By Bridget McCrea
Precast concrete manufacturers can implement technology to streamline their operations, save time and improve efficiencies across the entire organization.
As a third-generation precaster, Chad Nance understands the nuances of running a family-owned business. On one hand, these companies have relied on established traditions and time-tested strategies to drive their success for decades. On the other, steering these organizations in new directions – or getting them to test out new processes or ideas – can sometimes be a major undertaking.
“I grew up in this business, so I’m always hearing things like, ‘Well, we’ve done it this way forever and it works,’” said Nance, vice president of operations at Nance Precast in Piedmont, Okla.
Knowing that redirecting an established, family-run entity isn’t always easy, Nance said his family business’ third generation of ownership has been looking at how to do things easier – versus just coming in and trying to change everything.
Nance is thankful the owners who came before him are usually open to change, and seriously willing to help improve their operations, back-office functions, and other areas with the help of technology, automation and digitization.
“We’re looking to incrementally change over time,” he said, “with most of those shifts taking place by simply looking at things through a different lens.”
Like many manufacturers, for example, Nance Precast relied heavily on paper from the moment an order arrived until the products were shipped to the customer – and every step in between. Not only were these manual processes timeconsuming, but the company’s technology systems didn’t “talk” to one another, creating inefficiencies across the organization.
“We were going through a lot of paper and trying to go digital by using several different software programs,” Nance recalled.
To solve the problem, the company invested in an enterprise resource planning (ERP) system that ties together many of its back-office processes and extends right out onto the plant floor. Along with saving paper and reducing waste, the precaster has decreased the number of errors on its paperwork, improved its efficiency levels and streamlined its quote-to-order process.
“We’re probably three times as efficient as we were in the front office,” said Nance, who remembers a time when employees spent time tracking down quotes, orders and other documents for delivery to the production department. “With technology that’s available on the market now, we handle everything from quote to invoice to customer receipt automatically via email and all in one shot, with a minimal number of systems.”
As digitization continues to make its way into every corner of the business world, manufacturers aren’t immune to the trend. Driven by changing customer expectations, the accelerated pace of innovation and the need to adapt quickly or risk being left behind, precast concrete producers are using technology to boost productivity, speed up projects, create consistent processes and meet deadlines.
“Whenever you push manufacturing in the direction of being a more automated process, you wind up with real opportunities to reduce the overall costs of your operations,” said Aaron Allsbrook, CTO at Austin-based Internet of Things software company ClearBlade, Inc.
Federal regulations and safety requirements are also pushing more manufacturers to leverage technology, particularly when it comes to creating audit trails and proof that certain steps were taken or procedures followed.
With about 100 employees to supervise at any given time, Tricon Precast’s plant managers don’t have the time to monitor their workers as they clock in and out for the day. They also don’t have time to shuffle through handwritten time sheets, but that’s exactly what they were being asked to do up until a few years ago.
“Our supervisors are working on pours, trying to make their production numbers, and handling any other number of daily responsibilities,” said Thomas Kilgore, IT director for the Houston-based precast manufacturer. “They were having employees write their times down on a sheet of paper, which was basically a handwritten log that was then sent to other departments for review and processing.”
The company was also grappling with its fair share of “buddy punching,” whereby employees would clock in or out for one another – a phenomenon that it effectively addressed by installing biometric hand scanners in its buildings.
Today, as soon as employees suit up in their personal protective equipment, they punch in a 4-digit PIN, scan their hands and are automatically clocked in for work. The same process works in reverse when employees leave for the day. This has not only cut down on the amount of paperwork that Tricon Precast’s supervisors and HR professionals have to manage on a daily basis, but it has also eradicated any cheating of the time clock.
From manual to automated
Tricon Precast’s commitment to using technology doesn’t end with its biometric hand scanners. The company also uses the Titan II Precast Management System, which combines administrative and management processes into a single software package. Before implementing the platform, the company was using Excel spreadsheets, handwritten notes and other manual processes to run its operations.
“It covers all of our department, including accounting, quality control, production, scheduling, inventory, assets, and dispatch,” Kilgore explained. “Everything flows through from start to finish.”
One of Tricon Precast’s earliest uses of the software was for its MSE wall product line.
“That presents unique challenges because when we receive our engineering drawings on these projects, for example, they may include thousands of different panels,” Kilgore said. “You obviously can’t have someone sitting there, manually inputting all of that information.”
The inputted data would be error-prone, and the job itself would be “very horrible to have,” he said. Using Titan II’s Inventory Quantity Sheets, the precaster imports the drawings via an app that lets it import several thousand unique, special panels within just a few seconds.
This is just one example of how Tricon Precast has adopted digitized processes to bring its operations into the 21st century. In return for its investment, the company is saving time, money, labor and other expenses associated with manual processes. He tells other precasters to carefully assess the time and money they spend doing things manually on a daily basis – and across all of their departments – and then look for ways that technology can help automate and speed up those tasks.
“Tally up all the time that your employees are spending on manual and handwritten processes, and the number will probably be astounding,” Kilgore said. “The more you can automate, the more you can do. Even shaving just 10 seconds off here and there will add up to substantial savings over time.”
The good news is that we’re living in a digital age where the technology to improve just about any business process likely already exists in some form or another and a lot of companies have probably already tested out these applications to see if they work or not.
“The days of being a guinea pig and trying to figure how to best leverage technology are gone,” Kilgore said. “Many other organizations share your pain points and have already figured out how to minimize mundane processes and make them more efficient.”
Breaking through the barriers
Ultimately, a company’s employees can make or break a new technology implementation. A precaster that’s been using the same procedures for years, and then suddenly wants to automate processes, reallocate labor and/or otherwise switch things up could encounter friction if it moves too quickly. To overcome this issue, Allsbrook tells companies to find a champion who gets the company’s vision for the future and can also spread that gospel throughout the office, sales team, plant floor, delivery team or all of the above.
“Find someone who can be a driver of change, and also who can help bring everyone else along,” said Allsbrook, who tells precasters to stress the improvement side of the equation, versus talking too much about how much everything is going to change. “No one really wants to be filling out paperwork, writing daily reports, putting dipsticks in fuel tanks, or other mundane tasks. They want to do work that adds value, and technology enables that.”
When implementing new technology and business processes, business consultant Robyn Bolton, founder of Boston-based MileZero, tells precasters to start small by selecting no more than three new initiatives to pursue at once. Understand that even though people may nod along as you talk about the need to change, most of them don’t want to be changed or even deal with change.
“The status quo is comfortable for most people, so our natural tendency is to resist change,” Bolton said. “As a result, any change, no matter how small, can meet with resistance.”
To break through this natural barrier, Bolton tells manufacturers to put time into communicating the “what” and the “why” of the initiatives. “In the absence of this information, employees make up stories that are rarely positive,” said Bolton. “By telling people the reasons why change is needed, they’ll be more apt to accept the change.”
Finally, Bolton said directives from the top should be consistent and should follow through right to implementation.
“Executives usually announce changes at the start of the initiative and then disappear, pushing communication responsibilities down into the organization,” Bolton said. “For change to be both effective and long-lasting, senior leaders need to communicate success, progress and challenges at least monthly to show everyone that the initiatives are still high priorities.”
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.