Old Lessons At Work Today

Electrical contractors convey electrical products on the last mile of the journey from manufacturer through distributor to installation. This applies to products for every type of electrical work. In a paradigm shift, if ECs believed their chief priority should be material management, not labor management, the difference in the results they experienced would be astounding. 


If they rolled up their sleeves and drilled into the nitty-gritty details of managing the movement of material from the time they first had it under their control until the point at which an electrician had finished installing it, productivity measurements would skyrocket.


Thanks to a chance discovery of a compelling book, “From the American System to Mass Production, 1800–1932,” we were able to see how lessons American manufacturers learned long ago about materials management hugely apply to electrical contracting today. We sat down with the author, David A. Hounshell, Ph.D., professor at Carnegie Mellon University.


In the 1800s, U.S. manufacturers multiplied factory productivity so dramatically that European emissaries traveled here hoping to learn the secrets of what was becoming known as “the American system.” What means and methods in that system fit the electrical contracting  industry today?

First, I should point out that I probably would not be sitting in this chair talking to you right now had I not done electrician’s work in the late ’60s and early ’70s in New Mexico. I paid my way through college by working summers and holidays doing small and medium-sized electrical jobs. I did residential, small commercial and even appliance repair work. So, when my friends were on a beach during spring break, I might have been in a local restaurant kitchen, dikes in hand, trying to fix a big fryer that was having problems.


That experience now provides me with some insight into your question. I believe there are indeed lessons to be taken from the history of U.S. manufacturing that can benefit today’s electrical contractors, including those contractors who concentrate heavily on service work. And, clearly, an emphasis on management of materials must be the centerpiece of that investigation.


Two main themes run through America’s manufacturing history: first is the standardization of identical parts and second is the efficiency of assembly lines.

That’s true. But I’ve heard you comment that contractors should turn their attention toward the so-called “pathways” that electrical products follow en route to their installation. To me that’s a reminder of one of the greatest but less-heralded aspects in the development of manufacturing. I’m referring in this case to transfer machines.


Transfer machines of one kind or the other provide the links in the conveyance of parts and pieces between assembly lines and other areas under the factory roof. I’m sure all of your readers have seen some version of them.


I suggest, therefore, that in your search for better ways to handle electrical products on a construction project or for a service job, you remember the impact that the introduction of transfer machinery had on manufacturing. Relentless attention to the details in design of transfer machines yielded bountiful solutions in the manufacturing realm. There are approaches to work in construction that parallel what transfer machines accomplished in manufacturing. Contractors should seek them out.


In your studies, you have touched on some of the few-and-far-between 20th century experiments that were intended to adapt manufacturing concepts to field construction, all with the idea of increasing productivity.

They have come and gone. Many factors have worked against them, not the least of which has been lack of a sustained source of funding. The highly fragmented structure of the industry does not help either. No one company would ever want to invest very heavily in the effort on its own. It’s hard to believe a consortium would step up to bankroll it. The kind of government financial backing that once famously underwrote certain breakthrough technologies no longer seems like a possibility. Besides, anything that does come about would probably take a full generation of development.


Of course, one of the more popular stories about applying a scientific approach to field-installation work recalls the career of Frank Bunker Gilbreth, Sr. Among many other accomplishments, he invented an improved scaffolding system featuring an adjustable-height shelf to make a bricklayer’s work—in today’s terms—more ergonomic. Most people have forgotten all about that. They simply remember him as being the central figure and father in the true-life story about the big family made famous by his book and the motion picture, “Cheaper by the Dozen.”

About the Author

Andrew McCoy

Service and Maintenance Contributor

Andrew McCoy is the Preston and Catharine White Fellow and Department Head of the Department of Building Construction in the Myers-Lawson School of Construction at Virginia Tech. Contact him at apmccoy@vt.edu.

About the Author

Fred Sargent

Service and Maintenance Contributor

Fred Sargent is an electrical industry consultant focusing on service expertise. He can be reached at fred@sargent.com.

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