Chapter Corner

Industry Outlook: Why 2017 Is the Year of Prefabrication, Safety, and Innovation

Posted in: Features, January/February 2017

industry.jpgWe are facing a significant turning point in the construction industry.

Every year for the last four years, forecasting experts have mistakenly predicted that the demand for new construction would accelerate. And every year for the last four years, the increase has been more gradual than expected. Now that the election is over, a more drastic industry turnaround is long overdue, and I predict we will experience it in 2017.

To understand industry change, we need to understand what drives consumer demand. Regardless of your political beliefs or party affiliation, uncertainty is reduced following an election. Prior to a major election, economic uncertainty is high and projects are consequently delayed. Now that uncertainty is reduced, the economy is recovering and serving as a driver for new construction. As interest rates increase, individuals and businesses are encouraged to start projects now before rates climb higher. Inventory for new homes is running low, housing prices are on the rise, and many commercial construction projects that have been on hold are being green lighted. Demand is growing greater than supply across the board.

What does this change of pace mean for the electrical industry? It means that industry challenges – and opportunities – will be magnified in 2017. A long-time challenge faced by the industry is the shortage of skilled labor. Now that the construction industry is picking up, this void will be felt more than ever.

The best way to combat a labor shortage, especially in the face of an industry uptick, is increased industrialization of the trade. For that reason, prefabrication will play a bigger role in 2017 than it has ever played before.

Go Prefab

By performing work off the job site, electrical contractors can create remarkable efficiencies. All contractors experience the frustration of delayed plans due to uncontrollable factors on the job site: inclement weather, broken pipes, accidents or injuries, wrong materials, even absenteeism. So many things can go wrong on job sites. Conversely, there are many advantages of working in a prefab shop. In a shop, the weather doesn’t matter, the crew reports to the same site every day, and workers are in a controlled environment with the tools they know. Prefab reduces risk, and consequently reduces work delays, by limiting unpredictable variables.

Prefab further increases efficiency by decreasing waste in motion. When tools and equipment are in close proximity and your crew is working comfortably at bench-top height with bathrooms and drinking water just a few steps away, there’s less wasted time because there’s less wasted motion. These variables all contribute to a higher level of efficiency in the prefab shop.

There are huge safety advantages to prefab as well. Your crew is much safer in a well-lit, controlled shop than on a job site full of the unknown. And because they work efficiently by prefabricating components in advance of – or concurrent with – construction, they don’t need to spend as much time on the job site. Your crew’s risk of injury is further reduced because their time on the job site is shortened.

Embrace New Technology

Of course, you can’t master prefab without embracing the technology that goes with it.

A big part of prefab is innovation. Building Information Modeling (BIM) has been the standard for years, but it’s evolving every day. More and more electrical contractors are utilizing increasingly efficient electronic models instead of manually marking, manipulating, or interpreting hard copies.

Greenlee recently engineered a new conduit bender, the Greenlee AutoBend 3D, that takes a BIM file and bends the conduit in any 2D or 3D bend the user selects. By no longer manually measuring, marking, or manipulating the conduit, you eliminate all the non-value added work and opportunity for things to go wrong through mismeasurement or mishandling.

Other BIM innovations continue to add to the efficiency of prefab. The universal BIM reader program, Navisworks®, allows contractors to do a clash detection simulation to troubleshoot conduit runs before a building is even built. Anyone who utilizes simulations knows that it’s more efficient to alter a model than it is to remount a piece of hardware in the building after a problem has been detected.

Upgraded Tools

It’s not just the software that’s undergoing innovations for the sake of efficiency, but also the tools themselves. Work in the electrical industry is physically taxing, and too many electrical workers experience joint problems, tendinitis, carpal tunnel, torn rotator cuffs, or other injuries. Electricians are working longer careers than ever before, and the physical toll adds up over time. As a result, the industry is paying increasingly more attention to ergonomics. The good news is that there’s no reason for pain or lost productivity because the equipment technology is here now.

Equipment that is designed from an ergonomics standpoint allows the electrician to work in an upfront position, reduces force, and virtually eliminates repetitive motion. Our in-house ergonomist is heavily involved in our tool design process and instrumental in our shift from manual to battery-powered tools and equipment. Battery– powered equipment – especially battery-powered hydraulic equipment – allows workers to generate a tremendous amount of crimping force in seconds, just by pulling a trigger.

There will always be an occasional need for manual tools, but battery-powered tools with an ergonomic design are a safe alternative for anyone who does repetitive motion. These battery-powered tools are portable, self-contained, prevent injury, save time by exerting force efficiently, and are used both in prefab and on the job site. With this increased innovation comes increased safety, as the industry realizes that prevention is less expensive than surgery. As an example, a large utility company in southern California made a major investment in our ergonomically-designed tools. In less than two years, they paid off their investment with reduced injuries and less time off work.

Take on the Future

Like this utility company, any operation can enjoy a win if it thinks strategically about what steps to take in our evolving industry. As we ring in a new year and a new president, we know the boom in construction will bring challenges and opportunities. Those who navigate labor shortages by mastering prefab, embracing technology, and utilizing safe practices are going to succeed.

Keith Moffatt is a senior product manager in Test and Measurement for Greenlee, a Textron company. An engineering expert, Moffatt has 25 years of experience in the electrical industry. Learn more about Greenlee by visiting www.greenlee.com.