By Debbie Sniderman
Managers at National Precast Concrete Association certified plants often cite their people as the key ingredient to producing quality precast concrete products. But building a culture where every employee is focused on quality takes time and effort.
Here are a few tricks of the trade and common sense techniques practiced by precasters that keep the emphasis on quality production.
Tips from an architectural precaster
Olympian Precast in Redmond, Wash., has found many ways to improve quality. For example, the company stores finished products face up or face out in the yard, making it easier for quality control staff to walk through and perform inspections.
“Although it seems obvious to do this, in the past pieces were stored face down,” said Clarke Jewell, owner and president. “It wouldn’t be known until they were shipped if any additional work was needed. Others who produce architectural work may want to think about doing this.”
The company also uses a flat trailer customized with mounts for producing multiple smaller precast concrete pieces at once. Anywhere from 20-to-30 pieces are mounted and cast directly on the trailer that is next sent to the finishing area. All finishing, such as sandblasting or acid etching, happens on the trailer in the same orientation, which reduces the number of damaged pieces and increases consistency. The trailer also saves time by reducing the amount of time QC needs to spend on each individual piece.
A recent change that helps QC and eliminates finishing steps later involves using wax fillers in complicated and large-radius molds instead of Bondo-type putty. Using putty fillers means the form needs to be sanded, which is time-consuming and limits how often a mold can be poured. No sanding is needed when using wax fillers, and forms are ready to cast in 15 minutes, improving mold efficiency.
Another process adopted at Olympian ensures all hardware is placed correctly.
“Jigging the connection hardware pre-pour rather than setting it into a casted panel allows it to be located and checked by QC staff while there is still time to make a change,” Jewell said. “Wet-set errors would happen after the QC person had gone home. It’s hard to fix a post-pour mistake if it was set wrong.
“By jigging this way, the location has already been reviewed and verified to be correct.”
Carl Hall, owner and president at Speed Fab-Crete in Fort Worth, Texas, said having bilingual employees wear green hard hats has improved product quality by making it easier to address questions on the job. Whenever anyone needs something explained in their own language, they know to look for someone with a green hard hat.
Forterra Pipe & Precast in Columbus, Ohio, has implemented several practices to help ensure quality pipe production. According to Marcus Barnett, quality control manager for Forterra Pipe & Precast’s Mid-South region, the smaller B-wall pipe is sprayed and/or misted with a water hose for most of the year to help prevent cracking. Bay doors are shut and vent fans are not allowed unless pipes are covered in the kiln. Also, small pipes are kept away from steam lines in the kiln to avoid flash curing, which can cause shrinkage or cracks.
In Salem, Ill., County Materials Corp. manufactures specialty pieces where each job is different. County Materials started using new, job-specific forms to help its QC technicians. Operations Manager Nathan Rudolphi said the precaster has switched to using specific forms rather than generic forms to provide detailed pre- and post-pour instructions. Rudolphi said the new forms help QC personnel pay more attention to shop drawings.
Attention to detail is at the heart of quality for another Midwest precaster. Part of a relentless focus on quality at Encore Precast in Seven Mile, Ohio, is allocating enough resources to quality and building redundancy into almost everything. According to Chuck Ehlers, president, shop drawings are always checked by a second person, pre- and post-pour inspections are always made, forms are inspected regularly and when trucks are loaded, they are inspected to ensure the correct products are on board.
Focus on the people
Providing tools and incentives for employees helps maintain the quality culture. At Forterra, spreadsheets that auto-fill with necessary design limits for reinforcement and post-pour measurements have helped staff immensely.
According to Barnett, at its plant in Columbus, Ohio, micrometers and wire charts have been placed at machinery. Operators are trained how to use them so they don’t make incorrect rebar cages. All wire is labeled, which makes it easier for workers to load wire on the machines more quickly. Since cage shifting happens occasionally, snap spacers are used as needed on dry-cast products.
At the end of every completed job, County Materials’ Rudolphi inspects the final product. If it meets the requirements, he gives every worker on the crew an extra hour of pay.
“The kickbacks seem to help,” Rudolphi said. “People are paying more attention to quality and watching things more closely. I didn’t know if it would work, and this is the first time I’m trying it.
“But it improved quality, and the guys are looking out for each other, which has even improved our safety record. When people are rewarded, they return the reward, and it improves things all around.”
At Speed Fab-Crete, Hall said the biggest part of producing quality products is constantly training people to take care of the little things. Employees are told why it’s important to keep aggregate bins in
order to avoid cross-contamination. They are trained to ensure everything is free of debris, to pay attention to materials that arrive, and to keep track of documents and certifications of all materials.
“Everyone can batch good concrete and pour good concrete, and probably tie nice steel and rebar. But the little things add up. Paying attention to those produces quality,” he said.
Hall is also a firm believer in the value of NPCA’s Master Precaster training program and recommends it to staff. He said the program helps employees think about QC from a controls standpoint and decide what the controls are going to be. It also helps them decide at what points and how early in the process forms will be inspected. And when an employee earns the gold hard hat, signifying Master Precaster status, others want one too.
At Olympian Precast, production staff members regularly attend hands-on training, which Jewell said greatly improves product quality. Workers learn how to use the blueprints at quarterly print-reading classes, and they are reminded of details about the designs that come down from the detailing department that may look different from the intricate molds they are used to seeing.
High quality is a team effort
Some of these tools, processes and strategies may already be implemented at your plant or this may be the first time you’re hearing about them. No matter what the case, continuing to implement efficiencies and improvements in QC is integral to establishing and maintaining high quality standards.
Debbie Sniderman is an engineer and CEO of VI Ventures LLC, an engineering consulting company.