BY ROBERT P. MADER of CONTRACTOR’s staff
ORLANDO, FLA. — The world in which mechanical contractors will work in 2020 may have some strange components to it. The Mechanical Contractors Education and Research Foundation hired a futurist who identified five key trends for the mechanical contracting industry in 2020.
Atul Dighe, principal and senior futurist with consulting firm Social Technologies LLC, uncovered some trends that are already beginning, some that are widely anticipated and some that are the stuff of George Jetson.
Dighe presented the findings of his yearlong study March 3 at the annual Mechanical Contractors Association of America convention here. Dighe’s crystal ball revealed two internal and three external trends.
The internal trends are the growing ethnic diversity of the workforce and changes in the supply chain. External factors are the renovation and rebuilding of cities, ubiquitous sensor technology and new materials sciences such as nanotechnologies.
Too many people today allow their circumstances to limit their behavior, Dighe said, when they should let their aspirations change their behavior and, thus, their circumstances.
“What kind of future do you want to create for your company?” Dighe asked. “You can do something about it.”
1. Hispanic workforce
The changing ethnicity of the workforce is no surprise and is already happening in California and the Southwest. Hispanics are quickly becoming a big part of the labor pool. Moreover, the 2004 Bush Immigration Plan would allow 8 million undocumented immigrants to obtain renewable three-year visas.
The union contractors in MCAA must work with the United Association to attract and retain qualified minority candidates. Contractors must either hire or train Spanish-speaking supervisors.
2. Evolving value chain
The evolving value chain presents negatives, such as owners trying to buy equipment, but it also presents opportunities, such as the mechanical contractor taking over the lead role once occupied by the general.
Who does what on a jobsite has become murkier over the last few years, Dighe noted. That has led to both owners and general contractors thinking they can order equipment better than the specialty contractor can. The owner may be able to get major equipment more quickly, but owner procurement creates more problems with labor management, material management, material flow and jobsite communications, among other concerns.
Owners also think they can get a better deal through Internet reverse auctions. MCAA has called Internet reverse auctions nothing more than electronic bid shopping and a method that is ripe for mistakes and abuses such as “phantom bidders.”
At the same time, the evolving jobsite offers opportunities for mechanical contractors to take the lead in projects. Dighe called it, “the advent of the virtual GC.”
If the traditional general becomes a paper pusher who does not add value other than putting the deal together, then a specialty contractor should grab that piece of the pie, Dighe said.
By 2020, the lines between mechanical, electrical and sheet metal contractors will become blurrier than they are now. MCAA past president, Shreveport, La., contractor Bob FitzGerald, who moderated the session, noted that a full-line mechanical touches every part of a building.
“The mechanical already has a major coordination role,” FitzGerald said.
Mechanicals can take advantage of the trend by partnering with other specialty contractors and honing their design-build and fast-track skills, Dighe said.
Contractors can’t control the three external trends, he noted, but they can take advantage of them.
3. Era of rebuilding
Dighe said that 2020 will be the era of rebuilding, mostly because of Baby Boomers’ money and desire to relocate. Baby Boomers will inherit $2 trillion from their parents and what they do with that money will have a big impact. What will they do with their parent’s home and property? Will they invest their inheritance in real estate?
Concurrently, Dighe noted that many urban buildings from the 1960s are at the end of their lifespan and could be gutted and turned into urban residential properties. Dighe predicts that over the next 15 years, the demand for downtown residential and related commercial construction will increase as empty nesters move to the city for its culture and amenities.
“Develop a product offering for retrofit and rebuilding,” Dighe said, “especially for buildings like lofts and commercial buildings such as restaurants and dry cleaners to support the new residences.”
4. Sensor technology
The sensors of 2020 will be far more than thermostats. Wal-Mart is pushing all its vendors to incorporate radio frequency identification tags into all their products. The RFIDs are more than just a new bar code; they can track a product from the factory floor to its consumer and may even be able to communicate information about consumer usage. The RFIDs eventually will all be able to talk to each other, gathering trillions of bits of information on a daily basis.
This information will give contractors better control over their inventory and parts. Emergency service might disappear because the equipment calls the contractor. Consumers will clamor for mechanical systems that are smarter, healthier and more secure.
“How can sensors enhance what you’re offering?” Dighe asked.
Nanotechnology is the ability to manipulate atoms to create new materials that could include building materials that are stronger and lighter — new alloys, synthetics and plastics.
While predicting that materials used in construction in 2020 will be different, Dighe went even further and predicted that the first thing built on a jobsite might be a materials factory that will produce customized material for the building.
And beyond that, part of nanotechnology might include nanorobots that could create “self-healing” materials, drastically altering the role of the service contractor.