A fast-track construction schedule that escalated in between last year’s Bear Stearns and Lehman Bros. headlines netted a concrete operation that would

Don Marsh

A fast-track construction schedule that escalated in between last year’s Bear Stearns and Lehman Bros. headlines netted a concrete operation that would be bold in any economy or region. When asked about a 2008-09 construction schedule for the Albany, Minn., plant versus a revised plan a year or two from now, Wells Concrete President & CEO John Rivisto says without hesitation, This is a response to strategic planning to create needed additional capacity. Although we have increased manufacturing output at our Wells [Minn. headquarters] plant through additional casting capacity, personnel and process improvement, we realized the rural labor pool would not likely support an additional 150-200 employees and that a lot of orders were being shipped toward St. Cloud and the I-94 corridor anyway. We were unable to handle a lot of work prior to the economic downturn.

The new workhorse plant has Wells Concrete Û fresh off a 50th anniversary celebration in 2007 and continuing under founding-family ownership Û prepared for decades of foreseeable changes in equipment automation, capacity needs, product development and environmental regulation. Early on, it is a showcase of its owner’s engineering, fabrication and surface finishing capabilities; confidence in the future; and, dogged commitment to building with nearly 100 percent precast/prestressed. With 183,000 sq. ft. in main production and finishing buildings, the facility has concrete as essentially its only load-bearing material. Excepting doors, windows and skylights, architectural precast or double tee members are the sole source of enclosure. Structural steel is sparse, limited to 15- and 20-ton overhead cranes, and rails bearing shuttle-style aggregate and wet mix hoppers that are central to a production plan founded on speed and versatility.

The Albany plant sits on 80 acres overlooking Interstate 94. It combines inordinate aggregate and cement storage and handling, casting bed, and surface treatment capacity with material weighing, transfer and quality control methods proven in concrete environments other than precast/prestressed. As one of the first greenfield operations of its kind oriented around lean manufacturing principles, Wells Concrete/Albany is a case study in one-way material and product flow, tool and equipment organization, and tidiness.

The site is located almost dead center of Minnesota, a little over an hour northwest of the Twin Cities along a growing I-94 corridor. It also has ready access to the North Metro markets expanding from Minneapolis and St. Paul toward key lake and resort areas. Albany is about midway between Wells Concrete’s architectural product flagship in south central Minnesota, and a Grand Forks, N.D., structural plant that prior to a uniform branding effort operated as Concrete Inc.

By building a bigger, more centrally located greenfield plant, we have freed capacity in Wells to bid projects in northern Iowa and southeastern Minnesota markets where we hadn’t been active, says Wells Concrete General Manager Gregg Jacobson. Our strategic review of the market proved there was a need for the added capacity and we had a strong backlog going into the Albany project.

We knew we would be in a good position when the market rebounds, adds Vice President and Albany Plant Manager Paul Nelson, P.E. The long-term precast/prestressed capacity needs did not go away with the economic downturn.

Had the plant been developed at a business peak, he figures, certain construction and equipment expenditures might have run up to 50 percent more than what the company incurred in the 13-month Albany window, from groundbreaking to first product fabrication. Slow construction conditions in Minnesota, and an industry-wide slump in plant equipment sales, translated to a) an abundance of quality labor to handle much of the construction outside Wells Concrete’s own erection crews; and, b) timely response from batch plant and production component suppliers.


With investment to date well north of the $17 million company officials publicly indicated in project planning, the Albany operation is almost certainly the largest outlay in North American concrete production this year, and one of the most ambitious so far this century.

Wells Concrete management credits city and county officials with expediting permits and tax matters that made Albany a front-runner site. The officials were wise to a company with potential payroll of 150-200. At that level, Albany would have a second major employer alongside Kraft Foods, whose packaged macaroni plant is built with double tee wall panels Wells Concrete delivered from its headquarters plant.

The new plant is up and running with 50 employees, four from the Wells architectural plant, one from Grand Forks, and the others local and mostly new to precast/prestressed fabrication. The newcomers can learn the trade in an open, climate-controlled space divided into three 75- _ 570-ft. bays: architectural, with three 12- or 14-ft. _ 140-ft. tables; structural, with one 12- _ 460-ft. double tee bed, plus space for permanent or temporary beds or forms as contracts warrant; and, Spancrete, with three 8- _ 500-ft. beds. A massive finishing building has two sandblasting and three washing booths, each about 1,600 sq. ft.

The Spancrete line enables Wells Concrete to provide a variety of full wall and floor packages and minimize service and engineering complications that arose when it was procuring hollow core from other suppliers as part of bigger contracts. Albany becomes the sole upper Midwest source of 8-ft. Spancrete plank and wall panel offerings.

The main production bays are served with a batch plant whose storage capacity Û 18 aggregate bins and twin 480-ton quadrated cement silos Û is equal to multiple days of production without a tanker or dump truck delivery. The batch plant is equipped with two moving aggregate hoppers feeding a 3-yd. planetary mixer (architectural products) or 6-yd. twin shaft mixer (structural), both supplied by Sicoma North America. They charge three wet hoppers positioned for the current mix delivery plan of front discharge trucks (architectural and structural bays) and forklift-mounted buckets (Spancrete).

Albany Production Manager Tom Holmes, who relocated from the Wells flagship plant, sums up a material storage and handling plan that supports a fabrication effort deep and wide: Our objective here is to be able to weigh any aggregate for either mixer any time.


Wells Concrete enlisted San Antonio-based Plant Architects and Plant Outfitters as the concrete production equipment erector and installer of structural and mechanical components. Plant Architects devised an online information site providing 18 invited manufacturers and service providers access to bid documents, specifications and updates. The first of its kind for a producer, Plant Architects notes, the site assured an even playing field for all bidders and an open process against which their proprietary designs could be evaluated.

Wells Concrete selected plant specialist Larkstur Engineering and Industrial Fabrication Services, Inc., both of Minnesota, to supply all batch plant equipment other than the mixers and batch controls.

The electrical contract was awarded to electronics specialist Electromatics, Inc., which teamed with a) Ramsey Scale, to design 10 weigh-in-motion aggregate weigh belts, which achieve the PCI-required 1 percent tolerance; and, b) Rice Lake Scales on the rest of the weighing components and to deliver the plant structure, plate, mechanical, pneumatic and weigh system parts.

An advanced automation system from MCT of Buford, Ga., controls all 18 aggregate bin belt feeders, 10 weigh belts, two incline conveyors, and two movable weigh-check holding hoppers. The latter can move to either mixer or a bypass position. Kraft Energy engineered what is reportedly the largest aggregate heating system in a North American concrete operation: an air heating and blower unit with 4 million-Btu/hour feeding header pipes and individual ducts along each nine-bin row.