Good morning and welcome to Constructing Brands. This is the place where we speak with people who are responsible for looking out and changing the building space. Architects, designers, engineers, marketers, lawyers, and also people who are in it, building material manufacturers who play different roles. So with that said, today I have on Paul Titcomb who is the president of Steel Dog, which is a company that is devoted to concrete forming products. I love their website right on front, it says Am Eric an made concrete forming products and that kind of says a lot, but I really want to hear from Paul because I actually had the opportunity to speak to some of his folks and I’m always thrilled when I see someone who is innovating and looking toward the future in this space. And Paul, I mean, if you could tell me a little bit about your company and then how you’re innovating and how you’re looking toward the future.
Yeah. Great. Okay. Thanks Eric. Yeah, no we’re a small company based in Massachusetts. We’ve been around for 22 years and we’ve built an extensive line of products all related to concrete forming. We make a line of forming panels ourselves. The exciting part of our business that we’ve been developing is specifically in fiberglass ties for concrete forming. I think if I could just kind of give a quick overview of concrete forming. I mean, essentially it’s a matter of creating these temporary molds, create the shapes that you want to create a concrete and filling those molds with liquid concrete. And when the concrete sets removing, the molds, the molds in this case are the formed panels. But since liquid concrete weighs quite a bit, you have, kind of how your static forces that dam, for instance, resistance, reservoir of water, and you have to resist those forces, which can be tremendous, upwards of half a ton per square foot on these forms. So the forms are held apart for the duration of the time it takes for the concrete to set by ties that connect the two forms and run through the body of the concrete. And that’s the way concrete’s been formed for a hundred years or more. And when it started out, people would just make those ties of a heavy steel wire to hold lumber forms apart. As it developed and reusable modular forms were created. Those ties evolved into high strength steel. Typically kind of loop measuring the steel wire loops, in it and it’s a typical kind of tie, that connects forms together. But in all cases, that material was steel and it was left in the wall. You broke off those loop ends after the wall was formed, the wall was set, and moved on, in a lot of cases that’s not really a problem. But for a lot of concrete particularly exposed concrete the parts of the wall where those tie remnants remain were broken off a whole spectrum of ways to say, texture that wall in some cases cover the wall, in the concrete or after the concrete set. You know, in those textures in some cases might just be a smooth, is a common architectural treatment for exposed concrete. And other cases it might be using a form liner. It might be a simulated stone or brick finish or one of the finishes that we work with a lot in life is a recreation of a traditional kind of forming is called board form, where the form instead of a plastic form lining you actually use, typically rough sawn lumber, align your forms, pour the concrete against that and you get all of the texture and the unique finish that comes from you know, boards, which are forest products. They have, they may have or may not have knots, some have a rough sawn finishing wood grain and that gets expressed in the concrete. Anyway all those finishes, whether it’s smooth or board form or brick or whatever, are marked by these patterns of ties that are universally used to connect forms. And it’s a real problem for architects and for builders to deal with that and the way they’ve traditionally done it is broken off the steel ties and then patched where the little crater left by that. And that’s often hard to do and maintain that image. Anyway fiberglass ties solve that problem by essentially being invisible in the wall. You break them off flush with the wall and you step back and it more or less disappeared. And being fiberglass, they don’t rust or corrode and so that appearance is preserved or unlikely to go away. And that’s the real innovation that we’re bringing to the concrete form.
So how did that come about? What was the impetus? Where did the opportunity come from?
You know, we weren’t pioneers in the application of fiberglass for concrete forming. It’s been around for a while, but it generally involves pretty expensive, laborious and somewhat risky use of concrete rods that you have to then use other hardware to connect to the forms. Basically you have to jump through a lot of loops in order to use kind of a standard.
No, no pun intended. I’m sure.
Yes, it would often work and achieve that desired end at the tie that’s just cut flush and is invisible but involved tremendous cost, a lot of labor and a lot of uncertainty of whether the labor you’ve put into it, is really going to hold up against these tremendous forces.
So we saw a need for what’s essentially a drop in equivalent to the steel ties people have been using for nearly a hundred years. Workers who do the work are very familiar with using, you know there’s a comfort level with the standard ties that they’ve got. And our goal was to produce a fiberglass version of those standard ties that could be a drop in replacement for the steel ones. And that’s what we’ve achieved. So they get all those benefits of fiberglass, an invisible non corroding tie that they can incorporate it into a wall with really zero additional cost and training labor or other hardware.
That’s fabulous. Let’s talk about how innovation happens because as you said you didn’t invent that but you’re working with and seeing opportunity in a market. Right. Talk to me about that. Eyes and ears open. How are you seeing it and then what are you doing with it once you see it?
Well, we work with an extensive network of dealers around the country, Canada, number of places around the world. And the benefit of doing, working with distributors like that is that there are eyes, and ears or the needs and complaints of the end users. And they’re the ones I think who really brought that to our attention. There’s a need that’s not being filled out. The specifics of going from that recognize me or a new product to envisioning how could we make that new product and the technical details and that, you know, is pretty involved. But basically the steel ties are very high strength elements and they are connected to the form panels in a space and using hardware that we don’t dictate. That’s kind of been around for decades. And so the real challenge is to be able to make a part that can be used exactly like the steel ties. We turned to using glass fibers that are actually by volume five times, about five times, stronger than high strength steel that’s used in steel ties.
That’s incredible. So I’m just going to take us back a step because I think you’re being very modest. You’ve got a company and you’ve got a challenge. The challenge is that the walls, your forms and your walls are leaving a scenario where it’s not looking as good as it could and a client, a customer challenges you to help make that look great. Am I right? Is that kind of how it happens?
So you come back and you guys ideate, you guys innovate. You guys are thinking about how can we solve this challenge that our customer has? Do you have a team of people that you go to? Is it, what’s your process at Steel Dog? Are there three guys turned your hats backward and roll your sleeves up? Or how does it happen?
We’re a pretty loose operation in a small company, so there’s a small group of us really that tackle problems like this. I don’t know how to go back and you know, describe exactly that process in detail. It’s a lot of, you know, Thomas Edison approach, 90% perspiration, 10% inspiration, right. It’s a lot of trial and error. For us, I mean, our name sort of says it Steel Dog. I mean, we’ve been working with steel products for over 22 years learning about a new material like fiberglass, glass epoxy composite material. It’s been a big steep learning curve for us and it behaves very, very differently than steel and other metals that we’re used to. So we embarked on a process that about a two year long process to experiment with prototypes and full test them. These ties, the loop ties that I referred to have to have an ultimate breaking strength of about 6,000 pounds. And they have a diameter in their center that’s less than the diameter of a pencil. And so, you know, three tons of force concentrated in a small area like that. It was a real challenge. So we have in house CMC machining capability. We make machine prototypes that we would then wind the fiberglass onto and the full test them with the hydraulic full tester. We use 3D printed prototype components in that process. And then we designed and custom built a dedicated computer control of winding the filament winders to actually wind these parts out of the fiberglass film.
So, Paul, what I’m hearing actually is awesome in that it is kind of old school grit, Steel Dog, you know, meets technology, 3D printers, meets the ability to be able to test, understand, work through, get a product, right. CNC machine testing over and over, being able to control the process to be able to manufacture and produce something new, different and exciting. That’s kind of how it sounds to me in your process.
Yeah, it was exciting for us because like I said, it’s a big departure from our normal comfort zone. Now you weld metals into extremely strong like I mentioned, but has fibers, which are about a fifth of the diameter of a human hair have that tremendous strength, but they also have a microscopic scale of brittleness that if you don’t exert, if you don’t transfer that tremendous force to those strong but somewhat brutal fibers in the right way, you’ll get an early failure and overcome.
So Paul, have you always been focused on product? Are you, would you consider yourself a product guy in nature and inventor and a product guy or a business guy or a marketing guy or contractor guy?
The first one, totally. My brother and I have always been interested in innovating and creating new products and improving existing products. So we’re definitely product focused and we like solving problems. This was a huge problem that has been around for such a long time begging for a solution.
So, now that you came up with a solution that needed there was a problem in the marketplace and everybody listening, I mean, if you’re in charge of a brand, what a great story. Eyes and ears open hearing, seeing and understanding an opportunity, a problem which turns into an opportunity and the opportunity needs a solution through your expertise in a specific area with a product, that’s steel meets fiberglass. Understanding and learning how to make that problem go away with a solution and then working through to make that solution something you put your name behind. That’s the story, right to here. Now let me ask you, how do you take being a product focused group who likes innovating? How do you take that and drive it and let the world know that you exist and that you’ve come up with a solution to the problem that was there?
Well you know, like I picked that first category when you gave me, I’m more of a product person and so I lead to a lot of others that, you know, the marketing, but I mean certainly having a good web presence helps with that. You know, word of mouth in a way is a powerful way to get new innovative products like this out there. I mean that in kind of the broader sense that, you know, like I said, we work with hundreds of dealers distributors of ours, North America and when we work with them and get our new products out and they perform well and their customers are happy about it, that spreads rapidly and focusing on products that are both innovative and high quality. You know, that hurdle that you have to get over when you slip up, it’s just, it’s so much easier to just avoid that and excel on the basis of a product that really wows people with labor savings, with the cost savings and the trouble free aspect of it. And that’s quick, that’s what spreads. It spreads between contractors and the dealers.
So who’s your target? Who’s your target audience? Who you’re going through dealers as distribution, right? But who’s the target? Who’s the person? Is it the architect? Is it the engineer or is it the contractor at what?
In this case, it’s a departure from us, from a lot of our other products where this one, we are trying to reach the specifiers the architects you know, the GCs, the builders. But with a heavy focus on the architects because it often is driven by a specification that’s put into plans. It’s in a lot of cases it’s one of many different solutions that could be applied to some of these problems. And I mentioned the architectural applications, the visual case where you’ve got these defects in an exposed concrete wall. But there are also a lot of functional applications in bridge and highway commercial industrial.
It’s really interesting to see people who own companies and have a passion and have a way of thinking and are looking to, maybe it’s not this big, lofty change to the world, but by virtue of understanding how to take a problem or a challenge in a marketplace and being able to create a solution or make something a little bit stronger, maybe more attractive, maybe more effective, greater tolerance whatever the thing is, the fact that you focused in and put your energy in driving that and if come to a solution that you could put your name on now, and I’m sure there’s been, there were seven iterations or more before it got to that point where you felt like it.
Yeah. Well, and there’s also kind of a, there’s a nice irony that our company is in Westport, Massachusetts and we’ve, for the last 12 years, occupied an old textile mill on the Westport river that was built in the 1850s. And it was filled with water powered looms and other textile machinery which has been gone for, you know, well more than a hundred years. And it’s kind of a nice irony that we’re actually doing a form of spinning or almost textile work with a high tech form of textile, this fiberglass, these microscopic fiberglass fibers in a building that was built out of stone in 1850.
So what’s old is new again.
With a little technology and a little future thinking. What’s old is new again, that’s wonderful.
In fact, about below where I sit now, 110-year-old, a turbine that powered the plant in the 1890s. So yeah, but it’s all very different now.
That’s, that’s awesome. I love it. I love it. Well, Paul, I thank you for taking the time out of your day to join us on Constructing Brands. I think that the one takeaway, anyone listening really if you have your eyes and ears open, whether you’re the owner, the CEO, the president, but if you’re in a position to drive a solution, they’re out there. These opportunities come out of the problems that your folks might be facing. And if you have a, whether you’re a smaller company and you really have the heartbeat that way, or if you, even if you’re a larger, larger company, part of our responsibility as leaders in these spaces is to really understand what our folks are up against in the expert that we have and see it and think about ways of solving or creating solutions to the problems. Because not only is it going to be good for the company and the bottom line, but what a great thing to do for the category and what we’re doing here. So I, hats off to you, Paul. Thank you so much for being a guest here on Constructing Brands.
Great. Thanks for having me.
Paul, if people want to get in touch with you or they want to learn more about Steel Dog, what’s the best way for them to do so?
You know the website steel-dog.com just as it sounds.
That says it all. Thank you very much. I recommend everyone check out steel-dog.com if you have any interest in understanding more about what we’ve been talking about. Paul, thank you so much. Great guest. Thank you.
Great, thank you Eric.
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