Building Better With AI - Episode 7

Episode 45 | 

June 27, 2024

The Daily Life of a QC Professional

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In This Episode

In the seventh episode of the "Building Better with AI" mini-series, host Sarah McGuire explores "The Daily Life of a QC Professional" with Bryan Fulcher, VP of Technical Sales and Services, Maschmeyer Concrete 

Drawing on extensive industry expertise, Bryan provides a glimpse into the multifaceted role of quality control professionals in the concrete sector. The conversation begins with Bryan's career journey and the evolving expectations and challenges faced in QC over the past two decades.  

Throughout the episode, Sarah and Bryan delve into key topics such as misconceptions about QC, the integration of AI and technology in enhancing efficiency, and preparing for the future of AI-driven QC processes. Bryan shares practical insights into managing daily operations, handling technical challenges, and fostering industry-wide innovation.  

Tune in now to gain a deeper understanding of the pivotal role QC professionals play in shaping construction standards and driving quality assurance in the concrete industry! 

Host Image

Host

Sarah McGuire, MBA

AVP, Business Development, Giatec Scientific Inc.

Guest Image

Guest

Bryan Fulcher

VP of Technical Sales and Services, Maschmeyer Concrete

Podcast Transcript

 

Sarah McGuire: 

Hello, and welcome back to another episode of Building Better With AI. I am your host, Sarah McGuire, and I’m joined today by Bryan Fulcher from Maschmeyer. Bryan is the VP of technical sales and service at Maschmeyer. He has spent over 30 years in the industry in the ready-mix business from Rinker Materials moving to Cemex, and now at Maschmeyer for the last eight years. Bryan has held several leadership roles in both sales and technical management. Bryan also has a background in engineering technology from the University of Central Florida, and a construction management certificate from Florida Atlantic University. Bryan, welcome to the podcast. 

Bryan Fulcher: 

Thank you for having me. 

Sarah McGuire: 

I’m so glad you could join. I could think of no better person to come on here and talk about a day in the life of a quality control department and also a quality control expert like yourself. Bryan, I want to start by just giving our audience a little bit about who you are, what you do, and what’s led you to have such a passion for the ready-mix industry. So please can you share with us? 

Bryan Fulcher: 

I started working for an engineering company. It was an environmental geotechnical and materials testing company, so started working for them. I fell in love with concrete and the testing side of concrete and was out on a big commercial project running a couple testing crews and just happened to run into the general manager for Rinker Materials and he convinced me to take a look at being a region technical manager. So I went and interviewed and got the job and started in my career as the technical manager for the East Coast region for Rinker materials. 

Sarah McGuire: 

Very interesting. 

Bryan Fulcher: 

From there just started to learn about concrete production, learn about what it takes to actually make concrete and produce concrete and just fell in love with that side of it because it’s easy on the testing side because it’s black and white, good or bad, but in the production side, every day is different. Every challenge is different. Even though you’ve seen it before, it’s different people, different circumstances, and it’s just exciting. 

Sarah McGuire: 

Makes a lot of sense. So I’m curious to hear from you. I understand now that your interest in concrete is due to how different it can be at all times, which is obviously something that people outside of this industry, they just look at concrete, they go, “Yeah, that’s hard,” and then they walk away. People like you know it’s obviously much more complex than that, especially dealing in the Florida market where you’re so susceptible to so much corrosion and the life cycle of concrete becomes a lot more challenging to work with, I imagine. So it’s an interesting market that you work in. You’ve also shifted around from working in some more commercial leadership roles to being in quality control and back and forth. And when I speak to you about all of these things that you’re working on, it’s very clear that you’re quite passionate about getting into the science of the concrete. I’m curious to hear from your perspective what you think is the biggest misconception about what it’s like to do a quality control role in a ready-mix organization. 

Bryan Fulcher: 

Well, I think from the customer’s point of view, it’s just rocks, sand, cement and water in a ready-mix truck. There’s really nothing to it. So they’ve been doing it for 20 plus years. The contractor knows what he’s doing. So I think one of the biggest misconceptions is it’s easy to reduce concrete when in fact we have raw materials that vary. We have material changes that happen constantly. We have new cements that have started coming online in the last couple years. So the challenges are endless on the quality control side to make sure we produce a quality product. 

Sarah McGuire: 

Right. That’s a great, great segue and a really big reason as to why we wanted to focus one of these episodes on really understanding what it is that quality control departments go through every day. And when we were doing a lot of research and figuring out where we could bring artificial intelligence into this industry and really diving into the day to days of quality control departments, they were also vastly different size and market. And different conditions that they were working with did not have a lot of commonalities in why everybody was doing different things. It really had to do with the priorities of the companies, how close of relationship you have with your sales team, how the costs are being set in your industry or your market. And a lot of the time there’s a lot more that falls into the quality control department, I think, than more people really realize. So wanting to shine a light on what this department is doing because we do believe it’s so vital to the company’s organization. 

One of the statistics I want to share with you, or maybe you can just wager a guess. In North America right now, we know the number of quality control experts that exist in the industry. And by experts we mean certified. Would you wager a guess with 400 million cubic yards of concrete that are being produced, how many experts we actually have in QC today across the country? 

Bryan Fulcher: 

Given that, I would say 4,000. 

Sarah McGuire: 

You’re way over. It’s 750. 

Bryan Fulcher: 

That’s crazy. 

Sarah McGuire: 

That means we have less than a thousand. That means we have one quality control professional or what we’re defining as an expert, somebody that is expert enough to be able to look at a mixed design and understand when you change certain aggregates or change certain blending, what’s actually going to happen to that concrete. Because we rely on such gut and feel in this industry, we’re dealing with one for every over 400,000 cubic yards. And when the average company is doing around 200, that’s now of course we’re including all the mom and pop shops in that, but still that’s quite significant. Then you look at a company like Maschmeyer and you guys are hogging quite a few of those numbers, aren’t you? 

Bryan Fulcher: 

We are. We’re lucky to work for a company that values the customer, puts the customer first and realizes the role of quality in that along with the other benefits that come along with a good quality control department and a good program. 

Sarah McGuire: 

So before at Maschmeyer, you were doing a role that was a little more commercial, especially when I met you, you were more on the business development side. What drew you to wanting to be a part of the technical side? Because I will share as well that we have worked with some people in other companies that I certainly wouldn’t name that are absolute experts, but they do not wear a QC title or a technical title. And we’ve asked them why and they’ve said, “Because it’s not a valued position. In the company, we’re not regarded high enough, we don’t get enough attention, and therefore we can’t make enough impact.” 

And that is something that we’ve started to notice a lot that’s resonated with us as we go from company to company and we’re trying to share with them a tool that can actually enable this department that is so in need of it to manage their materials more effectively, which is the highest cost of their business is the material side of things typically, but yet they don’t necessarily always value that. Well, you work at a company that does. So I’d love to ask you why you joined into that role and why do you think that is? 

Bryan Fulcher: 

Obviously when I first started in the industry, I developed a passion for the quality side into production. From there, I moved into several sales roles in several leadership roles within Rinker and Cemex, and some of those were outside of concrete. So the experience I’ve had has helped me realize what’s important. At least to me, there was only a few companies out there that I really were targeting, and Maschmeyer was one of them and it was because of their focus, because the reputation in the market and because they did do things, what I consider was the right way. So it helped make that decision to come to Maschmeyer pretty easy. Once I got here, I was in several leadership roles. And throughout that entire time, I was saying how we could improve our quality department and I guess it’s careful what you complain about because they’re going to put you in that role. But no, it’s where I started my career and it’s where my passion is, so I’m in the right place now. 

Sarah McGuire: 

That’s interesting. Do you agree with what I said of what we’ve heard from others where they feel like it’s an undervalued profession and they can’t make the impact they want in other organizations? 

Bryan Fulcher: 

Yeah, I think they do see value. It’s just the way the message is relayed, the people that they have relaying it. You can sit back and be the police in an organization and manage quality in that way. However, you’re not going to get buy-in, right? So the way it’s approached is a really big part in how a company perceives the quality department. The biggest hurdle would be dedicating the resources so that the quality department can get beyond just being the police and being reactive where we have the proper number of technicians, we’re getting the proper samples, we are getting the data we need to actually make informed decisions and optimize mixes and correct issues in the field before we get customer complaints. In the past, companies have sat back and just been reactive, and if they’re not getting complaints or that many complaints, everything’s okay. But in reality, you have to be proactive and get ahead of it to truly satisfy the customer and produce a quality product because the materials are changing every day. 

Sarah McGuire: 

So really pushing on this proactive versus reactive. That’s a big shift that we’re also seeing with a system that we’re trying to bring to people that they don’t have anything to compare it to because they are just reactive today. So it’s hard for them to imagine a tool that’s going to allow them to use that part of their brain that has probably been stored away for a little while. Thinking more on the proactive side, let’s imagine that you had a week uninterrupted at Maschmeyer where you could sit or play around in the lab or do whatever you needed to do with your staff of technicians to improve your day to day or to improve your efficiency without getting a call, without any fires to put out. What would you spend that week on? 

Bryan Fulcher: 

I think first and foremost, I’d spend the week on analyzing the data we have. I mean, we run reports on a daily, weekly, monthly basis that help us dial in on the most produced mixes, and of course we think we have a great handle on those. However, there’s a lot of variation in there that we don’t quite understand. So that takes time in the lab, that takes trials, that takes being out in the field, touching, feeling, testing the concrete. So I would spend that time working on the mixes and making them more repeatable and have less variation on our production side. So working with our production team and everything from the loader operator who receives the material, handles the material, conditions the material, all the way through to looking at data from internal and external testing and trying to pin down where we need to focus and target. 

Sarah McGuire: 

So pushing on that then, can you walk us through what a real typical week in your life looks like? And I’m not saying day to day because I think every day is a little too different to generalize, but if you were to say the typical things that you have to do in a week, that create more reactivity than proactivity. 

Bryan Fulcher: 

First and foremost, we start our day or end our day by scheduling the next day and scheduling our army of technicians to go out and perform tests on job sites, interact with the customers, get feedback so that we’re targeting the right mixes. And that schedule is based on high performance mixes or mixes that we’ve had issues with in the past or just big jobs where we want to show the customer that we’re out there and we’re testing concrete to make them feel important. So a typical day would start out by making sure those field technicians are going to the right projects so we can get the right data and make good decisions down the road. Throughout the day, there’s multiple interactions with our sales professionals who are out there trying to sell concrete. They need technical information, they need details on mixes so that they can properly quote it and price it, working with them on submittals for projects and occasionally working with them on issues that customers have on the job site that are quality related. 

Sarah McGuire: 

Given what you’ve just described, you rely really heavily on having a team that can be out there customer facing, reacting to those circumstances that happen. A company of your size, that makes sense. I’d love to hear your thoughts on, we’ve worked with many companies that are not doing necessarily your volume, but in the 500,000 to a million cubic yards or so of concrete where they have one or two people, one person that’s really sitting there analyzing, maybe they have one person breaking cylinders and going out and doing that testing. But given what you do day to day with a team of that size, let’s theorize that this is a market that has just as much variability. What sort of things do you think that they would not have time for that would help them move that needle forward that they’re probably just not getting to? 

Bryan Fulcher: 

I think the first thing is that they wouldn’t have time to collect the proper amount of data to make good decisions, whether it be standard deviation variation to optimize the mixes properly. So historically I’ve been in positions where we just put enough cement in there to make sure we don’t have problems. And when you’re not looking at the data, it’s easy to give away quite a bit of material. So I don’t think they’d have time to analyze it. I think the time to train and properly educate our drivers and our plant managers and spend time with them because that’s what it takes. Our region technical managers, they spend 70% of their time in the field with the plant managers, with the drivers on job sites because that’s where we can actually see what’s happening and we can make a difference. If they’re having to spend their time behind a computer, they’re not actually going to see what’s happening out there. 

Sarah McGuire: 

So obviously I know that your mentality about new technology and artificial intelligence is to at least try it and see what you can do with it. You’re very open to innovation and this is your passion. But in a company like you just described with only a couple of people barely making ends meet to be able to react to the conditions that they have day to day, do you see that leveraging technology and even possibly AI could be a way to help bridge that gap for them? Or do you think that sometimes it’s just it’s labor and people that you need? 

Bryan Fulcher: 

No, I think it’s a combination, but I believe that no matter what size company or what resources you have, we’re in an exciting time. Whether it be outside of concrete or in concrete, AI opens the door for a lot more information, a lot quicker and with a lot less time involved behind a computer running reports, analyzing data and crunching numbers. So for me, of course, to be able to see those numbers all instantly all the time is going to be huge. So we’re going to be able to react and we’re going to be able to make changes. For a smaller company, I think the value is going to be there because they’re still going to have a certain amount of data. They’re still going to see the mixes and how they perform. So I think whether it’s small or big, I believe there’s definitely value in it, and I think it’s going to help improve how effective we are as quality managers in the ready-mix business. 

Sarah McGuire: 

Obviously in the last 30 years, there’ve been a lot of technology advancements just in the world, let alone in our industry. And AI is being met with necessary skepticism. I think that’s the whole reason we’re doing this podcast is to shine light on the particular issues that come in before you can actually leverage AI to begin with and having a better understanding of the problems before you just throw AI at it and create a solution. But what I’m wondering is in the last 30 years looking back, have there been any other technology advancements that took a really long time for people to latch onto or had to take a while to have proof in the pudding before people really latched onto them, and then have they had that desired impact that we’ve hoped for? And you can also tell me a danger story of the technology that didn’t work. That’s possible too. 

Bryan Fulcher: 

As a whole, there’s been very, very few major changes in our industry that I’ve seen unless you count cell phones and things like that. But there’s been very few advancements. Now we’ve gotten more SCMs, we’re getting more aggressive with SCMs. We’re obviously getting more in tune with the cements and the chemistry. But as far as big changes, I mean AI is one of those changes that could actually make our jobs easier, more effective, and help us to spend the time in other places where we need to be to actually move the needle as a whole. 

Sarah McGuire: 

The other thing that I know in all of this is that we’re trying to bring change to a department that we’ve just explained is often overlooked. Just simply sometimes because of the reactive nature of what they have to do every day, they probably don’t have time to sit there and make a case for why they should have more help in their department to move things along. So in the spirit of trying to bring innovation to a department like that and enable them to do more with the little that they have that they’re continuing to have little and little and more constraints on them, what kind of advice would you give to a company like us or even general managers at other organizations of why they should invest in new technology now or advice to us on how to better appeal to that industry and show them that the time is now? 

It’s a bit of a loaded question. We can pick it apart. So we can start with innovation has been very slow in this industry in the past. And within quality control departments especially are the ones that struggle to have a voice for themselves because they’re in such of a reactive nature. So what kind of advice would you give to general management at other organizations to say there is some real technology that’s at least worth exploring now, and this is why the time is now. 

Bryan Fulcher: 

When you don’t have the resources in the quality department, you are 100% reactive. I mean, the time is spent putting out fires and handling issues and dealing with mistakes that are made, and you don’t have the time and resources to put to the big picture and fine-tuning the mixes and hearing what the customer has to say and creating a truly quality product because let’s face it, anybody can throw materials in a truck and make strength. It’s that next level where you actually optimize the mix and you had lowest possible cementitious content and you’re able to work with the customer and create a product that they’re happy with and something that’s more economical for you. 

So I would say that now’s the time, and AI has the potential to help save the industry millions of dollars, help us with our carbon footprint, help us with sustainability. And that’s going to take more than just our industry because we made a lot of big advancements in that to reduce GWP, but it’s going to take the contractors, the owners of projects, even the testing labs to get on board and understand what it really takes to reduce the carbon footprint. So I think now’s the time with AI to jump on it while it is still in its MC stage so that you’re not behind the curve when it actually takes off and we start seeing that value. 

Sarah McGuire: 

Right. As in it can be an advantage for you now if you take a hold of it now, but eventually if it becomes truly monetizable, everyone will end up latching onto it and then you’ll have to have it because everybody else has it and it’ll be onto other innovation to make yourselves competitive. You also though, I do want to push back a little because you talk a lot about creating a quality product and how it’s really important to fine-tune your mixes and anyone can technically make strength if they put cement, water and sand in a truck and away you go. What if that’s all they care about? What if they don’t care about making quality or why should general management care about that? What is that actually doing for the organization as a whole if it’s been working for them so far? 

Bryan Fulcher: 

I think that every business is in business to make money, obviously. So I think to invest in something that has the potential to help control your cementitious levels and optimize your mixes financially is a no-brainer. Now obviously every company has their threshold of what they’re willing to spend, but getting in now will help get those benefits sooner than later. 

Sarah McGuire: 

I want to circle back to the parts of a sustainability that you started to mention there, and I think that’s a really good example of more pressures and demands that your department is probably facing that it just simply didn’t in the same way five, 10 years ago. I’d love to understand how that’s shaped your practices and things that you’ve had to do to be agile, to keep up with that and what that future is looking like from your perspective. 

Bryan Fulcher: 

Yeah. It starts with project designers. They’re working with owners and they have a sustainability mindset and they are looking for EDPs and they’re looking for ways to reduce the carbon footprints, but it truly has to be a team effort. So we’re dealing with specifications that are asking for A, however, they’re not willing to modify a schedule to achieve that, or they can, the contractor’s in the middle in this whole situation. So the owner and designers are one thing. The contractors got to produce the project within the timeframe that’s allotted, and yet we’re over here trying to say, “Well, this is what you have to do to be more sustainable and reduce carbon footprint.” So it’s a team effort. We all have to sit together around the table and work through it from the design phase all the way through to the concrete supplier submitting mixes. 

Sarah McGuire: 

You captured a lot about how it’s chasing or how it’s transforming your market, how it’s transforming the industry, but I want to hear more about how that’s coming back to the quality control department that has to react to those changes and demands. And maybe any conflicting stories of where you’re getting all of this pressure for sustainability, but at the end of the day, you know what the chemical composition of a mix needs to look like and maybe it just doesn’t fit. So anything like that that you can share would be awesome. 

Bryan Fulcher: 

Yeah, from a quality department, we’re presented with more and more challenges, whether it be increased SCM usage or whether it be higher performing mixes. I think over time everyone’s going to have to be on the same page, but there’s times when we’re asked for projects where they want early strength, yet at the same time they want the lowest possible carbon footprint mix. And those two really don’t go together within the material combinations that we have. And with the cements and with the SCMs that we’re currently getting, the amount of water we put in the mixes becomes more and more important, and that drives up the cementitious content. So anything you can do to help reduce your total cementitious levels and not put out mixes that are overdesigned enough to be safe helps us meet those specifications. 

Sarah McGuire: 

So in a case where you had contradicting demands, what ends up being the outcome in something like that? Do you end up showing them that what they’re asking for doesn’t work? How does that get resolved? Because I also know that this is a really interesting time that we’re in, but it directly relates to a lot of prescriptive mixes that we see that are also preventing us removing the needle quite a bit as well. And that’s going to be a big uphill battle as well, is being able to show that what’s been prescribed in the past isn’t necessarily required anymore. Maybe because we’ve had innovations and fiber and admixtures and retarders and accelerators, whatever it is that didn’t exist before, and now we’re just kind of using the same prescribed minimum cement content that was done in the past. 

And these things are really preventing optimizations, but when we start to get into AI and being able to amalgamate all of that data together, maybe in a way we couldn’t before across the bar, we might be able to move the needle on some of those things, or at least that’s definitely the hope of companies like ours and a lot of people in the industry. But the sustainability push really feels like that thing that’s either going to make or break. And it’s going to be an example that can be used in the future because that is a requirement that’s now contradicting some of these older prescriptions that are there. So I’m curious to know what happens with that and also what you see coming down the line for more of those scenarios that I just discussed. 

Bryan Fulcher: 

I would say more often than not, schedule wins on a project. So they’re designed and the best intentions are there. However, when push comes to shove and they see that the mix that they need or want can’t perform to meet the schedule, I would say more often than not the schedule wins. However, with projects that are truly committed to sustainability, they’re willing to adjust the schedule, they’re willing to adjust the way that things are designed. If we get involved early enough in a project, we can help them choose the right design so that we’re not looking for 24 hour breaks and they realize they can wait 48, 72 hours, or acceptance age is moved from 28 days to 56 days to even 90 days at some time. So there’s a lot of things that could be done to help meet sustainability efforts, but I would say more often than not, it’s about getting the project done because they’re already designed, everything’s already in motion, and contractors already bid it. So there’s only so much we can do to meet their schedule. 

Sarah McGuire: 

That makes a lot of sense. So with that example aside, going back to this concept of overly prescriptive mixes that are preventing us, a lot of the times those specs are set before you even walk in the door. So what does the industry need to do to work on that problem? And then also, what can producers actually do to work on that problem? 

Bryan Fulcher: 

I would think it’s really a whole bunch of avenues to help correct the problem, and it cannot be corrected overnight. But when engineers are set in their ways and they’re going strictly by what’s an ACI or there’s not enough guidance for them, for one. They’ve been doing it for a very long time and are really good at it and have great success with the specifications that they have been using. So the incentive for them to change has to be there. And from a contractor standpoint, the contractors truly understand that we are here to help and we have avenues to help. They’re on board, they get it right, but at the same time, they’re dealing with a project owner and a general contractor and they have commitments that they have to meet, and in the end, they can’t move the needle on their own. So it really has to be a group effort to help change from a prescriptive type environment to, I guess trust and open the door to the producers and get them to help make improvements. 

Sarah McGuire: 

I want to pivot more into technology and how this can actually help companies like yours, but also across the whole industry and the quality control side of things. But first, I’m curious to know if there’s any very common problems that you face in your department of having to troubleshoot or investigate where you’re lacking data, where you could have it. And not necessarily because it wasn’t collected when it should have been, but more so because we’re not really tracking things that we should be. And I’m just curious about the most common issues that you face that you wish you had more data to help you solve. 

Bryan Fulcher: 

I would say day to day, we do a really good job at testing our most produced mixes, which is a large portion of our volume. Outside of that, our mixes, certainly some of them have room for improvement. So I think from a day to day standpoint, the mixes that we choose for projects, we get into a routine where, okay, we know that works, that’s safe. But if we had the proper data on particular mix, then we can say, “Okay. Well, we can reduce that submit content, or we can submit this water sprint ratio for this mix.” So I think it’s the other half of our business that we know we have good mixes for or we believe we have good mixes for, but just not enough resources to get the data to over time change those mixes and keep reducing the cement content. So yeah, I would think that would be the biggest one. 

Sarah McGuire: 

That’s very interesting because I feel like anyone listening to this is now going to think that I planted that with you because what we’re seeing, you’re spot on on the fact that obviously your high volume mixes are going to be the ones that you spend the most attention on. How much time you have to do that, very subjective from company to company. But I think most people in your position would feel like they have a good understanding or they’re pretty dialed in to their highest volume mixes because when you have the time, that’s where it’s going to go. And so when we’re plugging our optimization platform into people’s systems, we see needles move a little bit on the volume mixes. And even when you can get 50 cents to a dollar for cubic yard shaved off, I mean that’s big when you’re looking at volume of that size. So it’s not to be undervalued by any means. 

However, I would say that the most value that we’re seeing across the board is all of those smaller, lower volume mixes. But when you have five optimizations to look at that are small across your top five mixes as opposed to 70 that are a little bit bigger across all of these other ones, well, you would not have prioritized those 70 before, but they equate to the same as the five big ones. But now you can actually review them in lesser time than it took to probably do all of the trial batching and the manual and everything that you would do on the high volume. And so that tends to be where we’re seeing the biggest impact. It’s on all of those tinier insights, but they’re now available to you so you can justify actually executing on them. 

And then we have one company where they got a little bit on their high volume and they got tenfold on their low volume. Well, when we’re talking $300,000, who cares if it took you 70 optimizations or five to get? That’s still huge money. So that’s really exciting. But you’re bang on that that’s just the part that probably wouldn’t be in your peripheral even if you had the resources to test, guarantee you’d probably do something more impactful with them, something bigger, something higher volume. But when you have something that can manually process all that data, it’s just, wow, there you go. So it’s very interesting that you say that without actually experiencing working with our system yet. So from a quality control standpoint, and you don’t have to name what those advancements are, but can you share any advancements that people tried to implement, whether it was in your companies that you worked with or maybe what you saw from other companies around that just did not work or did not latch on and why? 

Bryan Fulcher: 

So there’s been different products on the market that tried to measure slump, measure air, and I would say that the majority of them work great. However, the resources and the time it takes to keep those products measuring and working effectively made them just not feasible at the time that we’ve tried to implement them in the past. I think from a quality perspective, knowing exactly what’s happening with the concrete, the entire life cycle of that concrete, from the time it’s batched all the way through to it coming back to the yard and knowing how much is left on that truck, that information is very, very valuable. And there’s a lot of great systems out there and the reasons they didn’t work or worked for other companies, obviously other companies might’ve seen value, but they didn’t work for us at the time. So I think from a technology standpoint, that would be one of the huge things that could help. 

Sarah McGuire: 

Interesting. From Geotech’s perspective, we tried really hard to make sure that we were not taking artificial intelligence and saying, “This is super cool, this is new technology,” and throwing it into the market and saying, “We want to use AI to better the industry.” Sure, but we needed to find a problem that was worth solving. And then we needed to consult industry experts on how that can actually be leveraged in their day to day, which is why it took us so long to get to a point where we realized an optimizer by itself wasn’t going to be able to do much. We had to put it in a form that people could actually adopt unless of course we wanted to be heavily consulting, which was not something we wanted to do. 

And what we’ve just seen in our past is that a lot of people try to take the latest and greatest technology and find a place for it to fit instead of looking for a problem and then finding the technology to solve that problem. And so on that, do you think that there are other things that people tried to bring to the industry? And you can say no because it’s a bit of a laggard market and we know that, but can you think of any types of inventions or innovations that people tried to bring to the industry that it just didn’t latch on for any reason because our industry just wasn’t taking to it? 

Bryan Fulcher: 

Yeah, I would say I really can’t think of any. 

Sarah McGuire: 

That’s okay. How about outside of optimization? That’s an obvious one to go after because there’s also a sustainability push that comes with that, which is very timely. But outside of optimization for your mixes, do you see any other processes in your QC department or QC departments as a whole that could benefit from more automation? And that doesn’t necessarily need to be AI, but anything that if we were better at documenting or storing or having that data flow around better, is there anything else in our processes that we could improve and make a quality control department more efficient, more effective? 

Bryan Fulcher: 

I mean, I would say identifying mixes that are borderline or we could possibly have issues with proactively and us getting out there and testing those. I think our drivers are the most important piece of our business along with our operational personnel. But our drivers, they see the customer every day. They interact with the customer every day. However, they have a huge impact on the actual product that goes out to the customer because they’re the last ones to touch it, look at it. So knowing water addition throughout the entire delivery process would be very big. And there’s a lot of products out there that we haven’t adopted yet that hopefully we will, to get that information knowing how well our plant managers are actually batching the concrete. So getting the slump as batched off of the plant before the driver has done their final touches to it. 

Sarah McGuire: 

That’s perfect. Bryan, before we wrap this up, I want to ask another question because it’s a little bit different, but it also pertains a bit to the optimization and where AI is going. For anyone who’s listening that doesn’t know, Bryan and I met each other years ago when Maschmeyer started working with us on deploying maturity sensors. And our goal with that was to get better testing, better service back to the customer. We can always go back to the end user, but ultimately we want to be able to bring that data back to our ready-mix companies as well so that they can leverage it. Now Geotech has come out with an even newer sensor that self calibrates, gives you a true direct strength reading, but of course, that’s our proprietary technology, so it’s not based on an ASTM or ACI standard, so that’s newer as well. So we really see the importance of quality testing as a big part of this whole ecosystem. Can you talk to your experience in that regard and how it’s been a challenge for you to do your day to day as a QC department because of it? 

Bryan Fulcher: 

Starting my career in a third party testing materials testing company, I realize the challenges they have. You’re bringing in people, you’re getting them trained on how to make cylinders and getting their certifications, but even the certifications don’t cover the entire process. So for us on a day to day basis, third party testing is always a challenge because we know what our concrete does. However, when we even make comparison samples, the variance between our cylinders and the third party testing cylinders more often than not is very large. And as a producer, what that makes us do is not take the risks of reducing cement contents to certain levels because we have to deal with the fact that this is how the concrete’s going to be tested in the field. And it starts with making the cylinders. And we’ve all heard horror stories of how cylinders are made and how they are not made properly from time to time, but it goes into the initial curing on the job site. 

And we’ve used, like you said, we are partnered with Geotech on sensors and we’ve used maturity along with sensors to measure temperature curing conditions. And we’ve went as far as to replicate curing conditions on the job site so that we can actually see what’s happening with the concrete and how those variances happen. More often than not, it’s just pure poor initial curing on the job site. That is where the problem starts. And then obviously having worked in a lab in the past third party lab, I know that there’s a lot of things that can happen throughout a day and your best guy might not be the one breaking the cylinders, but you have to get the cylinders broken in a day. So they have their own challenges. 

But I think improving third party testing will help us as producers be able to make those extra adjustments and reduce that cement content even more. And that variance is documented by [inaudible 00:36:57], but it can be 800 to 1200 PSI variance because of the way they’re cured and tested, and that causes us to add more cement and not be as sustainable as we could be. 

Sarah McGuire: 

And I think that’s such a great kind of way to wrap this conversation up because ultimately you and your team spent a lot of time refining and optimizing your mixes and putting a lot of effort into bringing them to the highest quality they can be while being the most efficient possible while now dealing with the sustainability standards that are coming at you. But ultimately, it’s like an airport security. You are only going to be as strong as your weakest link. You can create the most perfect amazing mix that’s ever invented, but unless everything from beginning to end is perfect alongside of it, you are always going to have intentional overdesign. And I think that’s what we’re seeing as well, that when we plug our system in, we start to move the needle, but then there are other parts of the links that need to be further and further moved as well for us to see the impact that we want to have long-term. 

It’s interesting as well, because we used to wonder as well, are we creating a system that is ultimately going to be subject to the law of diminishing returns? You optimize as far as you can, and well, now there’s nothing to optimize anymore. Great. Our mixes are done and away we go. Well, you said yourself, lots of variability that comes into place. But I think what we’re also seeing is that, okay, we can get it as fine-tuned as possible with what we have. Now we have to improve something else, and then SmartMix or whatever you’re using will now suddenly show you something even a little slightly better. 

And it’s just going to be a constant moving the needle forward, but it’s not always on the mixes. It’s about producing it at the right way. You’ve got a factory on wheels that controls so much of the quality of your concrete once it goes out the door. So there’s just so many factors that can be involved. And obviously we got into this whole space in the first place because we saw the results from our own maturity sensors of how overdesigned everything was. People benefited that from a schedule, but then they couldn’t move the needle anymore on schedule. So now it’s where else can we move that needle? So it really all kind of comes together, but all of that data hopefully sits in your QC department for you to actually be able to make those decisions. 

Bryan Fulcher: 

You’re right, 100%. Initially you would think if we do get a great AI system that’s accurate and we can trust it, then we 100% will see very, very quick returns on that. And then you get down to working with the plant maintenance, working with the plant managers, working with the yard personnel, working with the drivers to help reduce standard deviation, to help design our mixes better so we have less variation. And I think it’s only going to help us be able to focus on those other things more after the initial push because we’re going to see in real time what’s happening and where the changes need to be made. 

Sarah McGuire: 

Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. Well, Bryan, I want to ask you one more question before we conclude here. The big reason why we really wanted to have this chat with you was to give more visibility to the whole industry about what people in the quality control side of this industry are facing on a day to day. There’s all of these different constraints that are coming at than while all of these other expectations as well, and giving people more visibility into that. But also to maybe motivate quality control professionals to advocate a bit more for themselves and in their own companies on how they can make more of an impact during these times where there’s so many demands. So do you have any advice for the quality control professional listening on how to advocate better for themselves and why their entire company should care about their life being made a bit easier? 

Bryan Fulcher: 

I think it starts with knowing what you do every day and why you do it. It’s easy to come in in the morning, sit in front of a computer, react to emails, react to phone calls. I think voicing your concerns and voicing the things that you believe need to happen more, even though sometimes it may fall on deaf ears, but being that voice to say, “Hey, I have a value. What we bring to the table can help us save money, can help us improve customer satisfaction, and in the end can reduce the noise that happens every day for the company and help make things run smoother.” I would say keep pushing it. Show the value, monetize what you do, the time you spend on quality complaints, the time that you spend in plants fixing issues or training people. Those things have to happen, but those things are more reactive. And if you can start moving that needle, it just gets easier and the company sees value in it and is able to devote more resources to the quality side. 

Sarah McGuire: 

But it is really hard to spend time on the business when you’re so in it. So any grace that people can give their QC department to just spend a little bit of time on that, on a semi frequent basis so that everybody has transparency into what happens, it can make a huge difference. Well, Bryan, thanks so much for coming on, for joining, for sharing your insight. I hope everyone learned a lot from this, and I did do so. Thank you so much. 

Bryan Fulcher: 

Thank you, Sarah. Look forward to working with you moving forward, and hopefully AI will pan out and it’ll be a real thing. 

 

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