Mechanical Firms Urged to Embrace Disruption

Not long ago, no one wanted to be “disrupted”. It meant distraction and delays.

Now the term — and concept — is synonymous with outside-the-box creativity, and futuristic innovations that spawn whole new markets, and give some businesses a clear advantage over others. So today, construction owners, contractors, subcontractors, labor unions, suppliers and more — industry players both large and small — all are lining up to be “disrupted” (and that’s a good thing). Last week, their hunger for competitive intelligence was in abundance in Indianapolis, where hundreds of members of the national Mechanical Contractors Association of America gathered for MCAA’s 2016 Construction Technology Conference.

MCAA President Tom Stone set the tone early by heralding the arrival of “disruptive technology” to the practice of mechanical contracting. And now that it is here, he challenged attendees to see the situation as “disruptive stress or disruptive opportunities.”  Stone chose the latter, urging members to embrace the continual initiatives that will both advance the industry and elevate the profession.

Conference Chairman Brian Helm, president of Freeport, IL-based Mechanical Inc., noted that many companies still struggle, at least initially, with bottom-line, return-on-investment (ROI) questions. But he reminded members that the best way to persuade management to invest appropriately in adopting technologies such as BIM is to use numbers, as well. The right tech, used the right way, at the right time, will result in less rework, greater accuracy, fewer delays, and enhanced productivity.

Those benefits were also cited even more compellingly by captivating keynote James Benham, CEO of JBKnowledge, a supplier of BIM software as well as myriad apps and industry research. “Technology is one of the highest drivers of higher margins,” he told the room, citing an instance in which San Francisco-based contractor DPR says it saved hundreds of millions of dollars on a recent hospital project directly because it made an upfront investment of just $1 million for the best available BIM.


Throughout multiple presentations, Benham emphasized that the individual technologies — i.e. safety apps, cloud computing and storage, data and project visualization tools, 3D printing, drones, robotics, etc. — do not, in and of themselves, confer a competitive advantage. To gain that edge, firms must still embrace change with a culture conducive to innovation. So efforts among stakeholders must be coordinated, he added. Cloud storage and computing, for instance, can involve hundreds of project web sites that require continual connections for purposes of both computation and immediate notification. All must work together.

In the area of visualization, Benham also contended that augmented and virtual reality can play a powerful role in helping people experience a 2D plan in 3D, an extraordinary upgrade that “helps building owners fully conceive what [they] are about to build,” an advancement conducive to minimizing change orders or preventing costly errors. The technologies “cut cycle times down on key transactions that can otherwise considerably slow work,” said Benham.

Back to the future

No firm is too old or set in its ways to make the leap into the 21st century. Chris Weaver is director of technology at Grand Rapids, MI-based Andy J. Egan Co., a 97-year-old mechanical contractor that now routinely uses laser scanning and BIM before and during projects. Egan’s big leap of faith came not long ago after learning about BIM at an MCAA conference. At the time, the sub was two weeks behind on a high school construction project. After implementing BIM as a project guide, the firm completed work two weeks ahead of schedule. Egan later adopted laser scanning and consistently employs it to evaluate existing conditions. And Weaver says that it has since acquired RetroFab, a system designed to verify fabrication and identify clashes early that might slow project delivery time later.

Another highlight of the conference was the return of BuiltWorlds‘ own Tech Tools Test Drive, which this year featured apps from far-flung tech developers at Rhumbix, Safesite, and Paracosm. Just weeks earlier, all three had presented at BW’s first-ever CEO Tech Forum in downtown Chicago. As it was a year ago at “Hamburger U.”, on McDonald’s corporate campus, this latest test drive also was moderated by BW co-founder Matt Abeles.

As explained by CEO Zachary Scheel, Rhumbix developed its app with field workers in mind. It has the ability to track equipment, materials, and labor while leveraging both passive and active data. The program yields real-time understanding of daily profitability by identifying worker locations and generating daily heat maps that demonstrate the amount of time required for certain tasks and the manner in which workers undertook them. A resulting cost code assists in quantifying savings.

Safesite, meanwhile, performs live-tracking by noting hazards on the spot, setting action plans, tracking resolution time frames, and then notifying and automatically following up with responsible parties. The program also cuts inspection and checklist time in half, explained CEO Peter Grant. While in Indy, Grant also used the occasion to announce for the first time that his firm will begin underwriting insurance on building projects, and will tie the rates to a “Safesite Score” that its app generates.

Safesite is currently in use on one of the largest construction projects in Arizona history, the five-building, 2-million-sq-ft, Marina Heights complex in Tempe, AZ. Designed by The Davis Experience, it is now being built by the Ryan Cos., on track for completion in 18 months.

In a nod to “big data”, Paracosm CEO Amir Rubin noted that his app is used to capture existing conditions, helping to ensure that what is being built on the job site conforms to the BIM model. He added that his firm now is moving toward mounting sensors on robots and drones in order to facilitate greater automation.

Immersed in innovation at DPR since 2008, speaker Nathan Wood left the forward-thinking contractor last year to found SpectrumAEC , where he is now developing “people-focused” tech that can be used by general contractors and subs, alike, to be more efficient, cost-effective and less wasteful. In particular, he discussed ways in which BIM can be used to enable prefab through initiatives such as Blox.

Drones and cloud-sharing

That further allows for real-time studio session review and communications between trades, from contract to the bid perspective. Gradually, this will help to make it possible for drones to become so commonplace that all subs become able to share data from daily scans. Wood concluded by suggesting that “we can tap disruption from either the bottom up or top down because both the general contractors and architects have such tight margins.” This will create a unique opportunity for the next generation entering the profession to make a considerable impact, he added.

“We can tap disruption from either the bottom up or the top down, because both the general contractors and the architects have such tight margins”

— Nathan Wood, CEO, Spectrum.AEC

Mother Nature, of course, was disrupting the environment long before any types of contractors walked the Earth. And Nature often reminds us that its inherent power is still there. This was the case in 2008 when severe flooding devastated much of Iowa. As the waters receded, Cedar Rapids-based Modern Piping received many of the contracts to rebuild damaged facilities and infrastructure.

Speaking in Indy, Britton Langdon, Modern Piping’s director of support operations and co-founder of FabPro1, explained how the flood of repair work created an opportunity for Modern to grow from a $25-mil. per year business to one bringing in $80 million.

The firm chose to reinvest that windfall into technology. It developed FabPro1 to fill the void between BIM and fabrication. Fab Pro 1 covers the work cycle from BIM approval to field install and has led to a completely automated package, Langdon explained. It further allows for productivity tracking via a variety of parameters such as diameter inches, joining method, material type, operations, and equipment use.

Bringing it home

Rob “ConAppGuru” McKinney quite effectively wrapped up the conference by tying a number of the themes together around the best apps for contractors. He began by discussing the ways in which tablets are getting into the field and the challenges of using them appropriately. McKinney, a former safety director at an Atlanta-based contractor, recalled a personal experience using a BlackBerry in the field not just to make calls or send e-mails, but to take pictures of safety violations. Instead of sending them to the boss, he recalled, just the fact that the photo, itself, had been taken and was known to exist had been enough to improve the behavior. He used this as an example of a trend-setting use of technology that would later drive adoption and lead to a general following of such behavior.

Finally, Brian Helm, who still chairs the MCAA Construction Technology Committee, helped attendees to process all of the hours of presentations by summarizing some of the key takeaways. Among the many insights gleaned were the importance of carefully understanding process and how process is influenced and facilitated by new technologies. It is essential to get the many collaborators on a project onboard as early as possible and to use technology to help support workflows among all of them.

This involves carefully considering the different capacities of the many apps on the market, being careful to avoid the free ones “that make you the product”, and exploring how all this tech can come together to support a cohesive workflow, Helm advised. In so doing, though, it is also essential to follow best practices with data storage and security. In short, be proactve, but be smart. In the end, new tech will enable a safer, more efficient, and more profitable worksite, a win-win if ever there was one.


BuiltWorlds’ John Gregerson and Rob McManamy also contributed to this story.