precast systems as soon as you help guide them. Like any wall, it’s only as good as the foundation it sits on. For our new installers, we provide well-seasoned technicians on site throughout the installation to help the foreman and project manager with the project. The base layer is the most time consuming but also the most critical part of the installation. If it’s not on well-compacted soil and or not level on the stone base, the rest of the wall will suffer. We explain this to our installers prior to construction and once we see them complete the second row, it’s usually accompanied by a look of wonder on their faces.
6. What’s the most interesting or unique precast project you’ve worked on?
The most interesting and unique precast project we worked on was when we helped Earth Wall Products Owner, Thomas Rainey, P.E., develop the advanced traffic barrier system for the Gravix product line. Getting the chance to visit the Texas Transportation Institute testing facility in Bryan, Texas, to watch precast barriers from our plant pass MASH TL-4 crash criteria after a 26,000-pound truck traveling at 56 mph slammed into them makes it a pretty fun day. Knowing that highway and roadside barriers of our future infrastructure are safer is rewarding.
7. What drives you and your employees to produce quality precast concrete products?
Reputation is what drives us to produce quality products. Here’s a simple fact, delivering quality creates customer satisfaction. A demanding quality program helps ensure that we achieve this. Trust is built on the ability to perform and in our industry it only takes a few bad reviews to change this. The key is maintaining a feedback relationship with your customers. Even if they are satisfied, ask them to get critical for you, even if you both feel the products produced are “grade A.” Because all customers are different, asking for feedback from a spectrum of clients will help to add new entries into your Failure Mode and Effects Analysis and improve your products.
8. Tell us about a time when you changed a spec to precast on a project and why the change was made.
Large, wet-cast retaining wall systems, like the ones we produce, target a niche market. That is, cut walls that have property constraints. We often see walls that are specified as cast-in-place because the only other known option is MSE. These systems require geogrid installation behind the designated wall location that would encroach on the property. Corporate Campus was one job where we modified the project and provided a cost-effective solution to pour-in-place while at the same time providing an architectural rock face, eliminating the need for a stone veneer. Such details as this often sweeten the deal for the client and influence their ultimate decision.
9. What makes precast concrete an even better product today than it has ever been in the past?
On an industry-wide scale, the quality of precast products manufactured today is proving to be far superior than what was produced in past years. There are numerous reasons for this including competition among precasters for similar systems, TQM systems in place in precast operations and new precast products that were previously never thought of. However, the main reason precast concrete has improved is because of the producer’s ability to address incredible attention to details. Tighter dimensional tolerances, improved surface finishes, mix-design enhancements by means of superior materials and technology, automated high-output batching systems that create consistent high-performance concrete and well-trained precast technicians are just a few examples of this.
10. How do you see the precast concrete industry – and your company in particular – evolving in the future?
Precast concrete as an industry, in my opinion, is still in its infancy. If you can dream it up, you can find a way to make a mold and cast it. I am confident that 20 years from now we will look at some products and realize, “How did we ever manage without this?” It just takes a creative mind and a good engineer to get it done. The biggest hurdle the precast industry faces is resistance to change. Change is and forever will be cursed with strong opposition because change is not proven. Trust develops over time and has a reputation for turbulence. Fortunately, a producer’s ability to adapt gives them an advantage. We have to be ready for adaptation and carefully plan our product diversification for trending market demands.
The opinions expressed in this blog post are solely those of the member, and not of NPCA or any of its employees.