A series of 36-foot-tall panels are being installed along the Chicago Sanitary & Ship Canal.
A look inside Dukane Precast's newly renovated Plainfield, Ill plant.

About 35 miles southwest of Chicago lies the suburb of Lockport, Ill. Established in the early 1800s, Lockport features vintage architecture with a modern flair. The town was able to grow exponentially from the time of its birth due to the creation of the 97-mile Illinois & Michigan Canal that extended from the Chicago River to the Illinois River at Peru, Ill.

Today, the Chicago Sanitary & Ship Canal runs straight through the heart of Lockport and is the site of a stimulus-funded construction project. Walsh Construction was awarded $42.9 million for the project and contracted Dukane Precast of Naperville, Ill., to manufacture concrete panels to realign the deteriorating west side of the canal.

Dukane's new plant in Plainfield, about 10 miles from the canal, started production of the panels in October 2009 and will continue through the end of 2011.

The stretch of canal that runs through Lockport will need 1335 8-foot-wide, 36-foot-tall concrete panels. Sitting 30 feet under water, the panels interlock via male and female components. After Walsh Construction was awarded the project by the U.S. Army Corp. of Engineers, they both visited the plant several times before finally settling on Dukane. “We produced 50 panels initially,” says John Kime, vice president of operations. “They (Walsh) were very pleased with the product and our efficiency.”

The recession has had a devastating effect on concrete producers, and Dukane was no different. The precast producer laid off employees for the first time in its short history. “The fact that we survived is a triumph in itself,” Kime explains.

As Dukane lobbied for the job, the producer felt it had a lot to offer the project in terms of effectiveness and eco-friendly processes.

A specialized production line helps speed up the process as the slab literally moves itself through every step of the panel formation. Each one of the 60,000-pound slabs eases its way from station to station along the production line. Dukane utilizes the European style isolation process to compact the concrete instead of the more common high-frequency vibrations.

The plant's other green initiatives include soy-based insulation, concrete mixes that include fly ash, recycled aggregate, and recycled steel for rebar. Kime claims that more than 30% of every dollar is recycled.

Thanks to the canal project, Dukane was able to hire back veteran staff and bring on an additional dozen workers. “I wouldn't say it was a lifesaver,” Kime says. “However, it did get the gears rolling again.”