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