By Eric Peterson | Apr 25, 2022
Tilt-up concrete panels
Blackburn's background in shotcrete in South Carolina and Georgia led to the founding of Innovative Structural Solutions, a.k.a. INNSTRUCT.
The early focus was on residential projects. "We were involved in residential construction with stand-and-shoot shotcrete," says Blackburn.
The company subsequently developed the now-patented Total Integrated Panel System (TIPS).
"My son, a business partner [Hal Fronk], and I basically invented it," says Blackburn. "We looked at what was going on in the world of tilt-up construction and realized rather quickly using our product, you could reduce concrete by 50 percent, you could reduce the tie-in-place rebar by somewhere around 75 percent to 85 percent, and you could do it quicker."
Before going to market, INNSTRUCT tested TIPS at the SMASH Lab at Utah State University in 2019. "We asked them to do some structural strength tests on our panel system," says Blackburn. "That testing indicated that our panel system was the only system -- compared to the other connectors that are out there -- was 100 percent composite. . . . They act like they're one, even though we've got four inches of foam in the middle of [the panel].
Because of galvanized steel wire connectors and an innovative truss system, Blackburn says, "They couldn't make it break." Further third-party tests validated those findings, he adds.
INNSTRUCT next teamed with a local contractor on a small project that was "a huge success," leading to a 40,000-square-foot project with LM Construction in Las Vegas, Nevada. TIPS "saved them time and money all over the place on that project," says Blackburn. "From there, we put up an Amazon building in Louisville, Kentucky; some buildings even larger than Amazon up by Indianapolis. . . . Things have just started to mushroom. We've got projects in Boise and more In Las Vegas. We're getting ready to start a project in California."
As of April 2022, INNSTRUCT has supplied panels to about 30 projects totaling about 1 million square feet. "By summer, we'll probably pass our 2 millionth square foot," says Blackburn. "We just barely stepped into our first precast project, which is up in Boise, a big FedEx building."
And he sees precast as a great fit for TIPS. "We send our system to the precast plant, they put it in their precast," he explains. "When they do that, the architectural features are just unlimited."
The company manufactures out of its 25,000-square-foot factory in Morgan. Annual manufacturing capacity is about 3 million square feet, but Blackburn says a 30,000-square-foot expansion is in the works that will boost capacity to about 14 million square feet.
"The panels are made here in our plant by manufacturing equipment," says Blackburn. "Most of the other systems, they just take foam and connector pins and you pour concrete and put foam on it, and then you pound systems through the foam."
"We cut out the doors, the windows, and we literally send out every wall segment," says Blackburn. "They're all labeled so you can put them together at the job site. Tilt-up walls are sometimes 50 feet tall -- you can't ship a 50-foot-tall wall -- and a lot of times, they're 24 to 30 feet wide, and you can't ship that. We have it all stacked, numbered, labeled, and we actually send our people out on the job site to teach the contractors how to put this together."
He continues, "All of that's laid out here at the plant, so when they put it together in the field, it's extremely easy. You clip it together with mesh and it's ready to go."
The second half of 2021 saw sales jump by 6X over the same period in 2020, and Blackburn forecasts even more growth in 2022. "We're at a point where we can't go anymore until we get new equipment," he says. "My production time at the moment is 100 percent taken until the end of September."
Challenges: "Our biggest challenge is getting the equipment -- and a place to put it," says Blackburn.
Sourcing materials -- namely steel wire in 2021 and foam in 2022 -- has also proven difficult. "Steel and foam and everything else has gone up -- a lot," says Blackburn. "When it comes to foam, it's literally finding enough. I went from one foam vendor to six, and they all have me limited to two semi truckloads a week."
He adds, "Now that I have the opportunity to buy it, I keep a million pounds of steel in my plant any one day. I don't ever have less than a million pounds."
Opportunities: Exponential growth, says Blackburn. "Last year across the U.S., there was over a billion square feet of tilt-up wall built. Precast is two times that."
He also points to the energy-saving attributes of TIPS, and says that opens up the door for the cold storage market. "The problem with sprayed concrete anymore is it doesn't meet the energy codes. Building inspectors across the U.S. are using the latest International Building Code and that even requires industrial buildings to be energy-efficient."
Current cold storage involves "building a building in a building," says Blackburn. "We would be able to give them an entire building that would be freezer space, so that's another huge area of cost savings."
Needs: After more equipment is installed in the expanded facility, INNSTRUCT will need about 20 more employees to launch a second shift in late 2022, says Blackburn. "We're not on the Wasatch Front, we're on the Wasatch Back in a smaller community. We're becoming a major employer here in this county, and we like people to be able to stay close to home and have good-paying jobs."
Due to the scale of the walls, INNSTRUCT will likely decentralize manufacturing as it scales. "We have plans for additional facilities in Texas; Reno, Nevada; and another one in the Pennsylvania/New York area," says Blackburn.