According to the National Asphalt Pavement Association, the earliest hot mix production units consisted of shallow iron trays heated over open coal fires. The operator dried the aggregate on the tray, poured hot asphalt on top and stirred the mixture by hand. The quality of the mix usually depended on the skill and experience of the operator.
Over the years, manufacturers have listened to these experienced and skilled operators, developing products to help them to do their jobs more efficiently and with better results. Luckily for the industry, innovation has pushed forward, and today’s asphalt plants are much smarter and far more automated.
Astec has always made it a priority to listen to their customers. They pioneered the ability to use continuous plants to efficiently make and store various blends of asphalt via storage silos. They also made various sustainability improvements to plants such as warm mix asphalt systems and variable drives to reduce energy consumption.
These ideas that producers use every day not only came from listening to customers, but also from years of expertise and anticipating the needs of the industry.
“Good, innovative ideas come from a variety of sources,” Mike Anderson, VP of Product Management at Astec, Inc. says. “Customers who may be owners or operators, engineers, people working in our shops etc... all have good ideas. When we get an idea from one source, we’ll generally discuss it with others such as our sales and service reps in the field and with other trusted customers, to get their perspectives. We’d rather focus on a few improvements that will really make a big difference to all our customers’ bottom lines than chase every shiny new object.”
Once an idea is generated and vetted, the team at Astec gets to work.
A Strategy for Success
In the past, if a customer had a specific feature they wanted included, Astec would create a custom solution uniquely for them and then later, adjust the approach and roll it out to other customers if it worked.
“We used to primarily do an engineered-to-order effort for any customer with a need, without a lot of planning. If it was successful, we’d then apply it to others who might need the same things,” Anderson says.
While that made sense for the most part, Astec is now more intentional with everything they do, not only addressing immediate needs, but looking at longer-term solutions for the industries they serve.
“If a customer has a tactical issue with making one of our products perform, we’re all over it and quickly. Our service, parts and engineering departments take care of issues immediately” Anderson says. “For more strategic problems, such as new features or benefits customers would like to see us include in our plants in the future, we take a more methodical approach to make sure we get it right.”
Astec has created a stage/gate process for new product innovations that fill a need or are a gap in their offerings.
“When we get an idea of something that it looks like we need to include in our products, we'll start by running a business case on it,” Anderson says. “We obviously need to know what it will cost to develop the new feature, but we also try to quantify how good it is for the customers and the benefit they will get from the change that we’re considering. This helps us to prioritize and focus so the customers get the most bang for the buck.”
The product will then enter a preliminary design phase and progress through interdisciplinary teams from sales, engineering, product management and manufacturing to see if the product is viable and if it will succeed in meeting the needs of the market and our customers.
If the product is approved at this point, it will go to a formal design phase where Manufacturing will also determine fabrication techniques and tooling needed to produce it. The team will usually develop a prototype and pass it along to key customers as a proof of concept.
“We have several customers that are very innovative thinkers that are willing to try new things,” Anderson says. “They allow us to put this new product in their facilities and try it out to see how it works in the real world. They provide valuable feedback that we’ll incorporate into the product before we make it available to every customer.”
Aftermarket aspects such as marketing strategies, spare parts availability, training materials, tech manuals, and service requirements are also taken into consideration during this phase. The process can be lengthy to ensure everything is done right.
“Developing something new, depending on what it is, might take a year and a half or so to go through that whole process before it results in something getting produced that's ready for a customer to reliably use on a day-to-day basis,” Anderson says.
The Future is Innovative
Developing a product to fill an existing need is one thing, but the team at Astec is trying to identify solutions before they are even perceived as needs for their customers.
“We’re looking ahead at megatrends in the industry to see what needs they may have in the future that they’re not even aware of yet,” Anderson says. “These needs change due to trends and economic factors that will impact the industry. Trends like electrification, sustainability, green technologies, and improved controls and telematics are all things that will impact our customers in the future if they’re not already. We want to have the solution ready for them before they really need it.”
This forward-thinking mindset at Astec will continue to benefit both their customers and the entire construction industry, as the company works to find solutions to make a better product more efficiently.
“We want to be the innovation leader in our industry,” Anderson says. “With our combined resources in both the asphalt, and now in the concrete plant markets, we are investing in making innovative improvements for our current and future customers.”