By Shari Held
Automation is changing the landscape for precast plants by making the production process more consistent, more efficient, safer and less labor-intensive.
If you’re thinking about building a new plant or upgrading your equipment, you’re likely going to consider automation. While the initial investment may be high, the dividends that can be paid in increased efficiency, safety and production make automation a sound choice for forward-thinking precasters.
Here’s a look at automating a plant from the perspectives of three precasters: Pennsylvania-based Techo-Bloc Corporation (pavers and retaining walls), Georgia-based Foley Products Co. (risers) and Minnesota-based Molin Concrete Products (structural and architectural wall panels).
For Mike Nadeau, U.S. director of operations for Techo-Bloc, automation was a no-brainer. The company built automated plants in 2003 and 2007 and purchased three additional plants in the U.S. It also has three production facilities in Canada.
“There’s no other way to do what we do profitably,” Nadeau said. “It’s the only way to go.”
A shrinking labor pool was a chief motivation for Foley Products.
“We’re having a hard time finding those daily laborers who want to work hard for 10 to 12 hours a day,” said Dennis Morrissey, vice president of dry cast operations. “It was basically a personnel issue.”
Foley Products also wanted to find a more efficient way to perform vacuum testing. Manual testing was time-consuming and labor-intensive. With automation, testing is included in the production process.
Decreasing safety risks and health hazards associated with silica dust, noise, strains and sprains – as well as attracting future skilled labor – was important for Molin.
“We needed to look at how to innovate ourselves so we’d be attractive to a millennial-generation workforce that wants to get into this business,” said Matthew Westgaard, vice president of manufacturing.
Molin’s existing plant wasn’t set up for producing high-volume or high-quality architectural wall panels. The company needed a full package of precast products to keep it from missing opportunities in the marketplace and to set it apart from the competition.
“We were also looking at ways to provide more value in the marketplace with quality, capacities and capabilities,” Westgaard said.
A perfect partnership
Partnering with an automated plant system manufacturer relieves precasters of some of the headaches associated with building a new plant, including planning and training.
In 2004, Foley Products partnered with Schlüsselbauer to build an automated, 90-foot-wide by 175-foot-long manhole riser plant. Foley Products also hired a contractor to build the plant to spec, and once it was ready, Schlüsselbauer set up its MAGIC automated production system. Schlüsselbauer then trained the technical-savvy workers Foley Products had hired. By October 2006, the automated plant was up and running.
In 2014, Molin partnered with Weckenmann to convert a conventional, long-line production plant – located 25 miles from its existing plant – to carousel system technology. To reduce its capital investment, Molin requested Weckenmann stay within the footprint of the vacant plant: roughly 85 feet wide and 320 feet long with a 26-foot clear height for the two 25-ton overhead cranes.
By July 2015, Molin poured the first cubic yards of concrete in the new plant. With the carousel system, workers remain stationary while pallets move through the manufacturing plant stations. The system handles everything from setup to cleanup and prepping for the next day’s production.
“We spent the first eight months manufacturing simple, plain gray concrete panels,” Westgaard said. “Then in phase two of the project we added the architectural finishing and the colored and textured concrete aspects of architectural wall panels to the operation.”
What automation brings to the table
Techo-Bloc specializes in the high-end residential market. The paver industry is highly competitive and product quality can vary widely.
Along with a mix design that helps ensure longer-lasting blocks, the company relies on automation to achieve a competitive edge. With automation, Techo-Bloc can produce 11.5 square feet of brick-size pavers in 10 seconds.
“The faster and more consistent you can make something, the less waste you have,” Nadeau said. “People make mistakes. Computer programs typically don’t. And they show up for work every day!”
Although automation doesn’t help Foley Products produce manhole risers any faster, it does cut down on labor. Instead of eight workers, it now takes only three to manufacture 150 elements per day.
“Our overall production cost is a lot less than it used to be – at least 30 to 35% less,” Morrissey said. “That allows us to be more competitive.”
Automation has helped Molin eliminate human error and manufacture products with a higher quality and more consistent finish. It has also enabled the company to offer more refined architectural surface finishes to the design community.
“The quality of product we’re achieving is much higher than what we ever expected,” Westgaard said. “We’ve had a lot of good, pleasant surprises with the operation.”
There’s also a more consistent pace to production with automation.
“It makes it easier to quote jobs because you have a much higher level of confidence than when you’re looking six, eight, ten, twelve weeks out,” he said. “You can have X number of square feet of product manufactured and ready for delivery to a job site.”
Adjusting to automation
Once Schlüsselbauer finished training Foley Products’ employees, it was business as usual. The Foley employees were experienced with dry-casting manhole risers.
“The only thing is, we’re doing it with a lot less people,” Morissey said.
One downside he’s noted is that the forms now wear out a lot faster.
“But the good part is that the product comes out pretty slick-looking,” he said. “Not wet-cast slick, but it’s a pretty darn good-looking dry-cast product.”
The biggest adjustment Molin had to make was going from being a single-plant producer to being a multiple-plant producer.
“We now have to coordinate deliveries from two different plant locations, both going to the same foreman on one job site,” Westgaard said. “All of that’s new for our organization.”
What they learned
Building any precast plant is a costly endeavor, and building an automated plant entails a significant upfront cost, which may seem prohibitive. But Westgaard advises precasters to look at the long-term.
“When we looked at automation as a long-term investment for the organization, weighing it against quality defects, safety hazards and risks, work comp claims and the challenge of limited tradesmen, it was a much easier decision,” he said.
Molin hired its plant manager and several production workers early in 2015 even though the new plant didn’t start production until July 2015. The new hires were on the floor working alongside the equipment installers months before they received formal training.
“I would highly recommend that any precaster who is contemplating an investment like this and a culture change in how they manufacture products bring their employees in early so they learn the process from the ground up,” Westgaard said.
Morrissey recommends doing extensive homework. Foley Products spent about two years of development time for its automated plant. Management made several trips to Europe to look at different types of machinery and visited many plants. Then they compared costs. He estimates the cost of building the automated manhole riser plant to be about 40% more than building a more traditional plant.
“It’s a big investment,” Morrissey said. “You’ve got a new building and you’ve got a whole different concept. But if the volume is there, it’s worth it.”
Nadeau echoes that advice, suggesting precasters attend machine shows and select the type of equipment that best suits their needs. For Techo-Bloc, it was just a matter of the level of automation.
The company built automated paver/retaining wall plants in 2003 and 2007. As a result, while other precasters were laying workers off during the Great Recession, Techo-Bloc thrived.
“We took a chance,” Nadeau said. “We thought that when the economy came back we’d be way ahead and we’d take market share. And we lucked out.”
The bottom line
Morrissey is so impressed with the labor-saving advantages of automation that he’s currently talking with Schlüsselbauer about automating an existing plant.
And while automation may require fewer employees, Nadeau is quick to point out that computerized automation systems will never replace workers.
“It still takes people to run the equipment – a higher caliber of people who make higher wages,” Nadeau said.
In the end, Westgaard said automation is all about better serving your market.
“It’s all about being able to push the envelope of your industry, staying innovative and taking advantage of the latest technologies to help you become safer, more efficient and more profitable so you can provide higher value and quality in your products.”
Shari Held is an Indianapolis, Ind.-based freelance writer who has covered the construction industry for more than 10 years.