Ensure the highest level of success for your new plant or facility expansion.
By Bridget McCrea
Building a new precast concrete plant or expanding an existing facility is a significant undertaking. Finding the right location, obtaining building permits, lining up financing, purchasing equipment and actually constructing the building all require a strategic approach that takes time to plan.
Already operating on the “inside track” in the construction field, precast concrete manufacturers have an edge when it comes to building or expanding. You can maximize that position by applying your knowledge of permitting, zoning and construction methods, and even doing some of the work yourself.
While these advantages can create time and cost savings along the way, there are still many technical details to work out to get a new or expanding location up and running and doing so efficiently.
Plan, prepare and be patient
Andy Wieser, president of Wieser Concrete Products, noted every situation is different. He knows firsthand, having been through multiple plant expansions and new construction projects over the last decade. Since 2014 alone, the company has added onto its Maiden Rock, Wis., plant three times, and in 2019 it added onto its plant in Portage, Wis.
Wieser starts by assessing the company’s needs and the impetus behind the expansion for each project. In most cases, the move was being made due to a lack of space, the need for better operational efficiencies or because a specific product line demanded it. Sometimes it was because of all three factors.
Next, Wieser examines the staffing needs for the new or expanded location. This is particularly important during tight labor markets, when adding new positions can be extremely challenging. Financing is another key consideration the company considers early in the process. This triad (needs assessment, staffing, and financing), serves as the cornerstone for any expansion project.
However, Wieser has learned that even having all your ducks in a row doesn’t necessarily guarantee an easy expansion. For example, permitting, zoning and regulatory issues can delay a precaster’s dream of opening a new plant or adding more space to an existing facility. He explained the company began planning and obtaining pricing on a new facility at its Maiden Rock location in 2012, two years before development began. Early steps included answering key questions like:
- What need(s) do we need to address?
- What do we want to build?
- Where do we want to build?
- How big should it be to meet our immediate needs and should we consider planning ahead for more growth in the future?
- How far into the future do we anticipate the new build will meet our needs?
- How will we organize processes through the new facility?
With these details sketched out, Wieser Concrete staff began investigating the permitting requirements for the new facility – but that’s where things started to get complicated.
“We learned that, according to FEMA maps, the area where we wanted to build was located on a flood plain,” Wieser said. “But we knew we weren’t in a flood plain.”
The plant was indeed labeled as being in a flood plain based on original maps, but Wieser said this was done in error, noting the original FEMA maps were outdated and inaccurate.
Still, the precaster would need a FEMA map amendment showing the location wasn’t in the flood plain. Eighteen months and $35,000 in engineering fees later, Wieser Concrete had what it needed to proceed with the expansion.
Wieser suggests precasters connect early with any city or county departments that will be involved. Determine exactly what needs to be done from a regulatory standpoint (e.g., including accessible restrooms in new buildings) and factor in the additional costs and time associated with these requirements.
“Think the whole process through before you get started,” Wieser advised. “Consider location, material flow, staffing and everything else that goes into running a successful company. Then, take out your crystal ball and consider your future needs and how they’ll impact what you’re doing now.”
Coming Out of the Ground
After 50 years of sharing a location with one of the company’s prestressed divisions in Spartanburg, S.C., Tindall Corporation’s utility division will be moving into a new facility nearby. The company was in the middle of grading the site and preparing to pour the foundation at the time of the interview for this story.
“Both divisions are growing, so it was time for one to leave the original Spartanburg location,” said Joel Sheets, vice president and general manager of Tindall’s utility division. “We decided that we wanted the two production facilities to be in close proximity, but with one focused on utility-type products and the other on prestressed products.”
Being near one another will allow the divisions to share resources while also giving each more room to move and grow. Careful consideration went into selecting the new location, deciding on a plant layout and determining the flow of work. As the company added new products, product lines and capabilities in the past, production flow wasn’t always optimal, resulting in production inefficiencies.
“We wound up putting new equipment where we had the space, versus having a blank slate to work from and the ability to organize things in a more linear fashion,” Sheets said.
Leadership also got its personnel involved in the process.
“We talk to them in small groups about what we can do to help them work smarter, not harder, and about where they see opportunities for the company to improve and grow,” Sheets said.
Wieser said his company also involves its staff and management teams in the plant expansion process, starting with a meeting to determine if the overall effort is warranted. During the early stages, he cautions other precasters not to get employees too excited over a project that may not get off the ground.
“You have to strike a balance between creating some excitement and keeping expectations in check,” he said. “Early on, we keep the participating groups small – and sometimes confidential – to avoid getting everyone in an uproar.”
Once the decision to move forward is set in stone, Wieser and his team use the announcement as a morale booster.
“We tell them what we’re doing and why, and show how it’s going to make things easier for them,” said Wieser, who during the last plant expansion focused on how the company was moving one particularly noisy piece of equipment to a new area where it wouldn’t bother as many people. “By doing that, we both created space and lowered the noise levels in our existing building. It was definitely a win-win.”
Tips for success
To create more win-win situations when expanding plants or building new ones, Sheets tells precasters to hire a qualified engineering design team.
“There are too many rules and regulations to keep track of for new construction, so we engage engineers, designers and architects and integrate them into our design team to avoid designing something that really can’t be built,” he said.
You should next look at which aspects of the project you can handle yourself. For example, Sheets explained that Tindall’s Prestressed Division will be manufacturing all the new facility’s wall panels. The Utility Division had already produced all of the utility structures for the site.
Wieser Concrete Products also manufactures its own walls and supplies the concrete for the floors in its new buildings.
“Any way we can see to save some costs that make sense financially, we do it,” Wieser said. “For one floor that we did last year, we just poured it in the middle of the night so that it didn’t interfere with our production for the day.”
You should also factor in the energy usage at the new plant. Often put on the backburner until opening day for the new facility, conducting a quick comparison of industrial energy rates and potential usage can translate into major cost savings and fewer headaches down the road.
Regardless of how much or little you will be doing yourself, what local or state laws dictate, or any other special consideration, it is essential to start planning as early as possible. Engage with your internal team and raise questions about the project from all angles. That way any concerns that do arise are manageable and everyone is on board to tackle them and reach the end goal together. PI
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.