An Ounce of Prefabrication: Contractors discuss how advance assembly and building proves valuable on the job site

Shutterstock / Yienkeat
Shutterstock / Yienkeat
Published On
Nov 15, 2021

Prefabrication activities are pervading the electrical contracting industry. Following, three contractors share how they’re engaging in prefab as a way to reduce costs and meet aggressive deadlines in an increasingly competitive field.

H&L Electric Inc.—A competitive advantage

From its headquarters in Long Island City, N.Y., the nearly three-decades-old H&L Electric Inc. participates in a range of prefab activities to enhance efficiency and reduce labor.

“Everything is related to cost, and time and delivery are costs,” said Hal Sokoloff, president of H&L Electric, which was founded in 1993 and has grown to encompass a team of 250 employees.

According to Sokoloff, part of his firm’s prefab use involves the purchasing of prefabbed products such as temporary lighting for construction sites.

“Years ago, we used to have to make the temporary light used on a project by pressing a connector on, taping on the ends, etc.,” he said. “Today, however, we can buy manufactured temporary lighting, so instead of having wire and connectors delivered to the job site, we can purchase prefabbed lighting from manufacturers who produce it ready-made, which saves us on time and the cost of having all of those separate materials delivered. On a 30-day schedule, for example, it used to take two to four days to build our temporary light, but by now buying it manufactured, it might only take one day to set up. That allows us to compress our schedule and pass on those dollar savings to the client.”

Sokoloff’s team also used to make its own extension cords by ordering a reel of SJ cable, installing a plug on one side and a receptacle on the other, then testing them to ensure they were functional.

“We can now buy them with molded ends,” he said, adding that more sophisticated prefab includes boxes with devices. “For example, you can buy an outlet with 20 feet of raceway already attached to the box along with connectors, allowing you to snake it through without having to make connections. We’ll also buy prebent conduit elbows and 2x4 fluorescent lighting fixtures with a ‘tail’—a flexible 4- to 6-foot-long cable that gets connected to a junction box in the ceiling—which only requires our electricians to install it.

“In today’s world of IT, there’s also cabling from desktop to server that’s made with the ends on it, so we don’t need to put connectors on and there’s less chance for error. Ultimately, we’re seeing more prefabbed products out there than ever, and if they’re approved by our [collective bargaining agreement], we’ll opt for them.”

H&L Electric also relies on prefab for manual, repetitive activities, such as prewiring fixtures or metering pans to help train less-experienced team members.

“We can optimize value by having a less-experienced apprentice put something together or secure a box in the wall,” Sokoloff said. “It will initially take them longer, but you’re making an investment in their future and in your business.”

While some industry members fear that prefab will render electrical contractors obsolete or move the field toward an “electrician in a box” mentality, Sokoloff said that the growth of prefabbed products is just part of the industry’s evolution.

“There’s a balancing act between prefabbed materials and working on the job site; there’s a clear role for prefab activities, but there still must be oversight on the installation,” he said.

Overall, Sokoloff rates the value of prefab activities highly.

“Prefab really ramped up within the past five years, and we’re definitely seeing more and doing more of it ourselves,” he said. “Contractors should definitely investigate prefab opportunities as a way to offer a great product at a more competitive price. It’s not about greed, but rather a way to pass on savings to a customer and make yourself more competitive on a bid.”

Cochran Inc.—Growing and streamlining

“Cochran teams have been utilizing prefab for over a decade to maintain a competitive, cost-efficient edge in the industry and to eliminate waste on projects as much as possible,” said John Gennaios, field performance manager at Seattle-based Cochran Inc. “The main benefits we’ve found pertain to the seven wastes: overproduction, transportation, motion, waiting, processing, inventory and defect/rework. When utilized properly on a project, prefab can address any or all of the wastes above and, at times, completely eliminate them.

Prefab activities at Cochran include Carlon whips for roof-mounted split systems. | Cochran Inc.
Prefab activities at Cochran include Carlon whips for roof-mounted split systems.
Cochran Inc.

“Cochran looks to incorporate prefab in all aspects of our project, from accounting, detailing and preconstruction to estimating and building,” he said. “The common misconception is that prefab is just about building widgets and sending that assembly out to a job site, but that’s only the tip of the iceberg. As a firm looking to innovate, we’re constantly working to get better at streamlining project processes and eliminate waste (and, therefore extra cost/time) whenever possible. While it’s hard to quantify the dollar amount that our prefab processes save Cochran as a whole, we find that one of our greatest savings is the reduction of frustration and burn-out in our teams.”

Gennaios noted that having a culture of prefab enabled the Cochran team to hit the ground running in the face of COVID-19.

“The forward-thinking aspect of prefab allowed our teams to quickly begin looking at possible supply-chain issues and preparing to procure necessary supplies for the implementation of such processes as staggering breaks, sanitizing job sites and transitioning people from the office to a successful remote environment,” he said.

“A prefab culture has also allowed us to maintain options for keeping our Washington and Oregon warehouses safely active during the shutdowns, and, overall, making sure that our people had the tools and materials they need to feel successful at their work.

“We see some electrical contractors increasingly practicing lean construction, including prefab, and reaping the benefits in all aspects of their business,” Gennaios said. “In its most basic form, prefab allows a contractor to build something in a controlled environment with all the right parts and ship it to the exact floor of a job where it’s needed for installation, allowing for more consistency and time efficiency. Firms who aren’t yet utilizing prefab will find themselves at the mercy of sorting out materials in a constantly changing environment within an industry that leans heavily on organization and quick-paced productivity. Our approach is continuous improvement—we’re always collaborating on ways to grow and perform better—and, in our opinion, the future of prefab processes will look a lot more like streamlined manufacturing processes.”

Lighthouse Electric Co. Inc.—Efficient installations

“A light version of prefab has been going on here for five years, and we’ve ramped it up in the last 2–3 years,” said Theron DiPietrantonio, director of fabrication at 41-year-old Canonsburg, Pa.-based Lighthouse Electric Co. Inc., which currently employs more than 700 electricians.

“For our first step, we went through an entire value stream mapping exercise and identified current workflows, then streamlined them to eliminate waste and redundancy,” he said. “Identifying standard parts and pieces was next; there are dozens of ways to mount an electrical junction box in the wall between two studs and very loose [manufacturing] standards across the industry. We standardized on a select few specific box attachment types down to the brand and partnered with them to ensure that our spacing and attachment method is standard for all locations, because time is money.”

Lighthouse’s prefab activities also take many other forms.

Prefab activities at Lighthouse Electric include underground duct bank in 40-foot sections. | Lighthouse Electric Co. Inc.
Prefab activities at Lighthouse Electric include underground duct bank in 40-foot sections.
Lighthouse Electric Co. Inc.

“We engage in fully kitting in-wall assemblies with installation drawings by floor, area and room to minimize movement around the project,” DiPietrantonio said. “We also work with our planning, layout and design and virtual design and construction teams to figure out the schedule so that finished goods arrive at the job site exactly when they’re needed. By confirming the sequence of installation with other trade partners and identifying a ‘requested on-site day’ per the job schedule, we’re able to avoid damage, exposure to the elements and theft.

“We also have a standard pick list with minimums and maximums, so our parts and pieces auto-replace when they hit the minimum values we’ve set at the fabrication shop,” DiPietrantonio said of another form of prefab. “Managing our inventory through a vendor partnership saves us time and money by avoiding the need to place orders every day.”

DiPietrantonio confirmed that prefab activities allow the firm to tier its labor. At its high-tech, 44,000-square-foot prefab shop, which features everything from upgraded conduit benders to mobile work centers with QR scanning capabilities and more, “we always have a core group of 8–10 team members (and often employ over 30) in the shop, and we train apprentices by rotating them through all of the stations,” he said.

“We have the latest-and-greatest tooling from all of the major manufacturers and test a lot of new products here that we can then recommend to our field guys, so our prefab shop is also a testing ground for new technology.”

A prewired mobile power distribution unit | Lighthouse Electric Co. Inc.
A prewired mobile power distribution unit
Lighthouse Electric Co. Inc.

As part of its prefab activities, Lighthouse also looks to specialized partners to help streamline activities.

“For example, we use mechanical contractors and trade partners who are expert at cutting steel, delivering and minimizing waste so that we can order piece counts, not linear units,” he said. “The product comes marked and bundled by length and we just need to attach part A to part B.”

“Overall, we’re seeing more and more prefab, especially in new commercial construction, and it’s a great opportunity,” DiPietrantonio said, adding that he foresees the continued growth of composites and multidiscipline prefab assemblies in the future.

“While typical construction is done sequentially—sheet metal goes up, mechanical pipes are run, then electricians put hangers up and run conduit, carpenters finish walls and ceilings and we come back to install lights, etc.—the evolution of prefab will feature modular assemblies that go into a facility and involve all trades. This approach involves all of our trade partners’ schedulers working together in a collaborative effort to make a completed assembly,” he said.

Though tricky to organize, “we’re seeing this model compress the job-site schedule, because while the amount of manpower required is similar to what it would be in the field, you’re installing a completed section of the building far faster and reducing crew sizes,” DiPietrantonio said.

Shutterstock / Yienkeat
Shutterstock / Yienkeat

 

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