Automation Systems Help Asphalt Producers Focus on the Quality

With pressure from material prices and customer expectations, automated controls help asphalt producers do a better job.

Jerry McCauley, a plant superintendent with Plote Construction, has seen a lot of changes over his nearly 36 years in the asphalt industry. Probably the greatest innovation McCauley has witnessed is automation technology for asphalt production.

"When I started with the company, we produced maybe three or four different types of mixes," he says. "Now there are hundreds of mixes built to do a particular job. More thought needs to go into what the mix is going to be used for. Quality control people need to get the recipe right -- and automation controls help them do that."

In fact, Plote, which owns four plants in Illinois, averages between 1.5 and 2 million tons of asphalt production a year. And McCauley says the company is greatly aided by the automated blending controls.

"Those controls are the brain of the operation," he explains. "They tell everything that is going on with that mix."

The total package

Today's automated controls consist of more than blending controls, however. Full plant controls provide complete control and monitoring of an entire facility on any type of plant. There are several benefits to automating your asphalt production facility, including:

  • Complete control over mix
  • Eliminating outdated push buttons
  • Instant alarms minimize plant troubleshooting and downtime
  • Increased productivity and efficiency

Dan Bauman, operations manager of asphalt with Glenn O. Hawbaker Inc., headquartered in State College, PA, believes the efficiencies gained top the list of benefits automation brings.

"We have eight asphalt plants that produce between 1.2 and 1.5 million tons a year," he says. "Our automation engineer can check all eight plants at once to see how they're running. We also have integrated transportation and dispatch between the plants, which helps improve our efficiencies."

Another benefit is less waste, notes Bauman. "When you can tweak the efficiencies of the mix, you'll have less waste, and a better mix."

McCauley with Plote concurs. "Sometimes we're changing from one formula of mix to another very quickly," he says. "As asphalt producers, we need to consistently make a better product. Certain mixes call for certain percentages of materials, and those percentages have to be the same every time. Without these controls, it might be easy to make a mistake and waste material."

In addition to creating better efficiencies, less waste and a better product, asphalt producers are dealing with material price fluctuations.

"We've had about 150% increase in liquid over the last 3 or 4 years," says McCauley. "Monitoring those materials, and using what's needed and no more, is really important to our bottom line. Automated controls are crucial for this.

"What it comes down to," he continues, "is customers want to know if their tollways and driveways are going to hold up. In order to make a better product, we have to be consistent. It's all about the quality."

Trained operators still a must

"Computers are a beautiful thing," says McCauley. "But they can't replace people."

Even with automation in place, experience is still important to running an efficient asphalt production facility. And like most technology, there's an adjustment period to getting things to run smoothly.

"Our automation controls help reduce staffing, but not oversight," says Bauman with Glenn O. Hawbaker. "We don't run a 'hands-off' facility. It's not like you can push a button and walk away."

Most suppliers who offer automated controls provide installation and training for their products.

For example, WEM Automation provides complete plant automation, on-site electrical services, plant calibrations, training and efficiency analysis, says James Phillips, vice president of construction and aggregates with WEM.

When selecting a supplier, be sure they also offer after-sale support and service. Any downtime to an asphalt plant is critical, and your automation supplier needs to understand this.

The future

Where will automation controls help asphalt producers in the future?

"The continued movement with warm mix, efficiency analysis, gradation control and the proven efficiency gain with single point automation and electrical services will continue to shape the automation side of the business," says Phillips with WEM.

McCauley with Plote notes the emphasis on quality control is not going away. "It's been a real journey since the 1970s," he says. "Illinois is a now ?pay for performance' state where compensation is based on how well a mix holds up.

"The reward for us is in doing a better job," he explains. "Quality control is very important, and the state is trending toward tighter tolerances. These types of automated controls are very important to our operation, and I can say they're only going to get more important as time goes by."