Author: Lorella Angelini, Angelini Consulting Services, LLC
Kwik Bond Polymers based in Benicia, California, is regarded as the largest supplier of polyester polymer concrete in the USA specializing in bridge overlays and concrete repairs. The company also offers thin epoxy overlays, High Molecular Weight Methacrylate (HMWM) concrete healer-sealers and High-Friction Surface Treatments (HFST), an innovative road safety countermeasure system.
To learn about Kwik Bond Polymers and its go-to-market strategy for bridge preservation, I spoke with Kwik Bond’s Gregg Freeman, Business Development Manager, and Merritt Hanson, VP of Sales.
What is your responsibility with Kwik Bond? When did you join the company?
Gregg: I joined Kwik Bond 6 years ago when I was approached by one of the founders of Kwik Bond after a presentation at a TSP2 Bridge Preservation Partnership meeting.
I work with the R&D Department for the development of new products, taking advantage of my 27 years of experience in the industry. I also work with DOTs in order to create specifications so as to be certain that contractors have proper information for installing our products correctly.
Merritt: I have been with the company for 12 years. My first experience with the polyester concrete technology took place in 2002 when I was with an overlay contractor. I met Kwik Bond founders at that time. In 2006 they offered me a position as sales person in NY. I am now the VP for Sales focusing on the entire US market.
Can you speak of the evolution of Kwik Bond from a local company based in California to a national competitor?
Gregg: The two founders of the company started working with Caltrans in the early 1980s. At that time Caltrans was after “a more permanent solution” for concrete repair. As they decided to develop a new technology in partnership with the industry, they brought in industry experts who knew about polyester resins, methacrylates, and concrete construction. These experts became the founders of Kwik Bond Polymers. Once Caltrans started advertising the new technology for bid, they established Kwik Bond Polymers. For a number of years Kwik Bond was both manufacturing polyester concrete and installing it. (Ed. Note: Nowadays Kwik Bond is exclusively a manufacturer. Kwik Bond works with local contractors for installations.) The new polyester concrete technology has been managed well for many years in the State of California and it was well understood by Kwik Bond when the company decided to launch it nationally.
Merritt: Essential to the success of Kwik Bond Polymers is the fact that the polyester technology has proven that it works. The material bonds to the substrate, protects it over time and does not wear. Polyester technology simply does what it is supposed to do.
Kwik Bond has always taken care to verify that their materials are used in the proper manner to insure a correct application. This is also an important element of the success of Kwik Bond Polymers.
Can Kwik Bond be regarded as a successful example of collaboration between Agencies and industry?
Gregg: Yes, it has been a unique example of collaboration between an Agency and industry. Caltrans did extensive research in the Lab and in the field by testing many different systems in search of technologies that could provide a solution to unique challenges. At that time Caltrans had a large budget and highly skilled experts with a lot of freedom to push innovation to the limits, which also allowed them to bring in experts from industry.
Merritt: Once the polyester concrete technology was fully developed, Caltrans wrote specifications that were prescriptive and not so much performance-based. Even though these specifications were functional to Caltrans’ needs, they could not tell everything about the material. They informed about the individual components but the specifications did not underscore the interaction between these components, which is equally important. We were able to make the best use of Caltrans specifications because of our unique expertise with this technology.
Can you speak of polyester concrete? What are its primary applications and key properties?
Merritt: Polyester concrete can be used for a range of applications for bridge construction and preservation, first and foremost deck overlays, joint headers, concrete repair and regrading, such as building a wedge in approach slabs or overcoming extreme wheel path wear. For concrete repair applications you can pour up to 12 in. of polyester concrete in a single installation. I have actually poured up to 18 in.
Gregg: Polyester concrete has an exceptional resistance to wear. It is also completely impermeable thus preventing chlorides and contaminants from reaching the substrate. In comparison, high strength concrete has very low permeability but it is subject to cracking. It is well known that chlorides can enter even into very small cracks. This does not happen with polyester concrete. In the rare event a crack forms during a polyester concrete application, the crack does not grow. Then it can be easily and permanently sealed with a (HMWM) resin.
Merritt: I would say that the magic of Kwik Bond polyester concrete consists in the balance between its key properties, such as compressive strength, tensile strength and tensile elongation. You can actually boil it down to the balance between tensile strength and modulus of elasticity. At Kwik Bond we do not brag about exceptional properties of polyester concrete. Some competitors promote 20,000 psi compressive strength of their technology, but you actually do not want it. You want a balancing act: enough strength to keep the material from wearing and enough flexibility to handle the normal motions of a bridge deck. Kwik Bond polyester concrete provides this kind of balance. We therefore like to underline the correct balance of properties of polyester concrete, not its “high” something. Let me underscore one more time that a carefully designed balance between key properties is at the core of the successful installations of Kwik Bond polyester concrete.
What about fast setting that allows quick traffic reopening?
Gregg: Fast setting is a very important Kwik Bond products’ feature, especially for polyester-based HFST applications. This technology allows return to traffic in 2 hours even in cooling conditions.
A key element for understanding why Polyester Polymer Concrete (PPC) provides such long-lasting installations is its thermal compatibility with the concrete substrate. Because Kwik Bond polyester concrete has such a large volume of aggregate relative to its resin, it has a good thermal compatibility compared, for example, to thin overlays, which expand and contract at a high rate. Our system is much closer to concrete than alternative solutions. It therefore reduces, or eliminates, thermal stress at the bond line.
Merritt: Certainly fast setting gets the attention, but the reason people continue to use our polyester-based concrete is because it works. It is a robust, forgiving material that works in a wide variety of cases, not just in niche conditions.
What are the challenges that you are facing in promoting this technology?
Gregg: People who are new to the technology tend to oversimplify it. Based on our success, they think that it is easier than it actually is. They make mistakes that are detrimental to the good name of the polyester-based concrete technology.
Merritt: To me the biggest challenge is information. Despite the fact that polyester concrete technology has been used consistently since 1983, it is still new to a lot of people, who do not know what it can do for them and what it has done elsewhere successfully.
Materials that use resin as a binder are widely accepted nowadays, yet they are not gray or black, I mean they are not Portland cement-based or asphalt. These materials belong in a category of their own that it is still looked with diffidence by some people. So for us the first challenge is to get the message across that our polyester-based technology does work. And even though there is no water/cement ratio to specify, the material can still provide successful installations.
What about the challenge of promoting this new technology to DOT Agencies?
Merritt: When I joined the company, Kwik Bond was working in just a few States in the West. Since I live in New York, I concentrated my efforts in the North East. I cannot tell you how unimpressed people were of the company’s success in California. The fact that the polyester technology had been used to overlay some of the biggest bridges in California was not really a factor. Breaking the barrier was very difficult. How did I go through it? I contacted DOT maintenance teams and did a lot of repair patches for free to show how the product works in the field. I also met designers who trusted the technology and agreed to specify jobs. Engineers almost universally want to “kick the tires”. They want to see that the product works, even if it is on a small scale application. And I realized it early on.
Gregg: We took a small step approach. We found champions who were interested in bringing the technology forward. With their help we put the product down and we started building a success story in almost each State. This strategy really works unless you find a State where a similar technology had failed in the past, or, even worse, had caused a safety hazard. It is almost impossible to enter such a State. Nobody wants to take the risk of adopting a technology that has a bad reputation, no matter how much the new technology is different from the one that had caused problems in the past and proved to be successful.
It seems that overcoming bad reputation is an important issue in dealing with DOTs. Is this a challenge for Kwik Bond?
Merritt: This is really a big challenge for Kwik Bond. Since people think that polyester concrete technology is easy, there are occasionally contractors or suppliers that try to piece the system together. Unfortunately, there is more to it than what they see initially. It is not so easy to provide long-term preservation and an outcome that has been proven over time. Just because someone claims to meet the specs, it does not mean that the material will be able to perform over time. Symbolic goods are not equivalent to the real thing.
Polyester concrete is an engineered composite system where the single components need to be compatible in order to work together properly. The system is certainly more than purchasing a series of ingredients and mixing them in the job site. It does not work in that way.
When a polyester concrete mix is put together by people who do not have adequate expertise and knowledge, applications can go poorly. This can give a bad name to the technology thus disrupting what we have built. For this reason, we have had to overcome reputation problems in a number of States. Typically somebody else comes in, tries to do what we do, and does it so poorly that all brands of polyester concrete, Kwik Bond included, can be banned for years.
Our way to go to market is to control applications and avoiding overselling. We only sell when we are sure that the product is the right solution. For this reason we are reluctant to sell through distribution and we prefer selling directly to contractors
Gregg: Polyester concrete is essentially a mix of two blends of aggregate and the resin. Kwik Bond Polymers specifications say that there should be a preliminary research showing that the components are compatible when mixed together. Very few people understand the meaning of this requirement. Formulations are thrown on the market without properly testing the compatibility of the ingredients. This does not happen with Kwik Bond Polymers since we have an unmatched level of knowledge and experience with polyester concrete technology.
Kwik Bond Polymers website
FHWA LTBP Summary—Current Information on the Use of Overlays and Sealers
SEBPP 2017 Presentation: Polyester Polymer Concrete Overlays in North Carolina