Important IT Trends Impacting Electrical Contracting

Electrical contractors, like many companies in the construction industry, confront numerous challenges as well as opportunities as they shift automating their businesses and incorporating technology. They face many decisions each year regarding selection of solutions and tools, forcing adoption among a sometimes reluctant workforce and simply trying to get a grip on a resource which seems to be in constant motion and whose very definition or role seems to vary. While everyone is working hard within their respective organizations, many external factors influence the landscape including evolving software, pressure from the owner and general contractor, expectations from suppliers, and finally, a more tech-savvy and capable workforce (reluctance not withstanding).

As you might expect, the value of many of these developments and solutions will depend on the adopting organization. It is probably sufficient however, at this stage, to simply recommend that there be good alignment between a company’s IT strategy and their overall business strategy and direction. Technology and solutions should support and enhance each business strategy of a company (e.g., labor productivity, safety, cost control, customer care, etc.). Also, decisions regarding technology should be made with consideration to a company’s risk tolerance. Those with a low tolerance for risk and perhaps a conservative IT budget should not be at the cutting edge experimenting with new technology, while companies that are trying to obtain a competitive advantage in the market may invest more aggressively in technology research and development.

BIM technology and the building model have moved from the design firm to the general contractor and from the builder to the specialty contractor, particularly the MEP trades. More significantly, it has migrated from a design-only and marketing tool to an operational tool used by project managers, project engineers, and the field. The building or facility owners are influencing this in some sectors (e.g., health care and industrial), while in other sectors, the general contractor is making the decision to model the building on their own, for the benefit of all trades involved. In either case, the models are being developed and the resulting data made available to those on the project team.

MEPs should not be too conservative here, hoping that BIM is a trend that will “blow over.” It is not only impacting the builder and collaboration with the trades but quickly providing a platform for developing additional data used by down-stream solutions within the MEP sector (e.g., fabrication, layout, take-off).

There are other trends which are arguing in favor of the development of the model early in the project life cycle and this seems to be one of the foremost questions contractors are asking: Should I invest in virtual design and construction personnel and spend the time developing the model, even if the owner or general contractor does not require it? Without the general’s model, a trade model would still be of some limited value. However, with a construction model (as opposed to a design model), a trade contractor can develop take-off quantities, initiate shop-drawings, and begin the procurement processing.

The estimating function is undergoing some dramatic changes as well. It is moving from a traditional take-off based approach to a more rule/spec based approach. Estimators can enter primary quantities into a rule/spec driven system and the software will then determine and include supporting materials like wire, cable, and fittings. As deadlines have become much tighter, this allows the estimators to pick up speed and accuracy during take-off. It also allows for large global changes to the project along the way. While this approach requires more up front time to develop parameters and database (based on local codes and company preferences), it ultimately leads to more accurate estimating and budgeting. 

As with almost all contractor