Modernizing the business of ready mix, part 1 of 3
Many concrete producers are considering the merits of upgrading their software and hardware for concrete batching. Some are even considering a DIY approach. Recently, one regional company owner asked me, “What would it take to update all of our 100-plus batching plants to a modern system, and why can’t we just build it? After all, it’s just a PLC, right?”
This question is representative of what is on the minds of many producers right now. It’s a big question and more than a bit scary, so let’s unpack it step by step.
- What to consider when building a system.
- When deciding whether to build your own system, you must take into account four areas of batching: hardware, software, data flow and support.
Hardware: Our friend is right about programmable logic controllers (PLCs). Within a month or two, a good electrician with industry experience can design, build and test a junction box and PLC housing, isolated from power surges and ready to be connected to the plant. The electrician can then refine the design for adaptability to be subsequently built and installed in hundreds of plants. But this is like the old saying “Strong like ox, smart like tractor.” An enclosure with PLCs and optically isolated inputs and outputs is a great workhorse, but nothing will work without software.
Software: A few good controls programmers with industry experience can design and develop a batching system to cover 80 percent of a producer’s needs for mainline batching at a dry plant. The catch is the 80-20 rule: 80 percent or more of the functionality can be done in 20 percent of the time, but the remaining functionality takes at least 80 percent of the time and perhaps—as Buzz Lightyear of “Toy Story” points out—as much as “infinity and beyond.”
Consider the thousands of large and small features that are required: wet-plant, dual-lane, different loading sequences depending on truck or mix, in-flight compensation for varying material targets, auto-tuning to adjust for inconsistent air pressure, empty flow rate/meter failure detection, material target recalculations due to moisture, admix conflicts, water to add calculations, metric/imperial units, manual activity capture and the list just keeps going. After getting 80 percent done in a few months, a trial is conducted and finds that the system is close to being ready for production. After a few more months, another trial finds the system is closer but not quite ready. Repeat indefinitely. The best advice to get through this process comes from humorist, actor and cowboy Will Rogers: “When you find yourself in a hole, quit digging.”
Data flow: Modern information technology (IT) systems are based on the philosophy of service-oriented architecture (SOA), in which functionality is built on a collection of ethereal services to be provided so that data flows like water. The new system will need a full complement of web services, application program interfaces (APIs) and support legacy communication methods needed by older, on-premise systems. APIs are doable, to be sure, but they will take more time and ongoing maintenance and will probably require another, different type of programmer.
Service: In the mid-1990s, Alkon produced the gold standard for batching. The Spectrum had a stellar, well-staffed service department. The shocker was more than 85 percent of the service calls really had little or nothing to do with the Spectrum, but instead were about other plant issues. The batch people knew that if there was a problem, any problem, they could call the Spectrum support line and the service staff would help.
Herein lies the major issue with building your own batch system. Hardware, data flow and even the software can eventually be beaten into a good-enough platform, but support will kill your profit and loss sheet. Having internal support for batching means creating a fire department that is on call 24/7. For thousands of plants, the costs can be distributed. For a hundred or so, this is very expensive.
HOW TO MODERNIZE YOUR SYSTEM
The trend across most industries is to route support calls overseas to lower costs. As a result, customer support centers are populated by non-native English speakers with little or no direct industry experience. The good news is, producers have become more self-reliant for support. Instead of the batch person calling 30-year industry veteran “Joe” at the batching provider’s help line, (s)he has to ask co-workers or supervisors. Lean into this! Establish a formal process for help up through the plant supervisors and area managers and get key people trained.
Next, fight the temptation to build. Insanity is contagious, and once you launch an internal development program, replete with delays and cost overruns, it will be darn near impossible to kill it. You will spend a wad of cash with little to show for it, resulting in not having enough funding left to perform proper due diligence and buy new systems.
Instead, start the investigation for a modern system right now. Fortunately, there are many candidates. Two that look promising for different reasons are Marcotte and Jonel USA; both deliver systems in the U.S. and internationally. For help with the selection process, consider using a consultant like Willaman Solutions—a specialized concrete batching consultancy and software analytics developer.
Marcotte hardware is off the shelf, which means you can buy replacement parts from Amazon.com and your electrician can make the repairs. The company uses modern IT programming (SOA) based on decades of building difficult, specialized systems for our industry and others. Plus, they have the capacity to deliver dozens of systems per month for a rapid replacement program.
Jonel has the best batching service in the industry today. The system uses proprietary hardware, but it’s pretty much bulletproof. They are SOA- and API-enabled to support information flow. To paraphrase a bit from Will Rogers, I never met a person that didn’t like Jonel.
Famed author William Faulkner once said, “Be scared. You can’t help that. But don’t be afraid.” Right now is the opportunity to prepare, conduct due diligence and plan to modernize your batching equipment. There are real hazards. But then again, there are real rewards of ultimately reducing your total cost of ownership by having modern equipment, connectivity and data security.
ALEX HALL AND CONCRETE MIX OPTIMIZATION
Alex Hall knows concrete and quarries. He has led production and operations for Holcim South Africa, Aggregate Industries (U.S.) and LafargeHolcim (U.S.) and has also been a key contributor for the cutting-edge, Boston-based Suffolk Construction Co. Perched on that experience, he sees a practical, useful way to improve the elusive optimization of concrete mix designs using a combination of human ingenuity, machine learning and historical data resources. Thus, he has recently joined Concrete-AI, Los Angeles, as chief executive officer.
Hall says it’s all about “AND, not OR.”
People are intuitive, making huge leaps to good decisions by association. Computers, especially those infused with artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms, crunch huge data sets in seconds to aid the associative process. Together, they can go farther and faster than alone. Consider the following:
- The structural demands of concrete. The mix designer must “guarantee” the recipe will adhere to strength, durability and a host of other mechanical properties.
- Ready mix concrete constituents. What’s billed as the same material often has huge variations in material properties.
- Quarry and gravel mining waste. Up to 11 percent of processed material, and the energy required to make it, is discarded or “capped” as unusable in piles of “fines” or other waste material.
- Carbon footprint. Infrastructure is absolutely essential, yet it is in our immediate best interests to reduce the effects of climate change through wise applications.
- Economics. The producers who thrive and survive offer products and services at a competitive price point.
Pick any one or possibly two of these factors, and a human is pretty good at optimizing them. Combine more and it gets tricky. That’s where computers with machine-learning algorithms help. They process profound amounts of data well in excess of what a human can handle, and they determine relationships. When combined, humans and computers have the opportunity to vastly improve costs, reduce carbon footprints and satisfy the structural properties needed for concrete.
Hall says the bigger the data set, the more we can normalize, but it will never be perfect. We must have a human make the final intuitive judgements—including the all-important factor of safety, given variations in constituents’ material properties. The computer merely reduces, albeit vastly, the range of associations.
Concrete-AI now has three pilots going in major U.S. markets, all with different supplier parameters. (See the Technology Trends August column for more about the company.) Visit www.concrete-ai.com to stay updated on the progress of this important, practical initiative that promises to have a major impact on cash, costs and carbon!
Craig Yeack has held leadership positions with both construction materials producers and software providers. He is co-founder of BCMI Corp. (the Bulk Construction Materials Initiative), which is dedicated to reinventing the construction materials business with modern mobile and cloud-based tools. His Tech Talk column—named best column by the Construction Media Alliance in 2018—focuses on concise, actionable ideas to improve financial performance for ready-mix producers. He can be reached at [email protected].