Well before we can try on a new pair of shoes, drive home a brand new car, or pop open an ice cold beverage, the everyday products we rely on originated somewhere. And while assembly lines and manufacturing machinery physically produce these goods, the reason they exist in the first place starts with construction.
Building facilities for manufacturing is critical and complex work for construction firms. In order to meet high demands, today’s leaders in the manufacturing construction space deploy cutting edge technology and strategies. Recently, we spoke with Emily Rech, Program Manager at Pond & Company and Travis Voss, Leader of Innovative Technology at the Helm Mechanical, formerly known as Mechanical Incorporated, to learn more about how these leading firms excel in the industrial building sector. Below, they share some of the key challenges of building manufacturing facilities and how innovation can be used to improve collaboration and transparency.
What are some major challenges in building for manufacturing?
Emily: Manufacturing plans are heavy on mechanical, electrical, plumbing (MEP) scopes. To approach these large mechanical and electrical systems, plans get a lot more detailed. There’s a higher likelihood that you’re going to have more RFIs and submittals because there are much more complicated systems in play.
Travis: Manufacturing projects involve a lot more communication with the end user. It’s a completely different level of involvement. In most construction projects, we don’t get to talk to the end user as much. We work on completing the project and then hand it over. When building for a manufacturing facility, you have to ensure everything is operational. If a certain part of their manufacturing line or system that we’ve set up does not work for them, it’s costing them a lot of money and energy.
How can technology alleviate some of these challenges?
Emily: The ability to have one tool to centralize all of your communications whether from the field teams, the project managers, or the owner and the engineers is crucial for success in the fast paced design-build environment that manufacturing and major industrial projects live. In PlanGrid, we can communicate with the project stakeholders in a matter of seconds.
Technology is also critical to the buyout process on manufacturing projects. As soon as we select our contractors, we can import that information from BuildingConnected into PlanGrid to get our shop drawings started and submittals uploaded. There’s a long list of equipment when it comes to these mechanical and electrical systems that we need to be on top of. When technology can easily connect, it’s crucial for streamlining the procurement process.
Travis: The main benefit is transparency. When we are building a manufacturing facility, we want the end user to feel comfortable and understand what we are building for them. With technology, we can show them and walk them through the models easily. This saves a lot of time on rework.
What works on a model in theory, might not work in reality. The earlier you bring in those end users with real manufacturing backgrounds, the more time and money you can save down the road.
When you use technology that connects your data and workflows in the construction phase, everyone has access to the latest and greatest information and you spend less time searching. It also opens the door for more standardization. We can start to apply learnings moving forward and we just continue to improve.
How do you work with owners successfully in the manufacturing space?
Emily: Owners love to know what’s going on their job sites, but a lot of them are not even in the same state or sometimes the same country as some of these projects. We like to keep the owners informed about all aspects of the project. For instance, even if it’s not an owner RFI, we give them access to all our RFIs through PlanGrid so they feel connected and know what questions are being asked in the field. They also get to see photos being uploaded and can check out daily logs on a regular basis. For example, an owner that is remote will not know if something happens like it rained that day or week and caused a delay. We want to empower them with information and give them the transparency to understand and see for themselves that we may experience a schedule impact. When everything is documented with logs and photos, they can go into the software and see it first hand.
Overall, this makes our communications with owners better. It helps us substantiate some of those special situations that may result in changes to their project.
How do you think about rolling out technology in your company?
Travis: The Helm Group is a very technology forward company. We’ve taken a very deliberate and patient approach to creating a tech stack to the way we want it. Autodesk helped us build out that strategy initially which we had started on a handful of pilot projects. But, all of a sudden, we’ve had to deploy it rapidly. Once the pandemic started, we had to ramp up and proceed with roll out on any new projects that we could go on. We have a template in place from a technology standpoint. Although each project is unique and specific, the template allows us to start up much easier.
However, the biggest challenges we have been with dealing with is change itself. You’re going to have a certain percentage of people who are resistant or hesitant to change. We’ve had detailers that have been with our company for 20 years. We have to change their mindset that while it’s the same work in theory, new technology will make them more productive and efficient. We are definitely a company that is not afraid to try new things so they’re pretty used to having to adapt. But at the same time, we don’t want to overwhelm them. We like to roll out changes in reasonable bite size buckets so we’re not throwing a bunch of new stuff to people all at once.
As companies look to scale in the manufacturing space with the help of technology, what advice would you give them?
Travis: I’d stress that we need to embrace the idea of being collaborative and getting things up front. This is something that I’ve been trying to evangelize for in the last couple of years and I even spoke at Autodesk University about this.
In an ideal world, firms need to get involved in the project early enough where they can facilitate key conversations ahead of time digitally before they become an issue. We really need to have these conversations sooner. As we move towards producing more modular buildings or fabricated systems to build safer and faster, we can’t just start having these conversations three months after the contract has been signed.
Emily: Standardization is key and can only be achieved through technology support. Anyone in a growing firm knows that the right processes need to be in place to support growth. Tools like PlanGrid force you to start looking at standard processes. When projects fall under the category or industrial or manufacturing, they are all so different and complex from your standard construction project. For Pond we have a variety of project types in this space including existing buildings renovations, greenfield construction, and building enhancements or additions.
When a standard process is in place, a project manager can be transitioned from one project to the next and they’re going to have the tools to execute that project in almost exactly the same way.
The project manager is going to know what to expect from a page turn in sheets during a design review, how to develop the submittal process, or how to sort through the RFI logs immediately. It all starts with a reliable, well-structured project management software to achieve success in developing good project controls standards.