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Capturing data from a single ready-mix plant is no problem, but it becomes a challenge for producers that operate several facilities.

Do you prefer to make decisions based on an abundance of good data or on incomplete information and your gut? While some may go for the latter, most people in the ready-mix industry want quality data on which to base their decisions.

The problem with most multiplant ready-mixed concrete enterprises, though, is that they are blessed with an abundance of data, but that data is often incompatible or inconsistent. Different plants use different batch control systems, and the data is collected at random times, providing company management with an incomplete, outdated, and opaque picture of their overall operation. Imagine what could be accomplished with consistent, complete, real-time information on every batch in a far-flung ready-mix operation. Now that is possible with an innovative solution from iCrete.

Today's construction industry is striving to rapidly adopt every bit of technology that will provide an advantage in what has become a brutal market for materials and services. In ready-mix production, almost every competitive plant around the world has an automated batching system. Producers that have multiple plants, though, often find their operations have a variety of batching control systems.

“As the business has grown through consolidation, the big guys have bought the little guys, and the little guys were made of even smaller little guys,” says Stewart Cameron, concrete operations manager for Heidelberg in western Europe which has more than 1450 ready-mix plants worldwide.

The result is plants that may operate efficiently but provide no simple way to understand the entire operation or monitor operations at individual plants. “Globally, we operate about 45 different major control systems,” says Cameron. “Trying to do data capture on all of those systems in the same manner is a very tall order.”

The problem exists even for somewhat smaller operations. Titan America operates about 90 plants in the eastern U.S. “The ready-mix operations run as local businesses and are broken into eight or nine discrete areas, each with its own profit-responsible manager with plants and the trucks that support the business,” says Graham Fox, vice president of information systems for Titan. “The batching systems are a mixed bunch, but mainly from Command Alkon, and they run quite effectively. But we still have difficulty when we try to pull together all those localized businesses to look at them from a corporate perspective.”

What's data good for?

The ready-mix business has very small margins and competition is increasingly fierce. “Managing the costs so we are making the product that is necessary for the customer and delivering it at minimum cost is absolutely critical to profitability,” says Fox. “That means controlling every element, including the cost of the raw materials, and making sure that we're not wasting anything.”

How would enterprise-wide data contribute to that objective? “The possibilities are endless,” says Cameron. “Having real-time data would mean that we could remotely look at the performance of each plant. Concrete plants are notorious for performing perfectly for 10 years and then running poorly for a month. But a month of making bad concrete could cost you your business.

“So being able to remotely see how a plant performs is important: Does a door stick when it opens? Are you putting in a little bit too much cement because the scale is out of calibration? These little aspects can add up to big money.”

Getting from here to there

When Cemex bought the London-based RMC Group in 2005, it took an aggressive approach, installing standard batch control systems, attempting to implement unified data collection on 150 ready-mix plants, and importing all of the data into SAP's enterprise resource planning (ERP) software. This effort is widely considered to have had mixed results at best.