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Fabricating through the workforce crisis

May 11, 2017
Now that the industry is short by thousands of workers, contractors can work through the problem by fabricating complicated assemblies in their shops and delivering them to jobsites ready to install.

It must have been about 10 years ago when I was talking with my friend Bill Erickson, chairman of C.J. Erickson Plumbing Co., Alsip, Illinois, about factory-built bathrooms made by Eggrock Modular Solutions, Littleton, Massachusetts.

Eggrock’s idea was to build bathrooms that are all identical in, say, your typical Hampton Inn or a college dormitory, and ship them to a jobsite where they would be lifted into place with a crane. Eggrock could comply with any plumbing code anywhere and if an inspector needed to see something, Eggrock would make sure it was visible before the drywall went up.

Bill worried that it would take business away from him. I told him to look at the bright side — factory built bathrooms would allow him to bid on another hotel job even if he was short five guys.

Now that the industry is short by thousands of workers, contractors can work through the problem by fabricating complicated assemblies in their shops and delivering them to jobsites ready to install.

It’s not just for $100 million mechanicals. We ran a story about Klebs Mechanical in Anchorage, Alaska, that prefabs residential boiler packages because it’s preferable to work in a warm shop in Alaska, plus homeowners can’t go overnight without heat. Klebs has done the same on commercial projects, such as apartment complexes.

“If we can reduce the time we are on the jobsite, it not only saves project costs for us, but it also helps the general contractor or owner with scheduling, and reduces the amount of field coordination needed,” explained Vice President Matt Klebs.

The major mechanicals that we interviewed for our Book of Giants feature in this issue are doing this on a much larger scale.

Terrell says that Ivey has shifted half of what would previously have been field hours into manufacturing hours. These days when Ivey ships a chiller plant to a jobsite, it’s 95 percent complete.

“If you’re still performing work like you did 10 years ago, there’s no way you can get it done today,” said Denny Terrell, president of Ivey Mechanical Co., Kosciusko, Mississippi.

Terrell noted that Ivey’s backlog has reached the point where it limits how much additional work the contractor can take on.

Tim Moormeier, president of U.S. Engineering in Kansas City, Missouri, noted that there are companies that build and run prisons nationwide and even globally. If they need 1,000 beds, wherever that may be, it takes 18 months to build a prison. Why not, Moormeier explained, make 1,000 modular cells that can be shipped anywhere? And whether you’re building prisons or any other type of structure, use of prefabricated modular components shortens construction time and, to all owners, time is money.

Terrell says that Ivey has shifted half of what would previously have been field hours into manufacturing hours. These days when Ivey ships a chiller plant to a jobsite, it’s 95 percent complete.

The major mechanicals we interviewed for this story have invested as much money in buildings, equipment and people as many contractors gross in a year.

“We have in excess of 250,000-sq.ft. of manufacturing at this point,” Moormeier said. “It requires advanced machinery that’s very expensive and the technology to feed that operation.”

So what can mere mortals do? Residential and light commercial contractors and even small- to medium-sized (say, $20 million) mechanicals will have to turn to some version of this approach. There are custom assemblies that you can build in your shop. While Eggrock may have been ahead of its time in 2007, that time has now come. It wouldn’t surprise me if we see more ventures like this, with whom contractors can partner to build cookie-cutter components.

Have you seen videos of robots 3D printing houses out of concrete? That’s what’s coming.

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