By Bridget McCrea
Precasters are working together to develop their workforces, adopt best practices and learn new techniques.
As a younger precast manufacturing firm, Cemcast Pipe & Precast in Hartford, S.D., draws on decades of experience not only internally, but externally through other NPCA members. Unafraid to reach out and ask for help, the company has been able to implement new ideas, learn best practices and better understand precast manufacturing techniques simply by asking fellow manufacturers for their input and advice.
Founded in 1993 as a concrete contracting entity, Cemcast opened its precast manufacturing plant in May 2015.
“I started researching the idea back in 2012,” said Carl Carlson, president of Cemcast.
Throughout the entire due diligence process, Carlson called around asking for plant visits. At those visits, he would talk to other precasters about how their operations worked, what challenges they had overcome and other relevant issues.
“We relied heavily on other companies to learn how to do the work that we’re now doing,” said Carlson, who at one point needed detailed information on how to make precast box culverts. He Googled the term “box culvert,” and clicked on one of the top results. That action led him to C.R. Barger & Sons’ website, where he watched a number of videos on how to make box culverts. After going through the mechanics of the job on his own, Carlson reached out to Barger & Sons for specific information on lifting device installation and how to flip the culverts.
“Some of our questions were pretty basic, but being able to run them by someone who has years of experience in the industry – and who has been there and done that – saved us an immense amount of time and struggle,” said Carlson.
The “ultimate” plant tour
Eric Barger, president of the Lenoir City, Tenn.-based precast manufacturer, said he was happy to help Cemcast work out the kinks and address the issues associated with box culvert production.
“I gave them a lot of answers; the best I could from down here in Tennessee,” Barger said. “They came away from it a lot more confident about building out their box culvert line.”
This wasn’t Barger’s first experience with the concept of idea-sharing or even employee-swapping among NPCA members. He said that over the years, C.R. Barger & Sons has participated in a number of collaborative relationships with other precasters. Some of the interactions have taken place via phone or digital communications, while others involved single- and multi-day visits to other companies and vice versa.
About five years ago, Barger said he reached out to Greg and Lisa Roache of Gainey’s Concrete Products in Holden, La., to see if they’d be open to a plant visit to share production and safety best practices. He spent two days on site at Gainey’s Concrete, where he was able to observe the firm’s operational processes and safety procedures. And because the visit was intended as a two-way street, Barger interjected comments in areas where improvement was possible.
“I came up with some ideas on things they could be doing differently and also posed some questions on why they took certain approaches to specific applications and tasks,” he said.
At the end of his visit, Barger documented his observations and thoughts via a three-page-long written summary. From the experience, he said he was able to come up with a few new safety-related policies that were later put into effect at C.R. Barger & Sons.
“Gainey’s is very big on safety and being there on site with them helped me take safety even more seriously than we already were and better understand its value in the workplace,” said Barger. “We’ve also put more emphasis on using root cause analysis to quickly and effectively identify the origin of a problem.”
Barger later reciprocated the experience by inviting two of Gainey’s employees – who were vacationing in Tennessee – to spend a few hours at the C.R. Barger & Sons plant.
“When you get the right mix of companies, people and processes involved, the rewards are pretty significant,” he said.
Learning from one another
Gainey’s Concrete is no stranger to the idea of employee-swapping and collaborative peer learning experiences. In addition to its experiences working with C.R. Barger & Sons, the company has also worked with Arrow Concrete Products of Granby, Conn.
“We sent two of our employees there to learn how to get our Titan software program (a precast industry-specific administrative and management software) up and running quickly,” said Lisa Roache, vice president. “After a two-day visit, they came back and handled the process for us without much problem at all.”
Greg Roache, Gainey’s president, said he sent three employees to spend a few days at Modern Precast in Ottsville, Pa., to learn about the firm’s accounting systems, observe its operations and gain a better understanding of its scheduling processes. Going a step further, Gainey’s Concrete sent maintenance and quality control employees to work at Western Precast Concrete in El Paso, Texas. There, the trio got a firsthand peek at some of the processes this fellow NPCA member was using – an experience that Greg Roache sees as being similar to on-the-job training.
“It helped us jump-start and improve upon our own maintenance and quality control processes,” he said. “There’s really no school that you can send someone to for this level of hands-on learning.”
Leo Feuerstein, operations manager at Western Precast, concurred and said the idea of collaborating with other precasters initially surfaced at an NPCA convention, where Greg and Lisa Roache brought up the idea of getting a few plants together and doing an employee exchange. For Feuerstein, the notion seemed similar to hosting a foreign exchange student, where someone comes to visit and learns how things are done in another geographical location.
“It is a very good experience to take a fresh look at a job you do each day and then see how another company approaches the same position,” Feuerstein said.
At Western Precast, Feuerstein worked with his brother, David Feuerstein, the company’s general manager, and the Roaches to decide when the exchange would take place and which managers would participate.
“I was told that these managers took back new skills in maintenance and quality control that they felt were important and could improve their processes,” Feuerstein said.
From the Gainey’s employees, Feuerstein said his staff learned a few tips and tricks that were helpful and applicable. This win-win scenario helped both precasters make gains while also cultivating an air of collaboration and cooperation among companies that in many cases would be seen as competitors.
Taking tours to the next level
For years, NPCA has been promoting the use of plant tours as a way for its members to share best practices, brainstorm, collaborate and see one another’s plants and facilities firsthand. Whether they need safety advice, help using a new piece of software or assistance with new product line development, individual precasters have taken the plant tour concept to new levels by arranging their own employee exchanges and on-site visits that range in length from just a few hours to several days. These scaled down versions of formal job exchange programs are helping companies learn best practices and receive training in a very focused and deliberate manner.
“As NPCA members, it’s pretty natural for us to go to shows and attend plant tours,” Greg Roache said. “We’ve been able to take that concept to a new level and get an honest, bird’s-eye view of what other companies are doing.”
Roache said the arrangements tend to work best when the two participating firms pick just one or two subjects to focus on during the visit. By determining the key subject(s) of interest in advance, you can make better use of your time while on site. Then, the host company can figure out ways to show everything within that realm, answer questions, address suggestions and hone in on the subjects of the highest interest.
Advice from the pros
When looking for other precasters to work with, Feuerstein said finding companies that you can trust – and that aren’t in your immediate geographical region – is extremely important.
“Gainey’s is in Louisiana and we are in Texas, so it made sense to work together,” Feuerstein said. “However, it’s understandable that if the visits take place in plants that are too close to each other, challenges in relation to competition and employee relations may arise.”
Barger agreed and said the best approach is to look well outside of your geographical region for precasters to work with in this manner.
“We all have room to grow in this area,” Barger said. “The bottom line is that the closer you are in proximity to the company you’d like to work with, the less likely the chances that it will happen. However, once you get past a six- to eight-hour radius of your plant, the more open precasters will be to the idea.”
As a direct beneficiary of C.R. Barger & Sons’ out-of-state collaboration efforts, Carlson advised all precasters to look to one another for help with both startup and ongoing business support.
“I’ve found that the industry as a whole is very helpful and very willing to do what it can to teach others about best practices and other key points,” Carlson said. “Every operation has something to teach another operation and getting a fresh perspective can be really beneficial for participants on both sides of the table.”
Bridget McCrea is a freelance writer who covers manufacturing, industry and technology. She is a winner of the Florida Magazine Association’s Gold Award for best trade-technical feature statewide.