Potential pitfalls of standardizing material processing

By |  August 8, 2018
Photo courtesy of AEM

Trade shows like ConExpo-Con/Agg serve as reminders that vendors can vary greatly in their equipment offerings approach. Photo courtesy of AEM

We don’t have to look far to see diversity in how we approach material processing.

Our industry is not just comprised of a group of contractors, dealers and suppliers. We are part of an industry of artists.

It is often noted that aggregate producers are extremely creative and resourceful people. One only needs to travel from one job site to the next and talk to the operators about their plants. Each will selflessly share a unique story of how they overcame a specific challenge by “modifying this” or “fabricating that.” They are also quick to recognize those key people who support their operations and keep them profitable.

Therefore, successful material processing requires creative processing techniques and a solid support network.

Unsettling development

Photo by Kevin Yanik

Does the “shopping cart” approach of selling replacement parts and complete plants give aggregate producers fewer options to maintain success with their plants? Photo by Kevin Yanik

However, in my discussions with customers and dealers from every corner of the globe, a common concern is being raised. While examples vary, it all boils down to an apparent trend in that our industry is trying to streamline and standardize processes everywhere.

While “lean” programs intended to drive excess process waste out of operations are a very good thing, many companies have been streamlining, rationalizing and standardizing to the point where in some cases the creative spirit is being driven out of the operation. What’s more, processes are often being outsourced to other sources that did not design or provide technical support for the products or services that they are providing. Many companies seem to be more focused on the balance sheet than meeting the diverse needs of our industry.

Our industry has a tradition of passing on technical knowledge and an “all hands on deck” mentality as it relates to plant design, fabrication, commissioning, application optimization, troubleshooting, repairs and training. Despite the brand of machines, the process we use or the kind of material we process, these values are essential and should be rooted in our culture.

The message is simple: Whether we are manufacturers, suppliers or producers, we must remain close to our customers and service their needs. If our industry takes a “shopping cart” approach to sell replacement parts, crushed aggregate or complete plants, our customers will have fewer options to be creative and have to work harder to find the support needed to maintain their success.

My mentor once told me that perfection in our industry is a goal line we will never cross. Material specifications will continue to evolve as will travel restrictions, engine emission requirements, clay amounts in new deposits and the percentage of recycled materials acceptable for Department of Transportation specs.

As the needs of our industry change, so will our need to refine products, services and processes. While there is much we as an industry can do to predict and engineer the variables of our industry into the science of the technology, it is difficult to imagine an industry that provides minimal technical support or streamlines a single plant design that adequately meets the diverse needs of the quarry, the mine or the recycle contractor.

As a colleague recently reminded me, this is still a relationship business. We will always need to communicate and collaborate to maintain our creativity and support one another in order to realize mutual success. The question then becomes who among us is focused on meeting the needs of the industry by being creative and resourceful? Or, who is committed to producing low-cost widgets in a factory?

Someone once suggested that successful individuals “run with the winners” and give negativity a wide berth. Here are the qualities successful individuals and organizations in our industry all seem to possess:

    • A commitment to technical knowledge and understanding the needs of our industry.
    • “Product champions,” or people who are passionate about being experts in process machinery.
    • An understanding in that a rapid response to technical service support and quick delivery of spare parts means everything.
    • Respect for all individuals with an ability to listen intently to their needs.
    • A cultural commitment to safety and ongoing training.
    • A willingness to do whatever it takes to keep a plant operational.

Obviously, these qualities reflect a utopia that does not exist. Nobody is capable of batting 1.000. Still, there are many people who still believe in these principles. They are the artists who help our industry succeed.

Paul Smith is international marketing manager for Astec’s Aggregate and Mining Group.

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