Philip Green, British businessman and chairman of global retail giant Arcadia Group, put it plainly when he said, “Good, bad or indifferent—if you’re not investing in new technology, you’re going to be left behind.”
In today’s digital era, electrical contractors are increasingly finding that to be true and are responding by investing in a range of new and highly connected technologies designed to increase efficiency, enhance communications, reduce labor hours and cut costs. In this article, several ECs discuss the priority they place on technology and some of the latest-and-greatest tools that have successfully boosted their operational efficiency.
Ferry Electric Co.
“Technology is definitely important,” said Jim Ferry, president of Pittsburgh-based Ferry Electric Co., a medium-sized contracting firm founded in 1926. “This isn’t necessarily the case for all contractors across the board, but it is for us and we’re doing more with technology than some other larger firms based on our company makeup and culture. Computerized estimating became commonplace over the past decades, yet there are still a lot of estimators and contracting firms out there that don’t use computers when estimating, and that’s fine, but the reality is that estimators and companies are limiting themselves in terms of what they can do and how they can do it when they choose not to engage with technology. Newer technologies are now following the path that computerized estimating previously took and not everyone will choose to adopt these newer technologies either.”
Technology has to be both effective and efficient. The EC has used building information modeling (BIM) for years as a way to help level out their manpower curve given the recent shortage of skilled contractor labor.
“We use BIM because it gives us a competitive advantage in time and cost and pays off in efficiency and schedule savings,” he said.
Ferry Electric uses a Trimble Robotic Total Station (RTS), which helps perform layout tasks far more efficiently than with conventional mechanical systems for residential and building construction.
“Before, we used tape measures and strings, but now you can upload a CAD drawing to the RTS and it will show you exactly where you need to set hangers in the deck above, for example, or where to lay conduits in slabs,” he said. “It points a laser at the ground or ceiling and is a much faster and more efficient approach that we’ve been using successfully for a couple of years. In truth, the Total Station is an age-old surveying tool, but it took years for the BIM and CAD components to come together. The construction industry has historically been slow to adapt, but more contractors have been willing to embrace it in the last few years.”
In addition, the team also had a positive experience with RealWear’s HMT-1, a head-mounted tablet that enables ECS to access drawings, manuals, prefab layouts, and video/audio communication while leaving their hands free to work. Ferry also provides iPads to all the foremen on his team along with apps to eliminate paperwork between the office and the field.
“However, what works for us doesn’t necessarily work for other firms and we’re watching certain new technologies and implementing them in case-specific ways,” Ferry said. “In fact, we recently created a unique new app in-house which engages our employees and puts safety at the forefront.
“Technology is one of many priorities at our firm. We have to be a quality contractor, provide good value and competitive prices, and help our customers run a successful project. If we can do that—with the help of technology—that’s what differentiates Ferry Electric Co.,” he said.
Continental Electrical Construction Co.
Continental Electrical Construction Co. (CECCo), a leading electrical contracting firm serving Chicagoland, doesn’t mind investing in the latest software and hardware.
“Our approach to technology follows our overall approach—we’re here to support our field electricians in working more efficiently, and the same goes for our team here in the office,” said Michael Hanek, director of engineering for the company, which has 300–500 electricians in the field. “Our investments are always made to save man-hours and more efficiently sell productive labor.”
For the 106-year-old company, investing in technology is nothing new. AutoCAD has been an integral part of CECCo’s technology portfolio for years.
“Up until 2004, AutoCAD was a two-dimensional product,” Hanek said. “When Autodesk MEP was introduced, it enabled modeling of distribution equipment and conduit, helping us to create accurate and clash-free drawings. Then Autodesk Revit was introduced, which allowed us to include information about the distribution equipment, such as current, voltage, breakers, etc., as well as the size and wire type of conduit. REVIT enables us to capture information from drawings and create feeder schedules, update panel schedules, and make our drawings more intelligent. We’re still discovering new capabilities, but Revit has been vital for us because it allows us to be part of the BIM process even before our electricians get to a job site and to pursue coordination before construction begins.”
CECCo has taken this modeling a step further and made it more effective through different scanners.
“Autodesk Point Layout assists with the layout of field points and provides dimensional information, where we’d previously had to incorporate points taken by hand from our electricians using tape measures or string,” Hanek said. “The Trimble Total Station fixes on those points with great accuracy and is so effective that we’ve invested in three of those units.”
Because scanning technology has continued to improve, the firm also has invested in a Leica Laser Scanner for assistance with HVAC and conduit layouts.
“It measures everything it’s looking at within its 360-degree spherical view and its software brings it into a drawing,” Hanek said of the breakthrough. “It scans an area and creates a 3-D picture of the space with outstanding resolution.”
Modern technology is driving construction to not only be more productive but also to shift toward preconstruction/prefabrication.
“One of the most time-consuming parts of preconstruction planning is capturing conduit layout data in a format that our prefab people can use,” Hanek said, adding that CECCo strives to do 10 percent of its work in preconstruction. “One of the new technologies we’re currently considering is a piece of software that will help our prefab crew schedule it as quickly as we’re modeling it.”
Each of the technologies CECCo implemented has driven increases in efficiency. One of the most effective technologies it’s brought on, in terms of communication, has been PlanGrid.
“PlanGrid allows us to easily access architectural drawings and engineering plans on mobile devices, link documents relating to the same part of the projects together, and comment on drawings instantaneously,” Hanek said. “Because it allows us to have a conversation right on the drawing, it’s changed the way we interface with our electricians in the field, improving information flow and reducing the time spent going back and forth.
“For our whole team, technologies are the tools we use to stay ahead of the curve. We’re very forward-thinking about investments in technology, and if we can prove that some technology will help us be more productive, our owners are very open to it. While technology is changing fast, we rely on these tools, as well as our expertise, to help us secure both the volume and the types of projects we go after. Certain jobs are secured because we have the technology that keeps us on the ‘bleeding edge.’ That’s critical for a one-stop shop like us,” Hanek said.
E-J Electric T&D
For E-J Electric T&D LLC, a 6-year-old affiliate of Long Island City, N.Y.-based E-J Electric Installation Co., investments in technology have enabled greater speed, efficiency, and even lives to be saved.
“We use Fleetmatics’ fleet-management tracking tool, a GPS system located in all of our vehicles that helps us track when vehicles leave and come back,” said Joe Rubino, general manager of E-J Electric T&D LLC, a full-service shop that is active in the disaster-recovery arena. “It adds great value when evaluating project productivity, as it enables you to confirm the whereabouts of your trucks—because it tracks full trip details throughout the day, it can also help confirm where we were if a customer ever questions that.”
The majority of E-J Electric T&D’s 125 team members have been unfazed by the presence of such monitoring. According to Rubino, the device has delivered unexpected benefits as well.
“We were once on a storm emergency call when we encountered a woman having a heart attack in her car,” he said. “We were in rural upstate New York and our guys didn’t know exactly where they were, but thanks to the tracking tool, we were able to give the 911 representative a pinpoint detail of her location, which likely saved her life. We’ve been using this Fleetmatics system for three years, and it’s viewable from a screen or hardware mounted in the vehicle and also has an accompanying app.”
The firm has also had great success with ToolWatch, which is tool tracking and management software that monitors all assets in the field.
“Tools get broken or disappear, which is an industry-wide problem that I’ve been searching for an answer to for 25 years because it represents millions of dollars in lost assets,” Rubino said. “[With ToolWatch,] tools are scanned in using a barcoding system and are assigned a vehicle and location; we then do monthly and random vehicle tool inspections, and the savings are worth the effort.”
Over Rubino’s nearly three decades in the industry, he and company president/CEO Anthony Mann and their team are very clear on the role technology plays in their operations and the need to stay on top of those opportunities.
“Our company is 119 years old and we didn’t last that long by being fixed in an era,” Rubino said. “You have to change with the times or you’re out of business. We use every technological tool at our disposal to deliver a safe, quality product to customers and to do that as efficiently as we can. If you don’t take advantage of those opportunities, you’ll be left by the curbside.”