The evolution of mixers, pumps and delivery systems
Making ideas into realities for mortar and grout mixers and delivery systems
By Damian Lang
America, 1984. Ronald Reagan crushed Mondale at the polls; the first Apple Macintosh went on sale; Freddy Kruger was a nightmare on Elm Street; Madonna sang like a virgin; the U.S. Open went to Fuzzy Zoeller; and I started up Lang Masonry in rural Watertown, Ohio. With achingly sore muscles and knowing there were hundreds of masons just like me literally breaking their backs as their predecessors did to be in the trade we love, I knew there just had to be a better way. So, we went to work on idea after idea, got just a little better each time, and, with those ideas acted upon and a little luck, we introduced those ideas to the industry. Everything changed over time.
Lang Masonry quickly grew to an eight-employee team. I remember as if it was just yesterday working long hours mixing mortar and laying brick and block. One of the toughest parts of the job was putting grout in the walls. On one particular day, some of my bricklayers and I put several yards of grout in a wall using five-gallon buckets.
Although I was amazed by how quickly we unloaded the Ready Mix truck by hand, when we finished grouting, I was completely drained and I knew the rest of my employees had to be, too. With every muscle in my body feeling the pain, we continued laying block. By the day’s end, although we had worked hard all day, due to the strain that bucketing grout put on our muscles, we actually got very little accomplished. When everyone was gone, I remained at work and thought, “There has to be a better way.”
Around the same time, I was looking into and reading about how to fix problems in an industry. Somewhere, I read about how problems in an industry are like holes in a boat. If you put a plug in the hole, you will keep the boat from sinking. Getting grout into walls was a hole in my industry that needed to be plugged.
Enter the Grout HogAfter struggling for years to grout our walls with buckets, knowing it was labor intensive and continually plugging our pumps, my team and I started tinkering with gravity feed buckets that would pour grout into the walls. Over a 10-year period, we built at least 10 different models of gravity feed buckets, improving on each model.
One day, we decided to put an auger in the bottom of the hopper. We extended it into a tube out of the side of it to keep the grout flowing without clogging up at the discharge hole. When it was all put together, we laughed because it was so ugly looking. “What the hell,” I thought – if it works, who cares what it looks like? I sent the machine to a project where we were building a Regal Movie Theater.
I always measure every aspect of everything we do. Therefore, I had production studies for several of the movie theatres we had laid the block on in the past. This particular job was turning $4 more per hour, per man, than the others we had worked on, so I called my foremen and asked him what was making the difference.
He said, “It’s that damn box you built with the auger in it. We are putting all the grout (and sand) in the walls with it, I could not imagine doing another job without one of these.”
“Wow,” I thought – if this can save my company this much money, what could it do for the rest of the industry? It was on the way to a hunting trip and, over a few beers, my brother, Kelly, gave me the idea to name the machine the Grout Hog.
Being a not-so-smart gambler, I decided to risk everything I had made the previous 17 years in business to take the Grout Hog to the industry. The night before our first industry show, Dan Kern, who would soon become my plant manager (and still is today) and I sat around the swimming pool at the hotel wearing pumpkin colored orange shirts, trying to convince the contractors next to us to try a Grout Hog.
I guess I was too nervous about the plan not working to realize that, as sales guys, we were intruding in on what was suppose to be a pleasant evening around the pool for them. One of the contractors who was there that night still rides me about it every time I see him. That first show (and year) was very successful for us. Our sales plan had predicted we would sell 40 machines the first year and 100 machines the second year. Exceeding all expectations, we sold more than 100 units the first year and 420 units the second.
I made a commitment that we would always build our equipment in the best interest of the end user. Therefore, we built the machines to virtually never wear out. This, along with a severe recession, caused sales of this machine to drop tremendously after the first few years. Thank goodness we never settled on building just one product. After all, the industry had more than one hole in the boat that needed to be plugged.
Enter the Mud Hog MixersBecoming known for the Grout Hog, customers from all over the country began telling me we need to somehow figure out how to build a mixer that would dump directly into a Grout Hog when grouting, so it would speed up their process when they had to mix grout on site.
One contractor asked me, “Would you buy a plane ticket off an airline when that airline’s flights only reached their destination 90 percent of the time?”
I replied, “No.”
He snapped back harshly, “Then, why would you build equipment that only works 90 percent of the time?”
These requests, along with a memory bank of issues I had experienced with mixers on jobsites many years earlier, gave me the desire to bring a better mixer to the market. While sales of the Grout Hog were booming, we generated some excess cash. I knew that, if we were ever to come out with additional ideas and products, we had to invest in them when we were booming, for we would most likely not be able to afford it if sales dropped. Thank goodness we did!
Even though we had cash, I wasn’t sure it was enough for the way I had envisioned this new mixer to be built. R&D alone would cost upward of $400,000 to get the first model to the market. Therefore, I first tried to take my ideas to a couple of the biggest mixer manufacturers in the country. One of these companies sent an engineer to my headquarters to listen to what I had to say. I tried to sell him on fixing the issues masons were facing with the mixers his company was building. One of the issues we discussed was that on just about every mixer built, the wheels were in the way of a mud pan or wheelbarrow during the dumping process.
His reply was, “Them wheels can’t be in the way; they have been built like this for the last 35 years.”
I kindly replied back with a grin, “They have been in the way for 35 years.”
He must not have agreed with me as I could not get him to follow up or change a thing to improve the mixers his company was making. I came to the conclusion that if my company wasn’t going to do it, it may never get done. So, I gambled again to develop what would, three years later, become the Mud Hog mixer. Like the launch of the Grout Hog only a few years earlier, if masons would not accept this new mixer concept, it could possibly bring all my companies down.
Some of the changes we made to build this new mixer were:
- The mixer can be reversed, in case of a plug, so the mixing procedure is not stopped to manually unplug with a shovel.
- We built a cross-port relief in the hydraulic system, instead of shear pins, so when the mixer would temporally plug, it would not break down. This allows the mixer to be quickly unplugged thousands of times without ever hurting the mixer.
- Pull ropes tearing apart were always a problem. So, we made the mixer with an electric start. Think about it this way, every time a laborer pulls on a pull rope, he is that much closer to pulling the rope in half and shutting the job down. This reduced the need to carry extra starter recoils to the jobsite, in case of a pull rope break down. Now, the only time the laborer uses the pull rope to start the new style mixer is when someone accidently leaves the key on, and the battery goes dead.
- We built the mixer to load low and dump high, with the cylinders lifting the materials up high, instead of the laborer having to do it. This saves on backaches and workers compensation claims.
- Due to the traditional mixers in our yard all having the sides caved in, we built the drums with very thick steel, so a laborer can’t distort it when beating with a hammer to clean it out.
- One of the reasons it always took so long to clean the mixer at the end of the day was that there was always a half inch of mortar left on the inside of the drum, due to the rubber blades missing from the paddles. That was due to low-quality rubber that manufacturers were putting on the paddles of their mixers. This type of rubber would last only a few weeks. So we had our rubber blades made with a material similar to the rubber used to build car tires, so grout and mortar can be mixed for years, instead of weeks, without the need to change the rubber blades.
- Our mechanics would complain that, as soon as the seals on the traditional mixers would wear out and leak, the mortar would travel right into the bearing and shaft ruining the whole system. Therefore, we put the bearings on the outside of the drum and spaced them apart, instead of in direct contact with the seals. This not only saves bearings and shafts, it also makes the seals and bearings very easy to change out, as you do not have to remove the drum during the process of changing seals or bearings.
- And, finally, we got the wheels out of the way, so a wheelbarrow or mud tub could be easily filled. (Yes, even though they had been in the way for 35 years.)
Like other manufacturers, EZG Manufacturing now builds a conventional-type mortar mixer to compete more on price, if that is what the contractor is looking for. Rental yards like to rent these types of mixers, as their up-front costs are much cheaper. (Now, we did approach this much the same way as the other changes in the industry we initiated, in that we looked at how we could make this type of mixer just a little bit more durable than the current models and still keep price competitive.)
Looking back over nearly 30 years, President Regan left us in 2004; I should not have sold the stock I bought in Apple; Madonna moved to the U.K.; Freddy masks are still worn on Halloween; Tiger Woods plugs away; and the masonry industry has experienced an evolution one idea at a time from the blood, sweat and tears of this eternal optimist and his team.
Now, I’m nothing special: I don’t have an Ivy League college education or a huge global corporate financial backer to fund my R&D department. The moral of the story is this: We all have ideas and dreams, and we know the holes in the boat that need plugged still today. Don’t be afraid to act on your ideas. You might just end up making the world a better place in the long run.
About the Author
Damian Lang is a mason contractor in southeast Ohio and inventor of many labor saving masonry systems and products. Lang has served as the Marketing Committee Chairman for the Mason Contractors Association of America. He is also author of the book Rewarding and Challenging Employees for Profits in Masonry. To network with Damian on contractor tips or tips you have and would like published, contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 740-749-3512.