Amy Marks, the Autodesk Queen of Prefab and a preeminent prefabrication consultant, pointed out on a Bridging the Gap podcast, that somebody benefits from the chaos on a job. Someone makes money off keeping each team’s information in silos. When there is a lack of information, someone has power over the other teams, and in the past they may have profited from that. “We . . . need to start valuing the certainty and predictability that data gives us,” she said. Then she stressed that the guys with the money need to drive that trend.
In August, Marks was the featured keynote speaker at MEP Force 2020 Virtual, sponsored by Applied Software and eVolve MEP, with attendance of over 1300 worldwide. With her industry experience, she asks the tough questions and has an obvious affinity for the mechanical-electrical-plumbing (MEP) trades.
Marks refuses to refer to the MEP sector as an industry. Rather, she prefers to call it an ecosystem. And in the one-off ecosystem that exists today, job data is hard to collect. Yet, data is at the very heart of industrialized construction (IC). The standardization of IC – whether it’s prefabrication, modular, DfMA (design for manufacture and assembly), or something else – allows the construction industry to build at a more rapid pace. It also allows companies to more effectively use the workforce they have – staving off the issues caused by a smaller skilled workforce. One electrical contractor has observed that a third of the available workforce has retired and another third has moved on to a different industry.
This can leave companies in dire straits, but the processes of IC can help them compensate, allowing them to train, educate and move quickly.
IC is one way that construction companies can produce more than they ever have, while coping with more stringent building codes, new safety requirements and shorter schedules. IC looks at the entire built process, and it’s design-centric – beyond innovation, it’s a revolutionary change in the way things are done. Collaboration goes hand in hand with IC. Through the collaborative process, the real space is created first in the virtual space. Marks describes this as the only way to get construction productivity to the place where it needs to be.
Marks left her 10-year-old modular construction business to partner with Autodesk in reaching the world with the message about the importance of industrial construction to the survival of the industry as a whole. Using the large platform of Autodesk technology, with products like Revit and BIM 360, she can coach the MEP ecosystem about how prefabrication is an ever-changing continuum. She explains that construction has historically been a business of “assembly,” but it takes a product-led mindset to achieve the “manufacturing” processes of IC.
The MEP systems are in the walls and ceilings of buildings, and they make everything else work. If there’s no air, no water, no electrical, the project doesn’t happen. The MEP space is also where the cash is. For the health (citing foreign examples, Marks insists it’s for the very survival) of the industry, the MEP ecosystem needs to shift away from the wasteful production archetype of cash for chaos.
Marks describes MEP subs as historically a quiet bunch. Many have great ideas that are not capitalized upon, because they are usually brought in toward the end of the job. Once the design is 75% complete, then it’s a fight against the culture and systems – and most are “not up for that battle.” As Marks put it, “Most MEP contractors are humble. They’re keeping their business afloat. They’re doing what they do to survive.” Collaboration with them requires better communication, and trust is key in changing the way things are done.
Construction is complex, and it’s getting more so every day. If the only reason owners first get involved in collaboration is to remove risk (contingency) and save money, that’s at least a start. If those savings are then spent on innovation or research and development, it can positively impact business. Companies spending their money on contingency are investing it in the wrong place, and collaboration can change that.
Although this seems clear and makes a lot of sense, still people are creatures of habit. Unfortunately, the things that brought you success in the first place aren’t necessarily always going to bring you success.
Marks suggests that MEP contractors need to be using technology. There’s a value to it that can be shared across the ecosystem. Technology is great, and there are many products designed to be collaborative. But it needs to involve all of the teams to bring true success. In this way, collaboration enables MEP professionals to do what they do best.