When I first started this blog almost 3 years ago I posted an article entitled “ If I Ruled the Concrete Industry ”. The article presented 5 changes that I felt needed to be made to the concrete industry. Responses that I received to my most recent post on the fact that concrete producers are not being sent concrete tests as required by the Building Code have pushed me to recognize that the 5 changes I suggested are really symptoms of the same thing, at least here in the U.S. That conclusion is that in the U.S. we are operating under an inappropriate paradigm when it comes to designing, specifying, manufacturing, constructing and testing with concrete. We need to change the paradigm so that the entire design and construction industry takes a more professional approach to the design and use of concrete.
So what is the problem?
The problem is that we don’t treat the concrete industry as a professional manufacturing industry. When you buy a hamburger at MacDonalds you don’t walk into the kitchen and tell the cook what kind of meat to use, how hot and how long to cook the meat or how to toast the bun. You don’t weigh your own beef patty to make certain that you get the right amount of meat. You order a hamburger and select certain options such as “no onions” or “extra pickle’. You trust MacDonalds to make the burger. If you don’t like it you send it back or you don’t return to MacDonalds. You also rely on an oversite group such as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to make certain that MacDonalds has processes in place to avoid the use of contaminated meat and provide a certain level of quality, but MacDonalds is responsible for all their internal quality control. Contrast that with the concrete industry where the specifier and designer may include requirements that may or may not be appropriate for the concrete, where anyone with a bunch of money can set up a batch plant and start producing concrete and where a third party lab tests the concrete but may or may not tell the concrete producer what the test results are. Add to this the emphasis on a low bid price and you have a recipe for disaster, or at least a recipe for mediocrity.
So how did we end up this way and why change now? Pondering these questions has brought up a lot of great clichés. “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it.” “That’s the way we’ve always done it.” “What’s good enough for Grandpa is good enough for me.” I just turned 60 years old last month, looked in the mirror and thought, “If I had known I was going to live this long I would have taken better care of myself.” (Remember this, youngsters.) The concrete industry in the U.S. has gotten older and is starting to look like an old Victorian mansion. Sure, we’ve slapped on some paint, added new curtains, updated the electrical system and added network cable, but have we really checked out the foundation, looked for termite damage, replaced the broken cast iron pipe and all those things my wife hated to do with our old house because they didn’t show and make the house look prettier? No, we haven’t. And if we don’t, pretty soon we will find that the rest of the world looks down on us as being hopelessly backward.
Where did we go wrong?
The reality is that we never did go wrong. We did right . I’m going to give you my pop history evaluation of how we got to where we are compared to the rest of the world. I don’t guarantee it is right, but it seems reasonable. Feel free to add your comments at the bottom.
Back at the turn of the century the 20 th century, not the 21 st century we are in now, big business in the U.S. got to be “too big for its britches”. Companies like Carnegie Steel, the oil companies and the railroads decided they were in control of the country. Charles Erwin Wilson, former secretary of defense under President Eisenhower, was frequently misquoted as saying “ What’s good for General Motors is good for the country. ” Even though some people might feel this attitude exists today, back in the early 1900’s it resulted in a lot of our anti-monopolistic sentiment and laws that we now have protecting the country and the consumer from anti-competitive activity. Couple this with the Horatio Alger stories about poor boys who work their way to the top and the whole concept of Yankee ingenuity and you create an environment where anyone can go out and do anything. Poor kids can become billionaires. A black man can become President of the U.S. Someday soon we may have a female President. The forces that have made the U.S. great and powerful are in full swing.
In addition to the above anyone with enough cash can go out and buy a concrete batch plant and a few trucks and serve a market that needs it. There are good points to this and bad points. A person with one plant and 5 trucks can serve a small community composed primarily of homeowners and farmers. This community might not merit the attention of a big concrete producer. A small producer can be agile and purchase raw materials in small quantities that wouldn’t be attractive to a large producer, thus allowing more flexibility in the use of materials. If the producer does a good job, then 5 trucks become 10, then 20 and then 50. One plant becomes 2, then 5, then 10.
On the other hand, a small producer with 5 trucks can’t afford the money and effort to build a multi-million dollar research facility like the multinational firms can. The small producer must rely on his materials suppliers and maybe a local lab for technical assistance. The small producer becomes a trucker who just happens to produce concrete. Cement and strength overdesign factors are increased to make up for the fact that less attention is being paid to the day-to-day characteristics of the concrete. Variability of strength and other characteristics will probably increase as well.
Now, let’s rewind our clocks in America. It is the 1920’s and the 1930’s, and the ready mix concrete industry is developing. Companies are being established and the infrastructure for concrete production is being developed. People are building batch plants, usually based on what the minimum requirements to make concrete are. The batch plants have one bin for sand and one or two bins for stone. Now World War II comes around and concrete production is channeled into building up the military-industrial complex to feed the war effort. No time to slow down. The war is over and GI Joe comes home to Rosie the Riveter and they start to make houses and babies. Still no time to slow down. More batch plants and more concrete. The 1950s come and concrete producers are building more plants and making more concrete the way they have always done it. June and Ward Cleaver are raising Beaver and Wally. Eisenhower is starting the Interstate Highway system. Life is good. Build more batch plants and make more concrete. Materials are plentiful. The infrastructure is ready to make more of the batch plants that they have always made, with two or three aggregate bins and one silo for cement. The producers are trucking out as much concrete as they can produce. We expand through the 1960s and 1970s, paying attention to important things like “strength” and “slump”. We don’t look back. Until …
It is the late 1970s and early 1980s. We’ve seen the economy come to a screeching halt with the Arab Oil Embargo. Road that were built in the mid-1970s start to fall apart 10 years later. Our aging infrastructure is starting to deteriorate. In looking back over the last 50 years in concrete nothing has really changed except the introduction of air entrainment. Now we are starting to see concrete pumps, superplasticizers and fly ash. Certain parts of the country are starting to run out of the best materials for concrete. We look up from our compression machines and slump cones and realize that we have lost sight of one of our goals – to make good concrete. Our industry is composed of truckers who happen to ship concrete. Many don’t understand the product they are making. For 50 years, when we only dealt with rock, sand, cement and water, it was easy for college-educated engineers to learn more about concrete than the people who made it. These Engineers and designers have implemented practices to protect themselves from ignorant or malicious producers. The adversarial relationship has become fully entrenched.
What happened in Europe?
Again, I don’t guarantee this is the case, but it seems to fit. Let’s look at Europe. With its history of feudalism, lords and ladies and royalty, it is easy to see how large corporations like Krupp, Thyssen, Siemens and Daimler came to be. Using vast inherited fortunes Dukes and Counts became captains of industry. A more concentrated land mass and population, with correspondingly fewer resources, made it more imperative to develop and efficient infrastructure. An industrial complex was formed that almost made it possible for a country half the size of Texas to almost conquer Western civilization. Then, with the end of World War II, it all came crashing down. Europe’s ability to make cement and concrete was practically destroyed. Everything had to be rebuilt from scratch. And as long as they were going to rebuild it, why not build it better?
The whole concrete industry was rebuilt to make more efficient use of materials, land and manpower. Many of the technologies we use today were born or fostered in Europe. Concrete pumps and superplasticizers came to the New World from the Old Country. Concrete batch plants were built containing 5 or more aggregate bins to promote efficient blending of aggregates to reduce water and cement. Quality control measures were put into place to insure that concrete that was produced would not have to be rejected. The Autobahn was constructed using design/build/maintain practices that we are just starting to implement in the U.S. now. Not only are these processes in place in Europe, they have also migrated to Australia and many parts of Latin America. The U.S. may have drive and a can-do attitude, but Europe has science and technology.
Where do we go from here?
The concrete industry in the U.S. needs to be rebooted into “Ready Mix 2.0”. We need to catch up to the rest of the developed world when it comes to concrete production. In order to accomplish this we need to do the following:
- Let (or force) concrete producers handle their own quality control. If you go into Ford Motor Company and tell them you want to do QC on the car they are building for you I guarantee you won’t get past the Detroit looney bin. My father was fond of saying that no one can control quality except the man doing the work. This is not a case of the fox guarding the henhouse. This is a case of a professional company putting out a product that performs as advertised. Owners can still do quality assurance testing, but let the concrete producer do the real QC. Producer QC departments would become certified to make certain that they perform capably and responsibly.
- Get rid of fixed-weight concrete recipes and allow the producer to change materials and weights as needed to produce more uniform concrete. If you were to walk into a cement plant on Jan. 1 and tell them they had to use a fixed proportion of materials for the rest of the year they would laugh you out of the plant. Steel, paper, petrochemicals and foodstuffs are the same. The materials that come in today are not the same as those that will come in next week. We need to adjust accordingly.
- Designers should specify concrete based on performance, not prescriptive requirements. Admittedly some performance requirements we can’t yet define but we are getting better at it. I know there is concern in the slab industry about issues such as curling, shrinkage and segregation, but if a design/build/maintain approach or a partnering technique can be implemented where all parties share in the risk and reward, maybe improvements can be made to that process.
- Replace or retrofit batch plants with just 2 or 3 aggregate bins to allow the use of 5 or more aggregates in a single mix design. Combined aggregate gradings could be reproduced that would be best suited to appropriate particle shape and texture.
- Implement education and certification requirements for concrete producers so they can rise up from the “trucker” mentality. There is still a place for the Mom and Pop producer, but usually not on a 10,000 psi high-rise. (Do I need to slip in that we need to switch to the metric system like the rest of the world?) At a recent presentation I sat in on, Pierre Villere, noted ready mix management consultant, stated that during the recent economic downturn the concrete companies that were the most stable were the Mom and Pops in Smalltown, USA.
- Recognize the importance of outsourcing functions that Mom and Pops can’t reproduce.
- Switch from a “low bid” mentality to a “lowest responsible bid” mentality where a concrete producer must demonstrate an ability to produce the required class of concrete in order to be able to bid on a job.
- Apply similar changes to Contractors. There is no place on a commercial project for a Contractor who assigns a laborer to watch concrete going into a pump and spray water from a hose into the pump hopper when the concrete looks “dry”.
I know there are other factors beyond what I have cited here, but I could write a novel about the subject. I have already gone way over my normal limit on article size, but this is a topic that I think is important for our industry. Also, it presents goals that I think are achievable. It will all start with a designer who specifies a project appropriately rather than just doing a cut-and-paste from previous projects.
I’m sure that some people who read this blog are unhappy about some of my statements. I know there are great designers out there, and great contractors and great concrete producers (both large and small). However I also know that many times contract documents are written for the “lowest common denominator” and to protect Owners and the public from the bad apples out there. It is time we start writing proper specifications and prevent the bad apples from bidding. It is time we treat the concrete industry like the professional industry it can be.
Until next time,
For more information about me and my schedule go to http://www.commandalkon.com/services/jay-shilstone-concrete-technologist/
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