Productive Prefab

By Susan Bloom | Aug 15, 2020
Productive Prefab




Industrywide, the prefabrication of products and processes has proven to be a popular way for electrical contractors to reduce labor costs, optimize their workforce during a time of skilled labor shortages, and help ensure that projects get completed on time. In this roundup, five electrical contractors active in the prefab arena discuss cutting-edge ways they use the practice to increase productivity and efficiency.

Baxter-Kenworthy Electric—A ‘fabforce’ of nature

At Baxter-Kenworthy Electric and Fabforce LLC (short for “Offsite Fabrication Labor Force”), an Omaha, Neb.-based firm founded in 1932, fabrication was ramped up in 2008 out of necessity.

“With labor availability, quantity, quality, dependability and cost representing our greatest risk/variable on projects, we pursued prefab to offset the lack of production and reliability of manpower on the job site,” said company president Jeff Meurrens. “We had too much labor inconsistency and resultant financial losses on our projects doing things the traditional way.”

Since then, prefab has become key to the company’s operations.

“We’ve evolved to perform all project layout and preplanning in-house with our most experienced field personnel and the latest design and modeling software and techniques,” Meurrens said, confirming that approaching prefabrication with a manufacturing mindset has catapulted his firm beyond the traditional “assembly” operation that many start with.

“For over a decade, we’ve developed our own process-management software for use in communicating critical, real-time information among all project members, and we also customize our own manufacturing tools and equipment for use in fabrication to meet our project needs, which enables us to react much faster to design changes,” he said.

Baxter-Kenworthy Electric uses prefab to custom design, build and ship underground duct banks.

Baxter-Kenworthy’s additional commitment to establishing written processes for all of its prefabrication efforts further ensures consistent results and enables continuous improvement.

As a result of these efforts, Meurrens said, “We’ve increased production, improved the consistency and success of our projects, enhanced our ability to meet increasingly tight project schedules, and offset the increased cost of labor. To put it in perspective, 10 years ago we needed well over 100 people to do the volume we now do with less than 70.”

While contractors nationwide engage in the practice to varying degrees, Meurrens believes that “prefab is moving beyond the ‘opportunity’ phase and well into the ‘necessary-to-compete’ phase and that fabrication will evolve to the nearly full manufacturing of facilities off-site.”

“I truly believe that contractors that don’t fabricate will become fewer, the ones that do it to survive will do exactly that, and the ones that lead the way will become (or be acquired by) those who combine all trades into a common manufacturing facility to fully prefabricate buildings,” he said.

United Electric Co.—’Externalizing operations’

According to Jerry Hayes, president of United Electric Co., a nearly 35-year-old firm based in Marietta, Ga., the initial launch of prefab activities in its warehouse in 2013 yielded so many benefits that the firm constructed a prefab addition two years later.

“In addition to realizing cost savings that probably average about 5%, our prefab activities have helped us improve quality and safety and smooth out job-site schedules,” Hayes said.

These team activities include removing lighting fixtures from boxes and placing them on rolling carts to streamline work flow and boost efficiency.

The team at United Electric Co. prefabs emergency lighting rough-ins for a renovation project at America’s Mart in Atlanta.

“We’ve also found that starting our entry-level employees in prefab strengthens the training process and makes more productive use of our different tiers of skilled labor,” he said.

“It’s not just about prefab, but about ‘externalizing’ the work by doing it off-site,” Hayes said about his firm’s approach to the practice, which he feels is becoming increasingly critical to the industry’s survival.

“Ultimately,” he predicted, “there will be electrical contractors that externalize the work by engaging in prefab and those that used to be in the electrical contracting business.”

Shaw Electric Co.—’A prefab culture’

Ninety-year-old Shaw Electric Co. had dabbled in simple assemblies, mass cutting of strut, and other basic prefab activities in the past, “but when we moved into our new headquarters in Southfield, Mich., in 2012, our 30,000-square-foot warehouse allowed us to lay out a dedicated area for prefabrication and kitting,” said Shaw Electric prefabrication manager John Wojtys, whose company became fully committed to prefab in 2014. One of Shaw’s early forays into “mass prefabrication” was for Michigan State University and involved over eight miles of cable tray with multiple stacked levels for which the company prefabricated thousands of detailed, multielevation overhead trapezes.

“We incorporate prefab opportunities into projects from day one and always ask, ‘Why can’t we prefab it?’,” Wojtys said of Shaw’s prefab culture. “For us, virtual design and construction/building information modeling [VDC/BIM] are driving forces and our working 3D model and details are constructed with prefabrication in mind. We’ve made substantial investments in specific tools dedicated to improving our prefab capabilities, including high-quality well saws, hydraulic strut cutters, MC cable-cutting saws, and conduit benders and have found that while these tools are fairly expensive, they pay for themselves quickly. We’re also always looking at new prefab products available on the market, at times bringing in samples and prefabbing a mockup or test assembly.”

At Shaw Electric Co., multitrade MEP racks are assembled, fully installed with conduit, boxes, fire-stop caulk, cable tray, and valve wiring and labeled in an off-site warehouse facility and delivered to job sites on a just-in-time basis.

Based on experience, “in-wall rough-in, branch power and lighting see the largest benefits from prefabrication, probably because they’re tedious and labor-intensive,” Wojtys said of the savings the company has realized. “Prefab has reduced our time spent looking for a specific tool or box of fittings, boxes, brackets, etc., as well as our time on ladders or lifts, which has subsequently reduced our injuries from cuts or slips on floor debris. We also spend less time unpacking devices, lights, etc.; carting packing materials to dumpsters; and assembling in the field in unfavorable conditions.”

While he’s found some ECs that don’t fully understand prefab are quick to say that it won’t work, “we’ve seen many of these same individuals change their mind after working in our prefab shop or installing our prefabricated items on a job site,” Wojtys said.

“I believe that the need for prefabrication is on the rise in electrical construction as a result of tighter budgets, shorter schedules and less available manpower,” he said. “Prefab addresses and improves on all of these and is our future. Electrical contractors will have to embrace prefabrication in order to realize the benefits it can bring and remain competitive and profitable in our market. Those who choose to do things the ‘same old way’ and not embrace prefab may not survive. I’d encourage others to start small but definitely start to prefab!”

John Mills Electric—Offering a competitive advantage

Ever since he attended a 2011 presentation on how prefabrication could help minimize waste and increase productivity on construction jobs, Lindsay Mills, president and CEO of 42-year-old Elmira Heights, N.Y.-based John Mills Electric, was sold on the concept and immediately began building a prefab shop and training personnel on incorporating prefab into daily practice.

Nearly a decade later, “we start all projects by discussing what items we plan on prefabbing as well as other areas of the job that could benefit from prefab,” he said. “Following that, our prefab shop foreman lays out all of the in-wall prefabrications, receptacles, switches, data outlets, etc. Our prefab engineer then lays out feeder/branch and cable tray routings, circuits them and sends common components to the prefab shop for manufacture.”

After kitting is done to organize project components according to specific areas of the building, “our foreman will order up the prefabbed rough-in materials and trim-out components,” Mills said.

Electricians assemble power panels at John Mills Electric’s prefab shop.

John Mills has accrued many benefits from this approach. In addition to stretching the schedule and using less manpower at peak by getting walls and ceilings roughed-in more quickly, “all of these processes are accomplished in a well-lit, climate-controlled environment as opposed to the unpredictable and sometimes chaotic conditions found on a job site.”

Mills noted that the assembly of prefabricated items itself also becomes more efficient due to sheer repetition.

“Job-site cleanup is also greatly reduced, the discovery of any engineering errors or omissions happens sooner, and the prefab shop is a great place to start off entry-level electricians because it provides an environment for them to learn about basic tools, materials and assembly methods,” he said.

Though prefab reduced the firm’s costs by 10–15% on most projects in its early years, other benefits have outweighed any financial savings.

“Having prefab capabilities gives us a selling point with prospective customers and allows us to remain competitive in the marketplace,” Mills said. “Nowadays, everyone has to leverage prefabrication to stay competitive in the industry. We’re seeing major manufacturers offering more products specifically geared to prefab processes, such as CAD/BIM solutions, and we expect to see many more advances brought forward at an accelerated pace to the benefit of those electrical contractors with mature prefabrication capabilities. Ultimately, if you aren’t practicing prefab or planning to in the near future, you’ll find yourself on the road to extinction.”

Rosendin Electric—Delivering value

At Rosendin Electric, a century-old contracting firm based in San Jose, Calif., prefab activities were instituted two decades ago to improve profit margins but have evolved to deliver so much more.

“Today, our ability to provide greater value to the customer is a critical factor in the ‘why’ we do what we do,” said Steven Rose, corporate director, prefab/packaging.

According to Rose, Rosendin Electric has extended the prefab concept to some unexpected processes.

“For example, on many jobs within our renewable energies division, we’ll prefab combiner box/inverter assemblies that are prewired, tested and quality-controlled and then package them on a material-handling cart of our own design that we ship to the job site and install from,” he said. “The intent is to eliminate as much waste as possible in all forms.”

Rosendin team members prefab LED lights for installation in bathrooms.

Another example involves solar string wiring for large utility-scale solar projects.

“Our ability to create all of the string wiring in our prefab shops greatly reduces installation time in the field,” he said. “We’ve designed and built specialty wire spooling tools for our ‘fab shops as well as custom material handling tools for this application and have been able to greatly impact not only production in the ‘fab shop but also site logistics, which is particularly important for solar jobs with massive footprints.”

In addition to enhancing margins and realizing the improved safety, quality, productivity and economies of scale associated with a controlled environment, “we’re also seeing the benefits of greater predictability in ways we didn’t foresee when we first started incorporating prefab,” he said. “With lean thinking and efforts in advanced work planning, we’re striving to get farther in front of our work than ever before, which improves our ability to predict a given project’s outcome and exercise more control over our own destiny.”

Looking ahead, Rose believes that prefab will continue to evolve as the industry increasingly looks to automation, modular and volumetric modular builds, and third-party manufacturer/vendors to help manage labor shortages.

“The term ’construction manufacturing’ is now being used, and I believe it’s the next step just beyond ‘prefab,’” he said. “While launching a prefab operation from scratch can be very daunting, even for the most seasoned contractor, the bottom line of ‘why’ to pursue prefab is fairly simple—adapt or die. Companies that can prefab and package effectively will survive, and most that are unable to won’t be in business in 25 years.”

About The Author

BLOOM is a 25-year veteran of the lighting and electrical products industry. Reach her at [email protected].

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