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Building Communities

Two veterans nearing 90 years combined at Gage Brothers Concrete Products Inc. held the ribbon for a mid-2019 dedication of their new workspace, arguably North America’s most advanced, large-scale precast/prestressed operation. They were joined by 250 other team members making a clean break from a heritage, 30-acre site in Sioux Falls, S.D., with 13 buildings or shops, including one from which William Gage launched his concrete construction business in 1915. Located about 10 miles from the former flagship, the new, two-building facility occupies 45 acres within an 850-acre industrial zone on the southeast corner of Sioux Falls.

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Tom Kelley
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Joe Bunkers

“We were at capacity, regularly turning down work, and seeing some of our differentiating characteristics as a family-turned-employee-owned operator fading,” says Gage Brothers President Tom Kelley. “Tired, worn equipment had us working in the business rather than on the business.” The company’s future as a key, upper Midwest precast/prestressed operator, he adds, rests on a newly defined model of design, engineering, sales, casting plus architectural or structural product finishing. An investment approaching $40 million across 220,000-plus square feet of office and plant space, coupled with adoption of waste-averse lean manufacturing principles, positions Gage Brothers “to continue to set the standard for the precast concrete industry.”

The producer’s departure from the past runs deeper than aesthetics and efficiencies attending new plant iron. An environment of “brawn” befitting the traditional precast/prestressed concrete plant ideal is making room for an equally critical element of Gage Brothers’ new home: “Brains,” evidenced by the installation of 6,500 equipment and facility sensors driving injury prevention, Internet of Things technology tools, productivity and resource conservation. Above all, management aims to foster an environment where employees can focus on high value-added aspects of precast/prestressed concrete.

The site shift has seen the volume of fabrication Gage Brothers performs under roof increase from 65 percent to 95 percent, and capacity potential climb more than 60 percent. The diesel power component of mix delivery, form stripping, product transfer and other heavy duties throughout the old plant yields significantly to alternatives running on electricity or batteries. While two diesel-fueled lattice boom cranes from the former property have transitioned to a new 500-ft. prestressed girder bed—the sole outdoor casting assembly—four other such machines essential to heritage work flow have been replaced by three rail-mounted, 80-ton electric gantry cranes. Conventional tractor-trailers common in product transfer from beds to storage or yard crane staging points have been replaced at Gage Brothers by two omni-directional battery-operated carts, rated at 65 tons and bearing galvanized truss frames for architectural or structural member transport.

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Gage Brothers has started up at the new site with a 45-acre parcel and option on additional land. PHOTO: Gage Brothers Concrete Products
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During the old operation’s final two years, Gage Brothers was fittingly one of its own best customers. The office and plant are a showcase of architectural and structural precast for which the producer is known in markets from Chicago to Denver. The routes serving that geographic expanse, Interstates 80 and 90, are accessed from Sioux Falls’ main thoroughfare, Interstate 29, running from the Canadian border to Kansas City by way of Omaha.
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Gage Brothers caters lunch daily at $2/employee. The cafeteria, adjacent locker rooms, and collaboration or training areas with large windows and abundant lighting are among employee features the design team considered paramount.
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Design lead Dave Van Van Nieuwenhuyzen, AIA of JLG Architects, Sioux Falls, incorporated a range of standard Gage Brothers columns, panels and architectural finishes in the plant and two-level office. To create a centerpiece in the latter, he challenged production crews with a design combining terrazzo-styled counters—polished and rich in white cement plus decorative Fister Quarries aggregate—and desktops, along with matching steps forming an intricate staircase. The architect also designed a wind wall along the north elevation of the plant enclosure, demonstrating the functional and decorative potential of ARCIS panels Gage Brothers produces as an Altus Group licensee. The panels are cast with self-consolidating mixes in 0.5- to 2-in. thicknesses, and stressed with 1/8-in. diameter stainless steel strand.
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The batch plant harbors four 3000/2000 Sicoma planetary mixers serving three production bays, plus the bridge girder line. Flying 2.6-yd. buckets, with VFD control for forward motion and rotation, serve similarly sized casting machines traveling and traversing the bays, while mixer trucks convey concrete to the girder bed. Under normal operating conditions, casting crews never wait for a mixer. Bins, mixers, buckets, washout cycles, mix reclaim and water recycling run on the MCT CompuNet control system.
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Nearly all Gage Brothers product is based on self-consolidating mix specifications, supported by ADVACast series polycarboxylate superplaticizers and companion products from GCP Applied Technologies. The company set up the admixture room with tanks feeding four dispenser assemblies, each dedicated to a mixer and monitored by individual cameras providing batch operators constant video feed. The batching system office also features AIRtrac (below, left), a technology with which GCP precast customers can monitor concrete mix air content and temperature in real time.
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The steel shop is located for efficient cage transfer to the three production bays. New equipment includes automated rebar bending machinery yielding the same volume of cages per hour as a single team member in the old plant could output in six hours.
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QC lab

The open floor quality control lab is immediately adjacent to the production bays. A (computer numeric control) CNC-guided saw tops carpentry shop investments that have Gage Brothers poised to advance architectural precast concrete.
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Spain-based Moldtech supplied two 240-ft. hydraulic molds, capable of fabricating rectangular plus “I” and inverted “T” beams up to 48 inches deep. The latter beam types can be cast by attaching corresponding box outs to the mold sides. Stressing heads for the beam lines are built for a total pre-stress force of 1,400 kips.
Sandblast

The prospects for an Occupational Safety and Health Administration tightening of silica exposure were well known as Gage Brothers set out to design the new plant. Mindful of the silica dust and waste stream attending its existing sandblasting practice, the producer opted for a booth running with an automated manlift capable of covering panel surfaces along A-frame transfer racks; and, garnet media, a non-silica grit best known for sandpaper and glass grinding, and mined by Barton Intl. of Glens Falls, N.Y. Garnet’s hardness and shard-like particles perform at lower volume than conventional sand and typically through two sandblasting cycles.
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Three 200- x 13-ft. Moldtech tilting tables suit panel production and bear stressing heads for pre-stressing forces up to 826 kips. Panel height can be regulated from 5 in. to 16 in. by a hydraulic bottom side shutter. One table has a polished casting plate, affording production of panels with a shiny, so-called “mirrow like” finish. The two other beds are for wood-formed panels.
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Gage Brothers confines outdoor fabrication activity to bridge girders, neatly staged in a new 500-ft. bed built to take advantage of drainage attending a sloped portion of the site. One of the new plant’s early transportation contracts calls for 120-ft. NU Girders, developed by former University of Nebraska Civil Engineering Professor Dr. Maher Tadros. The South Dakota Department of Transportation recently approved the NU bulb tee profile, whose strand configuration and loading efficiency will likely lead to shipment of members beyond the current agency threshold length shown here.
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Gage Brothers has one lithium battery- and one standard lead acid battery-powered Morello omni-directional cart, each running more than five hours per full charge. The lithium battery can be half or fully charged in 30 or 60 minutes, while the lead acid battery requires full charging—a cycle up to eight hours—every time it is plugged in. The Morello carts maneuver to lift balanced product transfer racks and their loads. A consultant arranged fabrication of the galvanized frame and truss components through Kessab Steel of Dubai. Frame and rack assembly were completed by Gage Brothers plant staff and crews of Fiegen Construction, plant and office general contractor.
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Lean production methods and diesel to electric power shift are especially reflected in outdoor lifting capacity. Rail-mounted electric gantry cranes efficiently transfer architectural and structural members to closely situated vertical or horizontal storage or truck staging points. They also contribute to yard footprint optimization allowing Gage Brothers to charter the site with 45 acres, relatively modest for a precast/prestressed plant spanning building and transportation programs.
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In lieu of former diesel models, two electric air compressors centrally housed in the building core feed lines throughout the plant, including those in a sandblasting booth. Silica dust-prone river sand in that facility has given way to garnet, a silica-free mineral common in sandpaper and well suited to architectural precast. Gage Brothers finishing team members are also moving away from traditional acid etching to a method more mindful of safety and the environment.

The producer’s new home is heavy on domestic and global capital equipment. Mix production, delivery, placement, casting and product transfer machinery, devices and components arrived in 100 shipping containers from Italy, home to the parent of material handling, batch plant and controls supplier, Nevada-based MCT Group Inc., Morello (omni-directional carts), and Matec (product finishing shop filter press); Spain, home to Moldtech S.L. (tilting panel beds); and, Dubai, home to Kessab Steel (flat and A-shaped product transfer frames). Wisconsin’s Superior Crane Corp. leads North American manufacturers on the plant equipment roster. It delivered three, 80-ton capacity, rail-mounted gantry cranes—one center 120-ft. and flanking 80-ft. models—plus eight 10- to 40-ton overhead models along three main, 700-plus foot production bays and in an adjacent steel shop. Masaba Inc. of Vermillion, S.D., delivered the sandblast booth, equipped with dust collector, augers, hopper elevator, manlifts and blast hoses from Texas-based Circle R Industries.

From a perch centered on the middle production bay, the batch plant operator observes, right to left: mock up, architectural panel, shear wall bay; architectural panel and double tee bay; and, beam and column, stair and hollow core bay. The latter also has casting beds for ARCIS, an ultra-thin, stainless steel strand-bearing architectural precast that Gage Brothers produces as a member of the Altus Group, Pennsylvania-based precast concrete technology developer and licensor.

MARATHON VERSUS SPRINT

Gage Brothers’ new home reflects four years of collaboration between management and team members; a Pennsylvania-based concrete plant consultant; Fiegen Construction and JLG Architects, both of Sioux Falls; plus, local and state financial partners. As 2013 Precast/Prestressed Concrete Institute chairman, Tom Kelley was exposed to peers in Europe, the Middle East and Asia, all of whom acknowledged PCI certification programs, training and body of knowledge. At the same time, he says, “I had the opportunity to see where North America stands in production technology. Touring overseas precast plants really opened my eyes after 30 years having done the same thing.”

With commercial building activity rebounding from the recession throughout much Gage Brothers’ market area by 2015, he and colleagues started assessing how a new plant would operate. Planning from day one centered on automation and a workplace that would draw and retain skilled, motivated team members. “Sioux Falls is at 2.7 percent unemployment. You have to have an attractive place for people to work,” says Joe Bunkers, who spearheaded the plant and office undertaking as Vice President of Preconstruction, but in a management streamlining has been named Vice President of Operations.

After two years of design review, scheduling and other preliminaries, Gage Brothers issued requests for proposals in early 2017, figuring new plant and office construction could run mid year through late 2018. The producer awarded turnkey contracts—equipment delivery, installation and staff training—to MCT, Moldtech and Morello, netting a) automated mix delivery and placement via rail-mounted traveling buckets, which feed crane-suspended casting machines shuttling up, down and across the production bays; b) hydraulically operated tilting panel and beam column beds, running in tandem with double tee and hollow core beds moved from the old facility; and, c) standardized product routing on the flat or A-frame racks to fixed yard gantry cranes configured for stacking of structural product or placing architectural members for vertical storage.

Construction stayed on schedule through December 2018. “We phased relocation of forms or bed components for double tees, then hollow core lines, followed by start up of new beam or column and architectural panel lines,” Bunkers recalls. “We had to minimize downtime to keep contracts and deliveries on schedule, but knew it could be six to 12 months to stabilize production in our new home.” Issuance of a partial occupancy permit, he adds, was among City of Sioux Falls gestures that helped fulfill a massive undertaking.

Although lead and subcontractors delivered on the main plant and office construction, equipment installations and training, Kelley notes, “Transfer of process has been a bigger job than anticipated, and defining our culture in a new workplace is even more challenging. We surveyed team members to find what is the present culture versus the one they have in mind for coming to work each day.”

Amid plant construction and ramp up, Gage Brothers adopted a new mission statement, “Building Communities — Craft a quality experience for our team and our clients by providing valued solutions,” with four calls to action:

  • Agility. We have the power to move quickly and easily.
  • Connection. We create lasting relationships.
  • Endurance. We make decisions that stand the test of time.
  • Ownership. We take pride in one team, one goal.

“Agility instills a sense of urgency in change and continuous improvement,” affirms Kelley. “Disruption is the order of today’s world; the challenge is how to be agile. We are undergoing the change in methods and culture needed to be successful, but treating the process as a marathon, not a sprint.”

“We were looking for something simple and direct in the mission statement,” Bunkers adds. “There are 10 languages and more than 20 countries of origin among our team members. We embrace our diversity and are working hard on a culture oriented around ‘Building Communities.’”

“The saying ‘teaching old dogs new tricks’ holds,” he adds. “We have brought old habits from the original site, especially those reinforcing ‘brawn’ notions of precast/prestressed production. We designed this facility to be easier on team members physically, and more challenging and rewarding intellectually.”

BANKABLE PROJECT

Gage Brothers management viewed the site transition as an opportune window to adopt principles of lean manufacturing—a methodology hardly conducive to the heritage operation’s multiple buildings and scattered functions.

“You can’t grow a company unless you grow the people,” says Kelley. “We have embraced a lean plan, engaged a consultant from South Dakota Manufacturing & Technology Solutions, and anticipate an 18-month initial transition phase leading to a longer term transformation consistent with lean principles’ commitment to continuous improvement. We have started to rewrite the leadership process, meld together and communicate better, and pursue a horizontal organization and value stream model instead of a department structure.”

Manufacturing Extension Partnership Network -affiliated SD Manufacturing & Technology Solutions characterizes the early aspects of Gage Brothers’ lean program as “value stream mapping,” which supersedes production processes heavy on work silos and pinpoints waste to see where to focus improvement; and, 5S: Sort, Set in Order, Shine, Standardize, Sustain, where standard work is “a key element in the elimination of waste and excess inventory” and “the foundation of continuous improvement and sustainability.”

Gage Brothers’ employee stock ownership plan (ESOP) eases lean method and Building Communities integration. Established in 2007 by founder’s grandsons Tom and Fred Gage, the ESOP has grown to represent a 70 percent stake in the enterprise. Every employee who logs 1,000 or more hours in a calendar year qualifies for shares.

A large shareholder base, commitment to lean production, financial performance throughout this decade, and Gage Brothers’ stake in Great Lakes, Great Plains and Rocky Mountain region markets were sufficient to earn investor confidence underpinning the new plant. Chief financiers were Great Western Bank, Sioux Falls; South Dakota Governor’s Office of Economic Development; and, private investors led by the Gage Brothers Land Company LLC, of which Tom and Fred Gage are members.

The new facility has launched with a healthy backlog of parking structure and architectural projects, near-term prospects for raising tons/man hour levels comfortably higher than the legacy site, and capacity to avoid recent years’ tendency of leaving certain jobs on the table. “The plant and equipment will allow us to expand the geographic footprint of some products, especially heavier ones,” explains Kelley. “We will also develop new products and participate with our industry peers in becoming more innovative and influential in building codes. We are in a unique position, but need to embrace the challenge of creating what could be the next double tee—to grow the industry pie along with the bread and butter.”