Whether inspired by the engineering spirit of the “Extreme Home Makeover” or simply recognizing the similarities to the manufacturing world, prefabrication and modularization have begun to revolutionize the construction industry. Many contractors are examining their projects from the perspective of what they can prefabricate rather than what they cannot. Electrical contractors are one of the main benefactors of prefabrication, and more of them are using a controlled environment to mitigate site risks and lower their labor expenditures.

Both concepts (lean construction and BIM) bear significant weight in the world of prefabrication. BIM creates spools of documents that allow for fabrication that is more accurate, while lean construction principles correlate even more to this new manufacturing setting. Many experts agree that construction in future generations will more accurately resemble an assembly line, with workers piecing systems together in the same way a factory worker connects an engine to a chassis. Unions will debate the intricacies and nuances of “ownership,” but smart businesses are recognizing the need to build more efficiently through the dictation of the end-users and customers. Labor issues aside, few can argue the benefits of constructing an electrical system in a climate-controlled facility, as opposed to the extreme elements of a northern winter or southern summer. Additionally, prefabrication provides mitigation against safety hazards that exist in one of the world’s most dangerous workplaces. According to Fig. 7, 69% of the respondents have engaged in some sort of prefabrication on their projects.

Prefabrication also allows for improved scrutiny of production rates by limiting external factors that impact construction. With the exception of extremely customized construction and construction within the bounds of unknown site conditions, there are few examples where even small prefabricated or modularized products would not benefit an electrical contractor. Furthermore, the list of prefabricated and modularized systems continues to grow:

  • Bathroom pods (in conjunction with mechanical and plumbing peers)
  • Hospital headwalls
  • Pipe racks and assemblies
  • Raceways
  • Conduit banks and junction boxes with applicable feeders

Much like BIM, case studies abound about contractors building complex and sophisticated projects using this delivery system, all while saving time and money. However, unlike BIM, the initial investment in prefabrication is much lower. Careful experimentation is allowing new contractors exposure with less risk and less investment. The greatest hurdle that these businesses will encounter lies in the human element. Spatial constraints aside, individual can-do attitude is a pitfall that must be monitored and adjusted. Should further evidence be required, Fig. 8 illustrates the savings achieved through prefabrication.

Overall, 98% of the survey participants achieved at least a 1% labor savings. A proponent of prefabrication and modularization would argue that as the process becomes further ingrained, firms would naturally achieve higher savings through consistency, standardization, and repetition. Once again, in this controlled environment, measurement is achieved through process transparency, ultimately allowing enhancements to the production techniques.

Many electrical contractors give the concept of productivity lip service — they know they need to do it but they fall victim to the circumstances surrounding them. Poor designs, onerous contracts, inconsistent site conditions, and demanding owners appear to command more attention than focusing on controllable factors associated with their businesses.

Market conditions have necessitated the need to make productivity a strategic priority. Simply building a better mousetrap will not suffice. Electrical contractors must take an exhaustive and introspective look at how they build. Change at the field level truly begins at the top of the organization. Once the leaders of the organization are committed to making any enhancement for the good, then they can begin not only to employ new techniques and tactics, but also to address the human element.

Lean, BIM, and prefabrication are mere examples of productivity enhancements in 2012 and the coming years. One inalienable truth that exists is the need to commit to efficiency, regardless of the buzzword.          

Schoppman is a principal with FMI Corp., headquartered in Raleigh, N.C. He can be reached at gschoppman@fminet.com.