US Cement Industry – Concrete Signs of Strength!

I have been in Washington, DC this week at the 56th IEEE-IAS PCA cement industry conference.  It has been a few years since I attended this conference.  Overall, the cement industry continues to recover from the 2008 US recession.  Over the past five years in the US, 18 plants have been closed – 10 permanently.

My goals for attending this important conference were three-fold:

  1. To get an understanding of the state of the cement industry
  2. To review new technologies, plant performance initiatives, and regulatory updates
  3. To touch-base with industry colleagues, both end-users and equipment/service vendors

The first goal was achieved via Ed Sullivan’s keynote presentation on “state of the cement industry”.  Mr. Sullivan is the chief economist and a vice president at the Portland Cement Association (PCA).  Ed started his talk with “I am optimistic for the US cement industry – the first time in a long time!”  His focus was on growth, sustained growth, and the strength of the growth.  Ed predicted 8% growth for US cement plants in 2014 – this is a bold prediction, and is based on the foundation of “consumer pent-up demand” for goods/services/homes.  Note that US GDP prediction of growth for 2014 is about 2.6%!

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PCA is predicting 1.4 million US housing starts for 2014.  Keep in mind that 50% of concrete demand is for residential construction, while 30% is for non-residential/commercial, and 20% is for public use.  Many US cement plants that have been running at 65 to 75% capacity utilization over the past five years are predicted by PCA to be at 90% in only a few years.  Ed mentioned the US Census prediction for US population growth by 20% (+65 million people) in the next 20 years; therefore, cement will be a very important building-block for the future supporting economy.

My second goal (technologies, regulatory update) was met through listening to a wide variety of technical presentations.  A few focused on improved grinding technology with vertical roller mills, while others discussed motor controls – an important topic for energy efficiency when dealing with 6000 HP motors needed for mills!  Speakers from EPA and MSHA outlined initiatives for Energy Star compliance and safety in cement plants.  Did you know that it takes on the order of 5,000 million BTUs to produce 1 ton of clinker (ref. EPA)?  That’s a lot of heat!  Discussion on alternative fuel (tires, consumer waste, biomass, etc.) was a common theme at the conference.  Traditional primary fuels (coal, coke, oil, gas) are being substituted with alternative fuels ranging from 10 to 20% replacement – this represents a significant savings on US cement plant fuel costs.

My third goal (“touching-base”) was vital.  Whether meeting with trade journal editors, equipment and service providers, and end-users (cement plant personnel from Holcim, Lafarge, Cemex, Heidelberger, Ash Grove, Argos, Titan, and many others), I enjoyed catching up on the state of their business activities AND personal updates, as I have know many of these folks for years!  Many I talked with expressed optimism for increased cement production, though somewhat more guarded in their opinion than Mr. Sullivan’s.

Though the magnitude of a cement plant’s production can be huge (up to 10,000 tons per day!), the cement industry community is relatively small.  This industry is chock-full of talented, knowledgeable, and professional individuals that effectively drive this industry towards performance improvements, reduced energy consumption, and environmental protection enhancements.

I truly enjoy working with the cement industry to help them meet their goals, and I am honored to participate in this important conference.  Please save the date for next year’s IEEE/PCA conference!  It will be held in Toronto, Canada on April 26-30, 2015, and I look forward to meeting you there.

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