Several years ago, analysts estimated that about 0.5% of all flatwork concrete was integrally colored, suggesting that one out of every 200 trucks loaded each day could head to a decorative project.

Some suggest shipments to decorative concrete projects since then have quadrupled to perhaps a whopping 2%. Sales of integrally colored concrete are growing while plain gray concrete sales are flat.

Constraining integrally colored's growth has been producers' concern for profit margins. Many managers have avoided promoting colored concrete, citing cost concerns rising from more attention to slump control, slower batching times, increased ingredient inventory, and difficult customer billing. These lead to the fear that there's another gamble with every color job—winning job acceptance and, thus, payment from the owner.

Fortunately in the last five years, these constraints have lessened. Managers have instituted better batching procedures that minimize mix variation and lower QC labor costs. Pigment suppliers have enhanced their dosage equipment, enabling an automated dispensing. Bulk delivery systems have eased pigment inventory concerns. And there appears to be help in solving any back-office problems.

Integrating batching with mixing

Even now, producers wanting to batch integrally colored concrete have had to self-devise a system that integrates pigment batching with mixing. At many operations, batch rooms had two operating systems that only shared the electrical power. While there has been an effort to coordinate dispensing procedures of pigments and admixtures, the final constraint has been the paperwork.

Engineers from Command Alkon, of Birmingham, Ala., invited engineers from several partners to help remove this roadblock. Their focus on streamlining the color batching process has been on coordinating the order entry and batching procedures.

Last year, they approached several pigment dispensing equipment manufacturers to establish a TCP/IP address protocol that enables clear data transfer between the batch control system and the pigment mixing equipment. “This is an important effort for us to help streamline the batching process,” says Lenny Morris, Command Alkon's manager of special projects.

The result, says David Wiggins, a product support engineer from Command Alkon, has been a new feature that can quickly improve a plant's efficiency.

“Our customers want to eliminate extra steps in their colored concrete order fulfillment effort,” Wiggins says. “The new batching software interface minimizes the costly mistakes that can occur when producing, scheduling delivery, and billing integrally colored concrete.”

Command Alkon software designers have created a protocol that allows for the order information for both colored and gray concrete to enter the system together. The data then is bundled throughout the billing process.

To accomplish this, they created a standardized code entry system for both pigments and final shipped product. Producers can list all the colors they wish to sell, and the basic pigment colors with which they batch the colored concrete. Their protocol also allows the recipe of concrete and the pigment batching to be shared.

When a colored concrete order is entered into the dispatching system, the order taker uses the producer's product code that identifies the strength, color, and other requirements. The batching system then handles it as a regular order.

Software designers thought it was important for each batching system to start independently. When the order is up for batching, a signal goes to the color pigment system. The signal allows pigment to be batched, mixed, and placed into the color batch holding tank before concrete batching sequence starts.

As the concrete is batched, the liquid pigment stands ready for discharge in sequence. This parallel batching can shave up to a minute off most times. There's another benefit: When batching several loads in a row, the pre-pigment mixing keeps the process moving forward. The system even has a flushing option that allows the dispatcher to know how much time to schedule between loads of different colors.

Another advantage involves mix water management. Technicians can establish target water volumes for each mix design at each plant. They can deduct amounts from total water of a concrete recipe from the concrete batch, allowing for the water in the pigment batching. This helps control water-cement ratios and creates a consistent color from load to load, says Wiggins.

When the batch is completed, the dispatcher provides the customer only one ticket listing all the ingredients, including color. He then submits this ticket simultaneously to the billing department. With all data is one spot, reports can be established to monitor colored concrete shipments. The software, in time, will also provide inventory summaries of pigment.

Results from this color interface software have been positive, says Wiggins. Command Alkon has installed prototypes of the integrated systems at producers in Minnesota, Connecticut, and Missouri.

Other dispatching suppliers recognize this need. John Rabchuk, president of Systech Inc., of Woodbridge, Ill., says that engineers are working on a similar color batching integration package that should be available by late this year.

Partnering with Command Alkon,www.commandalkon.com, with color interface are BASF,www.basf.com; Lanxess,www.bayferrox.com; and Solomon Colors,www.solomoncolors.com.