Although we’re unlikely to see the ubiquitous Belle concrete mixer disappear from small building sites any time soon, there’s a new alternative about to land in the UK which could pose a serious threat.
Later this month, Fibo Intercon, a Danish manufacturer of concrete batching plants, will unveil the UK’s first automated ‘touch-and-go’ self-service plant for small batches.
Located at Thorncliffe Building Supplies’ main depot in Mold, north Wales, the Fibo Collect system is the concrete equivalent of the fresh coffee dispensers found in every motorway service station.
The new machine integrates an automated concrete batching plant with a touch-screen payment terminal so customers can collect batched material at the push of a button. You just roll up, dial in your required mix (double-shot espresso, latte, americano etc) and the machine does the rest.
Fibo Intercon chief executive Henrick Jeppessen says that the Fibo Collect idea was simply a marriage of existing concrete batching equipment with modern digital technology. “It’s all our own design. The plant itself is 30 years old – it’s a rock-solid design. And we’ve always programmed our own software so we developed this system in-house.”
The only element that wasn’t within Fibo’s existing capabilities was the payment terminal: that requires special certification, so Fibo employed a specialist to complete that part of the project.
Launched two years ago in Denmark, the concept has caught on not only there but also in France, where there are now 15 of these self-service batching plants.
Fibo Collect machines offer up to 60 recipes using up to four different additives. Silo levels are measured using weight cells and refill alarms are triggered by email and SMS. An automated internal washing system cleans the pan mixer immediately after a batch is delivered, ready for the next batch and a new recipe.
The data for every batch of concrete is stored in the Fibo cloud, which gives the operator full details of everything the plant produces. Moreover, operators can use the data to create delivery notes, quality assurance accreditation documents and much more.
The idea found its way to the UK last year via Alex Atkinson, a Chester-based digital marketing executive who had been working with Jeppessen on a different project.
The application of a digital customer interface to concrete mixing and delivery intrigued Atkinson. He thought it would also interest his future father-in-law, Stuart Cranfield, a quantity surveyor and managing director of Bell Meadow, a builder of bespoke up-market homes in the Cheshire region.
Cranfield was indeed interested. “Henrick said it was beginning to kick off in France and we reckoned it could do the same over here,” he says. For a building firm like Bell Meadow, the Fibo Collect concept is very attractive: with no on-site mixing, there’s very little mess and being able to drive up to your local builders merchant and help yourself to small batches of good-quality concrete or mortar is very convenient.
It also means no more waiting for a ready-mix truck and part load feeds.
Once Atkinson, Jeppessen and Cranfield had agreed to introduce Fibo Collect to the UK market Atkinson set about contacting potential customers in the merchant sector.
“The merchants loved the idea but they had some reservations, especially about the risk of contamination from one batch to the next,” says Atkinson. “Brickies won’t have stones in their mortar!”
Many innovators will recognise the scenario: a promising new idea gets an enthusiastic reception – but then nobody wants to be the first to take the plunge. The only way to convince potential Fibo Collect customers was to take them out to Denmark and show them the system in operation.
One merchant was interested enough to take up the invitation: Thorncliffe Building Supplies, an independent builders merchant and skip-hire business based in north Wales. “We took them out there and demonstrated the wash-out system. All was good – we passed the test,” says Atkinson. Thorncliffe now has the UK’s first Fibo Collect system installed at its depot in Mold.
“We are still talking to the national chains but right now we’re focusing on the independents. They can move faster and start using the system quickly,” says Atkinson.
The self-service concept is certainly unfamiliar to the merchant sector and some reticence is to be expected. But Atkinson says the Fibo Collect system is flexible enough to be tailored to the user’s needs.
“Every merchant will have its own preference,” he says. “We put Thorncliffe’s barcode reader behind the till. That means they still get face-to-face contact with the customer; also it brings them into the store, so they might buy something else while they’re there,” he says.
Maintaining this personal contact between merchant and customer could prove crucial in the early stages of adoption, says Atkinson. The customer might feel uncomfortable operating the system the first few times. For that reason, Thorncliffe plans to have someone on hand to guide customers through the process.
But eventually, the system can be as hands-off as you like. “We can set the plant up with just the payment terminal and conveyor accessible from outside the yard so you can use it just like a cashpoint,” says Atkinson, “even at evenings and weekends when there’s nobody there.”
Customers can pay by credit card, QR code or with an RFID tag that bills the cost to their account. “The customer can scan the code or tap their tag, then take their concrete and the merchant will bill them online,” says Jeppessen.
In preparation for the UK launch of the Fibo Collect system, Atkinson conducted research among small builders and landscaping contractors in the North Wales region.
Most would collect their mix in a flatbed pickup or van using 250-litre tubs and most would prefer to buy their own tubs rather than hire them from the supplier.
But when asked what price they would expect to pay for a 250-litre tub, the answers ranged from £10 to £120.
The builders were also asked the Goldilocks question: what price per tub of concrete or mortar would be considered ‘so cheap the quality must be poor’, what price would be considered too expensive and what price would be ‘reasonable’. These results were more consistent, suggesting that the reasonable price per tub lies somewhere between £57.50 – £62.50 per tub of concrete and £40.50 – £45.50 for mortar.
Most small builders currently mix their concrete or mortar themselves, on-site. Some also collect small batches from a local supplier or have it delivered via volumetric mixer trucks, but cost is a major issue here.
They reported that these suppliers don’t seem interested in providing small quantities and the minimum load is usually one cubic metre.
Not surprisingly, many find it frustrating to have to pay an average £180 for a cubic metre when they only need 0.2–0.4m3. Fibo Collect scores here, as it can dispense batches as small as 200 litres.
Paradoxically, the Fibo Collect concept could also benefit customers who don’t want to go and pick up materials themselves: it can be delivered. “It sounds like a retrograde step,” says Jeppessen, “but it means that customers ordering a pallet of bricks or other materials from their local merchant can add a tub of mortar to the order and it’ll all arrive on the same truck.”
The system, he says, is flexible enough to be tailored to the requirements of both the merchant and its customers.
Later this month, Thorncliffe will hold an open day where the Fibo Collect concept will be launched to UK customers. If it’s as successful as the Fibo team expects, we may soon be seeing self-service batching plants popping up at other merchant outlets around the UK.
Key Fibo benefits at a glance:
Automated payment terminal with touch screen technology.
Payment options are set by the vendor and include:
• Prepaid (in store) barcode
• Credit card at the plant (payment kiosk)
• RFID chip for regular account customers
Self-cleaning mixing pan:
A fully automated internal washing system that cleans the pan mixer immediately after a batch is delivered ready for the next batch and a new recipe.
Waste recycling unit:
A unit that separates the washout materials from the water and reconditions the water for use in another concrete batch.
In-person and remote recipe programming:
Up to 60 recipes using up to four different additives.
Silo levels are measured using weight cells and refill alarms are triggered by email and SMS.
Maintenance control panel:
A screen is used to identify faults, programme recipes ad hoc and view service schedules.
Allowing the machine to be cloud-based and accessible for remote support. This technology also allows for making delivery and production notes for each batch available in the Fibo cloud, as either pdf or CSV.
Productivity data monitoring:
Output data on usage is sent via the cloud to be read remotely.