If I Ruled the Concrete Industry

Have you ever tried to change the way people do things, only to have someone ask you, “Who made you God?” Well, I just realized that, even though I am not God, I do control what goes into my blog. Therefore, the following is a list of things that I would change if I ruled the concrete industry.

  • The industry should spend more money on R&D. I searched all over the Internet (for at least 15 minutes <g>) to find a figure on R&D spending in the concrete and construction industry and came up with nothing. However, to my best recollection, a speech I heard a couple of years ago cited R&D as 0.3% – 0.5% of revenue. Compare this to Internet companies that spend 13% and even the chemical industry that spends 1%. Some companies, like Lafarge and the big admixture companies, are noted for their R&D spending. Smaller companies, like Cemstone and TXI, are recognized for their innovations for the I-35 bridge and internal curing. However, most companies are content to meander along, doing what they have always done, until an unusual project comes along. How many concrete producers even do the basic testing of their product and can tell you shrinkage and permeability ratings for their most common products? No wonder concrete producers “don’t get no respect”.Some groups are trying. The NRMCA’s Research, Engineering and Standards Committee, RES, meets twice a year to discuss industry technical trends, but we usually get about 25-30 people to attend, and a number of those are either material suppliers or busy-bodies like me. Maybe only 12-15 ready mix producers attend on a regular basis. The FHWA, working with the CP Tech Center and the National Concrete Consortium, has developed the Concrete Pavement Roadmap, one of whose purposes is to organize the research needs of the concrete pavement industry and encourage organized study of those needs. Check it out at http://www.cproadmap.org/

  • Designers should get out of the mix design business and focus on specifying concrete performance. No, this isn’t the NRMCA’s P2P program. I have participated on that program since its inception and, while I agree with the goals of the program, I disagree with some of the methods being encouraged by the group. This isn’t to say that those methods are “wrong”, but that they are conceived from the point of view of the concrete producer and may not be the best thing for the construction industry as a whole. There are a plethora of problems related to a conversion to specifying performance concrete, and the NRMCA has done a great job of addressing many of those problems, but a lot of the main problem goes back to my wish #1 above. There needs to be more spending on basic concrete research, since we don’t really understand our product.

  • Concrete producers in the U.S. should become responsible for their own quality control and outside labs should do verification testing only. This is a concept Ken Day has promoted and is used in much of the rest of the developed world, especially Ken’s home in Australia. It is primarily in the U.S. that we have such an adversarial relationship between designers and builders that we are stuck with playing cops and robbers with each other. Most of the concrete producers I know want to produce a good product, but are held back by poor specifications, variable materials, lack of knowledge and lack of funds (too low a price for their product).

  • Concrete producers and those conducting tests should be certified and require continuing education. State DOTs often require certification. In Houston, TX, when 3 precast parking garages collapsed in 1 year, the city developed a certification program for precast producers in the interest of public safety. ACI, PCI and the NRMCA offer certification programs for testers and producers, but most of their certifications are not mandatory. FYI, ASTM is in the process of eliminating removing reference to specific certification programs, like ACI’s, from all their documents and is moving toward less specific certification language.I guess if I really wanted to get bossy, I could start requiring certification of contractors and sub-contractors as well. While there are a few trade certification programs, such as the ACI Flatwork Finisher, most of these certifications are not mandatory.

  • Companies and people should take responsibility for educating themselves. In the U.S. we have become so focused on getting kids through our school system that most of the time we don’t teach them about the joys of education. Mark Twain once said, “I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.” Universities complain they have too much to teach in 4 or 6 years and that companies need to educate people for their specific jobs. Companies complain that graduates are not prepared for the business world. Introductory education about concrete for drivers, laborers and sales people is usually conducted by local ACI or ready mix association chapters, or through on-the-job training. The NRMCA has great driver and sales training programs and an outstanding technical training course, but attendance at those events is usually by people from very forward-thinking companies.I would like for ACI, NRMCA or PCA (or a joint effort) to make a series of inexpensive videos introducing people to concrete. Introductory videos on design, materials, production, construction and testing would be offered to the public for free. More advanced videos that would look at more detailed aspects of the concrete process could be offered for a nominal charge. In-depth presentations could be available at a higher, more appropriate charge. The videos could then be placed at a central location that would be available to the general public.

  • Stop the “cops and robbers” adversarial relationship between the design side of the industry and the construction side. This was refered to in #3, but goes beyond that. Emphasis should be placed on doing the job right. If the design is too expensive for the owner’s budget, the design should be changed, don’t take shortcuts during construction. If the contractor makes a mistake, he should fix it without looking for a change order. “Team building”, where all aspects of a project align themselves for the good of the project, was a big buzz phrase during the 1990s and I think it is high time for it to make a return to the construction industry.

As always, I welcome your comments. What would you do if you ruled the concrete industry?

Jay Shilstone

P.S. Sorry for the delay in posting. I was at ASTM in San Diego last week, but that is the topic of another blog entry.

About Jay Shilstone

I am a concrete technologist for Command Alkon, Inc. and have been in the concrete industry for over 35 years. For 28 of those years I have been working on quality control software for the concrete industry. I am a Fellow of the American Concrete Institute and a member of multiple ACI, ASTM and NRMCA committees. I look forward to talking about concrete mix design and quality control with everyone.