The daffodils were emerging from their winter hibernation in central Tennessee in March. The same could be said of the precast concrete producers who enjoyed the warm spring weather in Nashville at The Precast Show 2016. The Ryman Convention center was jammed with exhibitors, engineers, researchers, and attendees. The event attracted its largest crowd in a decade. 

The event extruded a spirit of purposefulness. Brian Miller expects strong growth. He just assumed the newly created position of precast marketing manager at GCP, the rebranded construction material company. “We are receiving calls each day from producers who are looking to either reenter or expand their precast operations,” said Miller.

Student participation 

Along with the traditional trade show activities, the Precast Concrete Institute (PCI) Foundation hosted a poster demonstration from 10 universities. The PCI Foundation has selected 10 architectural departments at leading universities around the U.S. as partners in an interactive education/applied research program. Students and their professors are helping to integrate precast concrete into architectural projects. This year’s series of posters displayed current research ranging from using alternative cementitious materials in more sustainable mix designs to new design elements. 

One student group presented a notable break from traditional precast techniques as part of their school’s poster series. Led by Brad Bell, associate professor in the College of Architecture Planning and Public Affairs, students from the University of Texas-Arlington displayed a new process to cast curved formed elements. The posters showed both 3D design elements and fabric formed concrete structures. Bell recently launched TEX-FAB, an organization to aid innovators in this new approach to construction to build in curves rather than straight lines. 

Plant improvements

Another theme of the event was plant improvement. In the past two years, producer members of the National Precast Concrete Association (NPCA) and the PCI have been coordinating a plant certification process for both industries. At The Precast Show 2016, producers reviewed the new procedures. For many operations, the certification process will require little change. But for others, certification may require greater focus on process controls and verification. Tim Stadler, sales manager from Hydromatics, a manufacturer of aggregate moisture detectors, has seen an attitude change in his customers. “We’ve been spending more effort improving the integration of the meter readings into plant controls,” said Stadler.

Operation managers are responding to this call for greater productivity. They were in the exhibition hall in droves investigating the best way to improve their operations. There is strong evidence that precast production is set to grow. But the new generation of leaders is opting to expand with innovative plant procedures. Equipment manufacturers have recognized the producers’ renewed interest in plant technology. Several of them have introduced new products and technologies this year.

According to Sandra Kapfer, sales manager for Automacad Inc., producers have the opportunity to design their wet cast plant that enables greater product diversification without losing plant productivity. The Canadian firm offers a design approach that modularizes the plant’s equipment layout. Employing this design, wet cast concrete producers no longer have to create separate production lines when adding new products. By designing the plant in modular units, producers can pull out unnecessary equipment yet keep the basic productions in line.

Innovation also extends to the casting bed. Employing magnet supported steel decked casting beds continues to be a growing production option. But few producers know how much productivity can be gained by using these tools. Elematic, a manufacturer of casting bed magnets, recently published a comparison of the use of these tools compared to traditional forming processes. Using calculations based on the Predetermined Work Time Program utilizing unit times of the Standard Time System, the manufacturer determined a 70% time savings when using the full set of tools of its FaMe system. The Elematic Fastening System includes jaw magnets, side rails, accessories, and design software.

For dry cast pipe manufacturers, forming the inlet piece of a water intake pipe is very labor intensive. Providing a concrete structure that serves as a junction point for two to three incoming pipes requires a custom cast pipe. Skilled finishers had to handcraft each piece. Schlüsselbauer, a manufacturer of precast pipe casting equipment, has been automating this process.

It is marketing a computer-assisted design system that transforms the engineering drawing into a reverse form cut from Styrofoam blocks. These foams are placed in the casting mold to create inlets with greater accuracy. The additional benefit is that these units can be easily adjusted to meet the as-built job conditions.