My friend Andy at Brenco Industries (and if you really want some quality steel fabrication, call Brenco!) once told me, “You can have it fast, you can have it cheap, and you can have it right: pick two.”

It’s something I’ll always remember, and as a manufacturer, it’s something I always try to impart to our customers – albeit, with a bit more tact (Not that Andy didn’t explain it with tact; we were discussing between ourselves how to share with our customers the limits of where we can cut when they are looking for cheaper, faster, better)

Brenco is our oldest supplier. My father worked with the founder, Lud Hiem, and his son, Steve, has turned Brenco into one of the biggest and best steel fabricators in BC, if not all of Canada. Brenco does it all, from simple steel shearing and forming to complex water jet and laser cutouts and fabrication. If we can’t do it ourselves here in our own form shop, we turn to Brenco.

I digress – I just like to refer to them, because they are a large part of our success, and I admire the way the shop and the business as a whole is run.

One of the issues that rears it’s head when you are a manufacturer is China. Doesn’t matter what business you’re in, if it can be made in China, it’s going to show up in your marketplace.

We though we were immune. Concrete? From China? Who’d be crazy enough to try and bring it over from China? Turns out, they’re here. Fortunately, we have the old “Pick two ” rule.

You see, even if they are cheap – and they are, “Made-in-China” is a well worn saying to indicate cheap. – and even if they are right – and more and more they do get it right, even if there are hiccups along the way, the truth of the matter is, you can’t get it fast from China.

Maybe off the shelf items that resellers can stock here in North America, but custom? Nope – of course if you pay more, you can speed things up, but then the savings are gone, so you’re back to the pick two rule.

What about if you insist on speed and cheap? I tried that with gloves from China. We got a great deal on leather gloves and we got then cheap. Unfortunately, everyone who wore them got serious skin rashes from the gloves. We went back to the local supplier, who probably got his gloves from China, but they were a bit more expensive and nobody got a rash from the gloves. One of my employees even got cement poisoning after picking up the rash and had to take a significant time off – on compensation of course – to heal. And we got them when we needed them – right, fast, just not cheap – pick two.

A few years later I was speaking to a Chinese importer who we bought polishing disc for our radial arm polisher (polisher made in Italy: expensive, right, took a while to get – pick one (right is sometimes the only thing that matters). We happened to be talking about diamond blades and how everyone seemed to have a great price on Chinese blades. I mentioned the pick two rule, and my glove fiasco. He told me that in China, when you get down to the cheaper levels – and there are definitely high quality goods coming out of China – they start with price. Name you price, you’ll get something for that price.

In the case of his diamond blades, if I wanted them at a quarter of the price he was selling to me for, he could get them. He could also get them pretty fast – they were in-stock items at his supplier’s warehouse in Nanjing. But they wouldn’t be very good: “They might not cut concrete, or they might even start to fall apart as soon as they hit the concrete.” he told me, but they’d be really cheap – and really fast if I needed them.  – again a case of pick two, with right being fairly important.

So, back to Chinese concrete. Cheap? You bet, as long as you can wait. I know of one supplier who quotes 10-12 weeks for standard shapes, add 3-4 for custom.

Fast? Not so much – kind of hard to mail concrete, so you’re stuck with shipping it in – add customs, and I can see why 10 to 16 weeks is the norm.

So, order it early, right? Sure, then when it gets here, ship it to the jobsite, right? Because everybody knows constructions schedules are always bang on and if the schedule says the sills, lintels and panels are being installed next August 12th, we can order the concrete to be shipped to site for the 11th – even now in October of the year before.

Sure. Go out into the average precast concrete company’s yard and look at all the pretty wrapped orders for sills, coping and lintels that have dates on them that are already two and three months past due. Why? Because in construction, things change, and that’s why masons and installers usually don’t order their precast until the last minute – and even then, schedules change, and so does the concrete.

Order 4 months in advance? Yeah, sure.

How about Right? Sure, but in the real world, mistakes are made. when we – and for that matter, any of our local competitors – make a mistake, we can fix it immediately. Sure, concrete takes a while to cure, so you can add a couple of days if it’s made wrong. And if the local precaster screws it up, there’s always room to compensate the contractor for lost time. But lengthy project delays, no matter whose fault it is, negate cheap pretty quick.

If the contractor screws it up – site measurements can be wrong; or the architect changes things; or the client wants something different; then the local precaster can make the changes quickly, and even if there’s an extra charge, the bigger cost – lengthy project delays – are not an issue. Again, cheap (or the cost for a delay) is a relative thing.

And I know precasters. When a client needs something fast and you already have the form – no extra charge for a rush. The heavy lifting is already done: We’ve paid for the forms already, we’ve run them through production at least once, so we know what it takes to do it right now, and we’ve got a vested interest: You’re already our customer and you owe us money!

A mistake made on precast concrete from China, regardless of whose fault it is, simply can’t be fixed quickly. So how do you get around it? One supplier of Chinese precast recommends ordering 10% more material for the project. Really? We don’t. We make what’s needed and keep the forms on hand for six to twelve months in case something goes wrong. And if you order it in a panic because something went wrong, we’ll pour it the next day – maybe even the same day – and chances are you can have it on the jobsite within 3 days. Try that with “Made in China” concrete.

Made in China is here to stay. And just because precast concrete is heavy and fragile, it doesn’t exempt us from having to compete against the Chinese manufacturing juggernaut, but we’re good at what we do (right), we can do it a lot faster than they can (fast), and if you want to give us 4 months notice and pay 50% up front, 50% upon shipment (and not end of the month following), we can be inexpensive, too (just not cheap – that smacks of Made in China).

In the Vancouver market, that won’t wash for long