In 2011, family-run precaster Elm Street Vault began to feel an upturn in the local economy, including an increase in product demand. “We clearly felt the impact of the recession,” says Dave Daigle, general manager. “Because we are a small business and we have always maintained a low overhead with little debt, we were able to weather the storm more easily than others.”

Daigle’s father, Donald, bought into Elm Street Vault in the late 1970s, about 10 years after the burial vault company was founded in the coastal town of Biddeford, Maine, by his childhood friend. In the 1980s, the firm added precast septic systems and Donald Daigle took over as sole owner.

Elm Street Vault’s strong, personal connection with its customers has proven to be a powerful advantage. “Our customers value the personal touch we provide,” Dave Daigle says. “Whether it is a funeral director or excavation contractor, we know all of our customers on a first name basis and we provide service that goes well beyond the typical customer/vendor relationship.” Daigle also credits the firm’s success to careful inventory control, attention to equipment maintenance, and postponing new investments.

The family-run business began producing manholes and utility vaults in 2001 and moved from costly ready-mix concrete to its own continuous mixing plant shortly thereafter. While the volumetric continuous mixer had helped to reduce costs over ready-mix, it left the firm wanting more.

“It was definitely more convenient and less costly for us to mix our own concrete,” says Daigle. “However, we were limited in the admixtures we could use due to the short mixing time and we had trouble with false setting, especially during the summer.” The volumetric mixer was also manually controlled, requiring constant operator attention.

Elm Street’s volumetric mixer relied on a continuous flow of aggregates and cement into an auger-type mixing chamber. The lack of automation, precision, and mixing intensity did not allow the firm to achieve some of its key goals, including improved product appearance and faster attainment of minimum stripping strength.

Elm Street modernized its batching system in summer 2012 by replacing its volumetric mixer with a high-speed counter-current mixer with automated controls from Advanced Concrete Technologies (ACT). Following this upgrade, the firm discovered it could cut its cement usage by up to 200 pounds per yard and achieve many other benefits as well.

Recovery means opportunities

Daigle began exploring ways to step up Elm Street’s operations in 2011. He considered proposals from three batch plant suppliers and ultimately chose ACT. “When you’re a small company like ours, the decision to invest in capital improvements can be particularly tough,” Daigle says. “Speaking with other precasters and hearing about their success with ACT was the key for us.”

ACT engineers drew up a detailed layout (see Figure 1) incorporating almost all of Elm Street Vault’s existing equipment except, of course, the old volumetric mixer. “ACT did a great job minimizing the footprint of the new mixer and dealing with our height constraints,” Daigle says. “We reused our cement silo, aggregate bins, conveyor—pretty much everything. That really helped keep the costs within our budget, yet provide the critical new equipment we needed to improve our operations.”

“Most ACT mixers come with a prefabricated platform, but we had a local company build the platform right in our shop to fit the small footprint,” he explains.