Mud is Mud …
Many people view refractory as dirt in a bag. It sure looks like dirt, right?
If you can lay brick, you can lay firebrick, right? If you can cast concrete, you can install refractory, right? And many believe any laborer can install castable.
In redbrick, a bricklayer not laying proper joints will be “run off” the job. However, we’ve seen customers allow redbrick layers to install firebrick and accept totally incorrect joints and generally poor construction.
These views are common among those who aren’t intimately involved in the construction trades and specifically refractory maintenance of industrial furnaces. Unfortunately, in some occurrences, these views can cost your company a significant amount of capital.
And they could cost you your job.
This article discusses an instance where that happened – not to point any fingers – but to educate some of our newer readers to understand the potential consequences of treating refractory simply as “dirt or mud.” Or firebrick as “brick.”
Although the work may look similar, it’s not the same.
About a year ago, we had a potential customer reach out to us with a Request for Proposal (RFP) to participate in bidding on their new project. This was an $8M project to install a new modern industrial furnace to replace three older industrial furnaces.
We reviewed their construction drawings, RFP, specifications and the timeframe for the refractory scope-of-work and realized the refractory portion of the job couldn’t be completed in the timeframe requested. We met to share our interest in the project and discuss the project specifics, timelines and critical paths, but told them that in our professional opinion, the job could not be completed within their pre-determined timeframe.
It was one of those instances where we were asked to provide the impossible:
Quality, fast and cheap
Any businessperson knows that you can’t expect to get all three for a high-ticket item, so pick two of the three. (If it’s cheap and fast, can it be high quality?)
We delivered a proposal that was substantially higher than their budget (that’s why it helps to include us in the budgeting process) because we bid the minimum necessary amount of time to complete the job safely with quality work. In the RFP, much of the work was “Task” fixed-duration driven, not “Effort” driven. As expected, the plant manager in charge of selecting quotes chose a much lower quote from someone who said they could complete the job within the allotted time budget.
A significant portion of a typical plant manager’s job at an industrial manufacturing facility is to ensure that the plant is running smoothly at or under budget. In this case, the GM (whom we’ll call “George” for this article) was given a budget to work with and selected a quote from a contractor on the list that fit the budget requirements.
George was doing his job properly, right?
Or was George set up to fail?
The lower price bid George selected that matched their installation time requirements came from a general contractor, not a refractory contractor.
Mud is mud, right?
The company installed the furnace and allowed a general contractor using cement finishers, concrete laborers and redbrick layers to complete the work. During the installation period, we noticed that the company managing the project was advertising for bricklayers with refractory experience in the newspapers. This is odd because there’s a high demand for people with these skills; most are already employed by a reputable refractory contractor.
As you can expect, this story doesn’t have a happy ending.
The furnace was supposed to dramatically improve their process, but because of the above choices, the furnace:
- Didn’t operate as expected;
- Is having high downtime; and
- Major repairs are being conducted in under 12 months of being put in service to reinstall material that wasn’t installed properly.
And the installation took longer than the amount of time we initially indicated.
The general manager and project manager were replaced and are no longer with the company, and the project failure cost several other people their jobs. The company has spent significantly more than our original quote on materials and labor alone – notwithstanding the lost revenue from downtime and production shortfalls.
By selecting a general contractor who wasn’t experienced with refractory installation, the company achieved the opposite of the intended goal of the project and learned the hard way.
We don’t want to sound like sour grapes with this article, but we believe there is something valuable for general managers, engineers and purchasing or budgeting departments from this project analysis.
Our goal is to deliver the lowest total cost solution, not just the lowest initial installation cost, and build a long-term relationship with the people managing the industrial facility. To do that requires some cooperation between parties.
Here are our recommendations if you’re running into some of the challenges we’ve outlined here:
- Don’t view everything strictly from the cost perspective. Low price doesn’t necessarily mean “low cost.” Certain types of jobs require specific types of expertise that can’t be delegated to the untrained.
- Keep an open dialogue between your purchasing team and your engineering team. Saving a few bucks today that cost tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars later in the year isn’t worth it. Don’t narrow your cost focus to the point where it ends up hurting your company.
- Don’t buy into the belief that “mud is mud.” Refractory products are not the same, even though they appear that way to the casual observer.