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Augmenting Businesses with Prefabrication

Augmenting Businesses with Prefabrication

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In the last 5-10 years, prefabrication has become an increasingly popular tactic for improving productivity and organizing a business. However, this technique is not a one size fits all – it largely depends on the business itself and the type of job. Below, Bob Crain, Director of Marketing and Product Development for Cablofil at Legrand, shares his insights for electrical contractors and business owners on prefabrication techniques, and the necessary steps to take in order to realize the tangential benefits.
The term prefabrication refers to the practice of pre-assembling components of a structure in a factory or other manufacturing site, and transporting those parts to be installed repeatedly throughout a project. They key to a successful prefab job is repetition and understanding the logistics involved for each specific project.
While the rise in this trend can be attributed to many factors, Crain states that one of the main reasons that it has become popular among electricians and contractors is simply because of the labor shortage within the industry – it’s a physical job and can be difficult to do at an older age. Other benefits, such as cost and time saving, as well as added quality control, have also helped put prefab at the forefront of the industry. People expect things to happen faster (across all industries) and building construction is no different.
By using prefab techniques, timelines are compressed, which helps to cut down on the cost. Pre-assembling in a factory or manufacturing facility also allows for much greater quality control, because there is the opportunity to inspect a product and validate that a job is done right before it’s even taken to the space. And, because of the repetitive nature, there tends to be a higher quality of work on the jobsite that is much easier to execute, and thus, a lot safer.
It also provides the opportunity to train younger employees on best practices in a controlled environment, so that they are well framed on the project by the time they are out in the field.
Additionally, Crain adds that there’s also a sustainable benefit to using prefab techniques, which has increasingly become an important factor within the industry that is moving more and more towards green building. For reference, the term green building refers to a design, construction or operation that aims to reduce or eliminate negative impacts on our climate and natural environment. When prefabbing, items are bought in bulk for manufacturing, and the amount of packaging and materials needed is significantly less. This also decreases the amount of trash accumulated at a job site.
But, in order to realize all of the benefits prefab has to offer, it’s important to first understand the type of project, and the idea that just because these techniques may have worked for one project, does not mean they will work again for another. One example Crain points out is that it’s a lot harder to prefab a commercial building, as many architects, business owners and developers look to create spaces that are individual, unique, and speak to the culture of that company. This means that many of the room shapes and sizes in commercial buildings vary, unlike a hotel or condo where the spaces are uniform, and prefab techniques can be easily repeated throughout.
Another important factor in determining if prefab is the best technique is to understand and assess the problem that prefab is being used to solve. Very often, the issue is a labor shortage, so contractors will decide to prefab and then just shift the labor from a project site to their shop, without first considering their ability to produce, as well as evaluating that added time and cost. In this case, a simple shift in labor isn’t solving anything, and Crain adds that in most cases, it’s best to just outsource the labor to a manufacturer to see the most benefit.
However, one common mistake that Crain has noticed as the prefab trend has continued to rise, are issues with staffing. All too often, projects become overstaffed because prefab labor, as in the work that has already been completed off-site, is not taken into account, and sending too much labor to the job site won’t end up saving any money. Another common staffing issue
Once its determined that prefab is the best method for a project, it’s time to look for a manufacturing partner. This process is all about alignment, and again, having a full understanding of what the capabilities as a company are, and where and how help can be utilized. Ideally, outside manufacturers should be doing the things that are simple logistically and are the pieces of a project that aren’t likely to change. Last minute changes can cause the supply chain to become longer and longer, increasing timelines and costs, but this also depends on the manufacturer and their systems.
Luckily, there are software tools that are of huge help in the planning phases. BIM Software (Building Information Modeling) is an intelligent 3D model-based process that gives professionals the insight and tools to more efficiently plan, design, construct, and manage buildings and infrastructure. Contractors can now work in 3-D and are able to more accurately estimate and create prefab items that are a better fit, creating less surprises on a jobsite and keeping timelines in-check.
All in all, when determining if prefab is the right method for a project, business owners and contractors should take a 50,000 foot view of the project and really understand how their business is organized, what their skills are and where additional help is needed. Crain notes, “It’s been interesting to see how these techniques are being applied at all levels. Contractors are in a trial-and-error phase right now of trying to prefab items, but what it really comes down to is the logistics and capability in planning – knowing how to move things properly, and efficiently, and then putting them into place.”
Bob Crain and Kevin Kohl, Senior Product Manager at Legrand, will be hosting a technical workshop on ‘Augmenting Businesses with Prefabrication’ at this year’s NECA convention in Las Vegas on Monday, Sept. 16 from 3:00-3:50pm.
Bob Crain Bio:
Bob Crain, P.E. is a registered electrical engineer in the state of Illinois with 25 years of experience working for several leading US cable tray manufacturers. Bob is a leading expert on industry standards for the cable tray market. For the past 28 years he has been a member of the NEMA Technical Committee (5CT) and is currently a representative for the North American IEC, focusing on Standard 61537 for cable tray. Over his career, he has lent his expertise to numerous NEC code changes, written articles for industry trade magazines and published many white papers. For the past 13 years, Bob has worked for Legrand/Cablofil in Mascoutah, IL, and currently holds the position of Director of Marketing/Product Development.

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