Scale-Tron, automation, sensors and weighing systems
Concrete Monthly
April 2006 issue
Industry News 

Perfecting the art and the science

Scale-Tron discovers that one-size concrete production solution doesn't fit all

President Robin Shepherdson talks about concrete batch controls
Robin Shepherdson

The concrete industry has gotten the science down pat, but it's the art of concrete production that has become the mission of the team at Scale-Tron.

President Robin Shepherdson says the industry ranges from some very small concrete plants up to very large plants, and there's just no such thing as a one-size-fits-all solution. Batching, mixing and delivery of all types of concrete is handled by a range of control systems, from low-cost basic automation up to high-speed fully automatic production for the most complex plants.

But while the science may be the same for those systems producing concrete, there's a big difference in how they approach it, and that's the "art" that's involved. Scale-Tron (scaletron.com) has developed five generations of batch controllers, as well as custom weighing systems for almost every industry, and it is the only manufacturer to produce all the major components of its automatic concrete production control system: ready-mix management software, batching, aggregate moisture measurement and mixer water dosing. The RediLink Ready Mix Management System, software for managing ready-mix companies, is one of the primary differentiators between Scale-Torn and its competitors, and the difference may be more art than science.

"Our engineers pay attention to the smallest details at every stage of the production process, whether it is in the way the plant would like to order concrete, electrical safety interlocks, PLC software or the way that wires are run in the control cabinet and plant," Shepherdson said. "We discuss the whole picture with the customer and advise on the best way to combine equipment, sequence it and optimize it to obtain the highest possible performance, bar none."

While all equipment does much the same thing, Shepherdson said how it does it is a critical factor.

"A good automation system must operate at high speed, allow for all the variations of usage in the industry and be simple to operate. Above all, it must be able to handle minor breakdowns without having to revert to manual operation. Our controls and software, being fully integrated, go further than any other that we know of in this regard."

He said Scale-Tron batching equipment is very simple, eliminating the need for skilled personnel. One of the company's advantages is in being able to match the equipment to the needs of the customer, especially in precast plants where customization and special features are sought after.

"All control panels and touch screens are laid out to represent a plant diagram, giving individual selection of automatic or manual operation when minor breakdowns occur," Shepherdson said. "Special features such as demand stations, radio call and remote material delivery stations were all first introduced to the industry by Scale-Tron, and many of these features are not available from other suppliers."

The beginning

Shepherdson started a company called Scalar Electronics in 1971 after buying a failing company that made controllers for concrete production.
Their first designs didn't use tiny microchips like they are today — they were huge circuit boards with large numbers of chips on them utilizing TTL Logic.

It took a lot of people to make these controllers — putting them together, getting them going, testing them and troubleshooting them.

Scalar Electronics started off in a very small way, finishing off some control panels that this other company had started.

With the early system, doing a simple thing like printing a report was a major job. The systems at this point in history were big and awkward and very people-intensive.

The company initially worked primarily in the Montreal area where it is based. Then they began branching out across Canada as they became more widely known, and continued to add people to the staff.

"In 1981 there was a big recession and we almost got caught with our pants down," Shepherdson said. "We were overloaded with people, and long story short, the company went under and we got bought out by an outfit and run for a couple of years, but that fell through.

So he started Scale-Tron in 1984 from scratch with one employee and himself, and he has built it up from there.

Shepherdson has a background in electronics and weighing systems. After graduating in England in 1965, he settled in Montreal and worked in spacecraft electronics, military communications and mainframe computer power supplies before forming Scalar Electronics. At Scale-Tron, he directs marketing, engineering and R&D activities.

The present

Today, Shepherdson has about 25 people working in three companies that are generating between $5 and $10 million: Scale-Tron, R.L. Scales and Sicoma North America. Sicoma North America was started as a joint venture with Sicoma from Italy last fall to sell mixers and traveling hoppers in North America. Shepherdson said these products allow the company to integrate its skills more completely by matching plant equipment and controls more closely, further perfecting the production of concrete.

R.L. Scales makes scales for the self-checkout systems used in supermarkets.

As well as batching systems, Scale-Tron manufactures microwave-based moisture sensors for aggregates and for the concrete mixer; they also have the capability for the design of complete plants and the supply of equipment in all areas of concrete production.

He said that Scale-Tron also makes some OEM products for other industries, such as custom designed force sensors and electronics.

BatchTron Controller

The BatchTron Controller, which controls the batching, is Scale-Tron's main product. Scale-Tron's traditional market has been precast and other products producers; they have grown up in this industry and tailored their equipment to its special needs. They replaced their previous generation, which was based on a mix of PLC and PC computer technology, because the PC computer was always the weak link, giving the average customer some sort of problem every few months. The new generation, BatchTron, using a PLC and touch screen, is free from this type of trouble and usually runs for years without a service call.

For ready-mix, a five-plant company would have a BatchTron Controller at all five plants, insuring that each plant's batching operation runs smoothly without breakdowns.

"Even if all the computers went on the blink, the batching is still going to run automatically. Of course, there would be no dispatch or order entry. The batch man can make batches and dispatch his trucks manually and he can still serve his customers.

"The PLCs are great for control, and the touch screens are great for what we call HMI or human-to-machine interface. They are far more reliable than PC computers and will keep running no matter what. But they are not as suitable for the daily tasks you need for order entry and dispatching, accounting and so on."

RediLink Concrete Management System

Another venture with an Italian company has resulted in a key component of Scale-Tron's batching systems.

"We were doing business with a company that was selling our moisture sensors in Italy," he said. "They had a software system for ready mixed concrete so we partnered with these guys to sell their product, the RediLink Concrete Management System, in North America. It's new to North America, but it's widely used across Italy and part of Europe."

RediLink, like most other advanced systems, takes the orders that come in, dispatches trucks and then makes the batches of concrete. And along the way, it plugs all the financial information into the accounting system so invoicing and inventory control can occur.

"It's how they do it and all the little differences that count," he said. "For example, in North America they've got to take into effect three different levels of tax structure: federal, state and municipal, and each one of them are handled in a different way so the software has got to be versatile enough to do all of this. This is something the European guys don't have. They have a very simple tax system over there, so they had to customize it for us to use in North America.

But the software also reflects the finesse of the European industry, including many details that a North American software developer would probably not include.

"The Europeans have a reputation for being perfectionists in a lot of things when it comes to hi tech stuff, so they tend to consider all the little details and they take things to an extreme unthought-of in North America. So you look at the little details like the way something is charged to a customer, whereas the American systems would generally ignore a lot of these little things. The European systems have thought it all out and they can choose to charge for every little thing like slump variations. This package lets the operators take care of their job, and makes sure they can bill for every item."

The RediLink does two things. First, there's the ready mixed management system and then there is the Mix Design Quality Control Software, which can run along with the Concrete Management System or it can be a standalone system, but Scale-Tron sells it as it as a standalone system.

"This is a system that creates mix designs," he said. "You give it your lab aggregate gradation tests and cements, and it runs through to give you a mix design based on your needs. So you tell it you want to put together a particular strength of concrete, workability, climatic conditions, you know, whether it is an outside exposed condition with large temperature variation, all these variables, and it gives you everything you need, including the admixes. It also does costing based on aggregates prices.

"So it is a very complete, very powerful program for mix design. It was something that was really impossible to do before. If you look at the way other people have done mix design programs in the past they are very simplistic things sort of like an automated slide rule whereas this brings you the whole power of computer technology to your fingertips and allows you to do something that would take a mix design expert a week by recalculating hundreds of times to get the thing just right. This will do it in a few seconds."

The software runs on industry-standard PC-based systems.

The future

The ready mixed industry has awakened to the fact that order entry and dispatching software is now available at reasonable cost, and that makes a lot of sense even to the small user, so Shepherdson said that's a growth factor for the future.

He said there's a very big market of small companies - one plant and two-plant companies - that have never bought anything like this or never connected up their functions to their accounting system before.

Scale-Tron offers two products as a solution. RediLink is designed for large multiple plant operations, while BatchLink is similar, but inexpensive software designed in-house for the single plant up to four-plant users.

"It is very inexpensive and that is why this software is becoming so popular right now. This software is becoming relatively inexpensive and people can afford to put it in and afford to take advantage of it. It gives massive savings in manpower and a step up in profitability."

Another trend is most plants are automated now and they are locking up the second generation of automation. They are replacing the crude automatic plants they had before and putting in more sophisticated controls.

"So in our products we've added a lot of new benefits to the batching controllers that we've got to make them more powerful and give them more functionality to the user. The bottom line is that it improves profitability.

"We've also got our own microwave moisture sensor, RadarTron, that maybe only one other company in the world is making, so we're number two and trying harder. That adds to our bottom line and is as important to us as our batching controller.

Recently developed silo weighing systems allow cement and grain silos to be quickly fitted with an accurate and low cost method of weighing the contents. Silo Weigh is our product that is coming up really fast, which provides the ability to automate the level sensing in the silos.

"So your cement silos can be automated and send the silo weight data to a central Internet-based database; the head office or another plant can look at the data right on the Internet. And you can also pick off that data and plug into your company ERP or IT system and larger companies can use that to automate their cement ordering, if you are a concrete company, or if you are a cement company you can automate your truck dispatching and deliveries to all customers.

Silo Weigh comes in two versions: One has a bar graph and sits in the office next to the silos, and the other is Silo-Weigh.Net, which is on the Internet and can be networked and connected to the company's IT system.

"We developed this along with a research group from Holcim and we're talking to them now about implementing this across the northeast United States.

There are larger companies producing concrete production systems, but they don't occupy much of Shepherdson's mindshare. He occupies his time perfecting the Art of the Science of producing concrete.

 
This article appeared in the April 2006 issue of Concrete Monthly.

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