The evolution of Colorado’s Albert Frei & Sons

By |  October 13, 2017

Overhead and ground views of the Walstrum Quarry’s loadout system, which can handle as many as 500 customers per day. Photos by Kevin Yanik

The single stockpile of washed concrete aggregate – 67s to be precise – is an anomaly at Albert Frei & Sons’ Walstrum Quarry.

Call the small pile a luxury, even, for this operation nestled along U.S. Route 6 and Interstate 70 in the Rocky Mountains, about 30 miles west of the heart of Denver.

Pressed for space since 1982, when Albert Frei Sr. permitted and started production at this crushed-stone site, loadout is very much a just-in-time function driven by specialized systems of bins and silos that directly load customer trucks, as well as other components that propel efficiencies.

“We’ll maximize your load every time right in the center of your truck, and you’re going to be ticketed and out in five minutes,” says Albert Frei Jr., company president.

One of the most unique components of Albert Frei & Sons’ loadout is a wash system that was originally put in for a former customer who produced concrete railroad ties. For Albert Frei & Sons, whose top-selling product is its washed 67s, the system eliminates any rehandling the operation would otherwise take on if it wasn’t directly loading trucks via the silos.

“If you rehandle the quarry rock three or four times, you subject yourself to the mercy of a loader operator and contamination,” says Albert Jr., adding that the wash system is composed of a 6-ft. x 20-ft. double-deck screen and four 250-ton silos. “When we rinse it, it goes into the silos and directly into the truck. It never touches the ground.”

Concepts like the loadout wash system are ones the late Albert Sr. pioneered at the Walstrum Quarry, the last quarry of its kind to be permitted on Colorado’s Front Range, according to Albert Frei & Sons.

“My dad knew his quarry was farther away from the market,” Albert Jr. says. “He knew his freight rates would be more expensive than his competition. So how do you get the best freight rate per mile?”

Well, by quickly getting customers back on the road.

Photo by Kevin Yanik“Elsewhere, maybe you get four loads per day,” Albert Jr. says. “Here, they can get five. That has helped to separate us with customers.”

Precisely weighing material in hoppers before it’s distributed to customers is another approach that gets customers at Albert Frei & Sons back on the road quickly.

Still, keeping all of those bins and silos full is a science the operation has mastered over a number of years. Albert Frei & Sons’ success stems from a number of areas – from a large investment a decade ago in its secondary/tertiary plant, to the 40 employees ranging from new hires to 30-year veterans who currently work on site.

“The real credit of success goes to the boots on the ground,” Albert Jr. says. “Our people are the greatest asset within the business. If we don’t have good people, we have nothing.”

The goal at the end of the day, of course, is to send those employees home safely. In terms of production, the operation’s goal is to continuously keep those bins and silos full. And that means providing employees with a plant that can essentially produce 3.3 million tpy in just-in-time inventory.

“We fill the bins up every night and it’s a wild ride,” Albert Jr. says.

It starts with a vision

Photo by Kevin Yanik

The construction of the secondary/tertiary plant within the green facility pictured above was a bit of a risk just ahead of the Great Recession. But time has proven the investment in equipment – such as Metso’s HP500 cone crushers, pictured below, and four-deck Deister screens – to be worthy. Says Albert Frei Jr.: “Plant mangers dream of building this kind of plant, but logistically there are few who have gotten to it because of the financial responsibilities that come with the big companies.”

But getting a sense of why Albert Frei & Sons operates as it does – and why it’s made some of the investments in equipment and technology that it has – requires an understanding of the Walstrum Quarry’s origins.

“The Denver metro area was pretty flush with sand and gravel,” Albert Jr. says. “The gravel pits in that area prospered pretty well, but they eventually all got depleted.”

As the availability of more metro-area alluvial pits dried up, five producers looked to the Front Range for opportunities in the 1970s and 1980s, Albert Jr. says. The producers targeted Boulder County to the northwest of Denver and Jefferson County to the west and southwest. But all five producers came up empty in their attempts to permit a crushed stone site, he says.

“Jefferson and Boulder Counties like their Front Range-scenic views,” Albert Jr. says.

Albert Jr.’s father, however, had the foresight to go one more county to the west – to Clear Creek County. Albert Sr. ultimately got his permit, and the Walstrum Quarry opened alongside the highway.

“Everybody kind of thought my dad was crazy because we’re so far away from the market,” Albert Jr. says. “We’re about 22 miles farther away than our competition. They all kind of thought he was a little delusional that this would really work.”

The setup has worked, though. The first 10 years in business were difficult, according to Albert Jr. But his dad bided his time and watched more ideally situated alluvial gravel sites fade away. And now, with an estimated 40 to 50 million tons remaining in the operation’s permit, the Walstrum Quarry is considered a go-to site for the Denver area despite its more remote location.

“We’re really the last independent aggregate supplier in the Denver market,” Albert Jr. says.

Optimizing the plants

Photo by Kevin Yanik

Metso HP500 cone crushers

Based on its location, Albert Frei & Sons must enhance any efficiency it can to diminish the rewards its nearest competitor reaps being 22 miles closer to the market. The secondary/tertiary plant the operation built 10 years ago is a classic example of an investment that’s enhanced the operation’s efficiency, as well as its production.

“This is a really unique plant,” says Albert Jr., who erected the enclosed plant over a two-year period with the help of design and engineering firm M.A. Bielski & Associates, his brother Tommy, and skilled labor from existing production and maintenance crews. “In theory there are three separate plants in there. They are identical, but they are isolated so they each can run independently. The purpose of that is if one line goes down or if one crusher goes down, the other two are running just fine. They’re not restricted by anything else. That’s part of the redundancy we planned into this.”

Three separate conveyor lines feed into the secondary/tertiary plant from a surge pile the primary produces.

“The surge pile is a combination of everything that meters into [the secondary],” Albert Jr. says. “We separate the three products from the surge pile. We have natural fines, and all of the coarse, surge rock comes into [the secondary].”

In other aggregate operations, a downed secondary plant puts a halt to any activity at a tertiary. Albert Frei & Sons does not, however, have that worry.

“The really unique thing about this plant is that there are eight FMC feeders moderating and feeding the different rates of product,” Albert Jr. says. “There are three HP500 Metso cone crushers inside and three 8-ft. x 24-ft. four-deck Deister [screens]. The three bottom decks are your traditional screens, and that fourth deck gives us flexibility.”

Photo by Kevin Yanik

Little touches like the conveyor speed wheels that enhance production are often the result of partnerships with engineers, equipment suppliers and industry consultants, says Albert Frei Jr.

The design gives Albert Frei & Sons the ability to make three “core” products plus three secondary products at a time. According to Albert Jr., that fourth screen deck essentially serves as the operation’s “secondary” plant.

It’s a unique setup to say the least.

“[One day] we’re making ballast, which is a 2.5-in.-minus,” he says. “So we can run one line making 2.5-in. and other ones are making 1 in. The next day, we shut down that 2.5-in., close up that line, at the touch of a button open the other one and make a #4, which is like a 2-in.-minus.

“We consolidated everything in, went vertical, and made a secondary out of an extra deck on a screen,” Albert Jr. adds. “We had to get real creative because we don’t have a lot of real estate like these big, massive quarries.”

Keeping plants in check

Plant automation makes the experience at both the secondary/tertiary plant and the primary a more pleasant one. Both plants are fitted with programmable logic controllers (PLCs) that increase their uptime, although the design of the secondary/tertiary is a bit more sophisticated.

“For us, the automation isn’t to reduce the size of our labor force but to enable it,” says Kent Brown, senior electrician at Albert Frei & Sons. “You see companies try to implement a lot of automation to reduce their labor force, but that’s not our goal.”

On the secondary/tertiary plant, for example, the operator consumes data related to motor amperages, material volumes and more. The operation’s touch-of-a-mouse system empowers the operator with an assortment of data in an easy-to-read form.

“He can take information – averages, feed rates and plant production data – to make decisions that allow the plant to run more efficiently,” Brown says.

Photo by Kevin Yanik

Three conveyors angle upward into the Walstrum Quarry’s secondary/tertiary plant, which was designed vertically owing to space constraints.

The same applies at Albert Frei & Sons’ primary, except the operator there reacts with the push of buttons.

“The wiring behind the controls goes to a PLC, and the PLC makes the decisions on the output of the plant,” Brown says. “It lets you monitor for safety and other issues. If you have a conveyor shut down, for example, it will shut down everything behind it that feeds that conveyor so you don’t have big messes.”

In the rare event that a PLC fails, Albert Frei & Sons has a second check in place to avoid plant issues.

“Each conveyor has a speed wheel,” Albert Jr. says. “The speed wheel measures motion. Most of the drives here are V-belt driven – it’s a motor, belt and gearbox. Say the V-belts break – the motor’s still running but the conveyor stops moving. The computer thinks the starter is still engaged but the belt is not operating.

“Well, now you have that second check. If the belt is not moving, the speed wheel senses it, alerts you and shuts everything else down behind it.”

Before, belts could continue to stall and create spillages.

“Then you’re spending an hour or two cleaning it up, and you’re pushing your conveyors later to try to catch up,” Albert Jr. says.

It’s little things like speed wheels and big things like the company’s willingness to strategically invest in equipment, technology and skilled labor that make Albert Frei & Sons a competitive outfit despite its home in the mountains.

“I want to get our guys whatever tools they need to keep those bins full,” Albert Jr. says.

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