As we walked through Modern Plumbing’s new pre-fab shop, Frank Bracco, the owner, smiled as he remarked: “If you ain’t pre-fabbing, you ain’t flying!
“We never had enough space in our old shop to set up an efficient assembly line, but our foremen have always pre-fabbed on our jobsites. Now we have the facilities to do both. Luckily my chief estimator is one of our best foremen and he is not afraid to pull out what can be fabbed. As you know, most contractors are afraid that it won’t fit and create a lot of wasted time redoing work. I hope they never change because I’ve always loved competing with their mentality.”
Frank already knows my attitude about pre-fab from reading my articles, and the years that we have worked together. He also knows about resistance from the old-time plumbers who need to measure every single piece at its actual location before they will cut or connect it. Frank worked as a plumber himself and knows all about the problems and possible mistakes. He also knows how much money and time pre-fab saves, as well as providing the ability and reputation for meeting critical schedules.
When we walked through his new shop I took notes as we discussed the “pros and cons” of pre-fabbing. Since these negatives scare off most contractors, let’s start with the bad side:
1. Naturally, resistance from jobsite plumbers to install what someone else put together tops this list. That alone is why most contractors avoid pre-fabbing. You have several simple options to overcome this resistance. You could a) send the shop people who fabbed that work to install it; b) send one or two of those stubborn jobsite employees into your shop to help with the pre-fab; or c) send your shop supervisor or layout person out to oversee and coordinate the installation. Regardless of how you tackle this problem, there will still be some minor changes or redoing work to make it fit, but these costs are readily absorbed by your pre-fab savings.
2. Extra material handling costs and delivery of assembled units come next on this list. What appears on the surface to be a lot of wasted time and money, moving pipe and parts to your shop and back to each jobsite, can be minimized with three basic planning and proactive efforts:
- • As your estimator pulls out the items that can be economically pre-fabbed or pre-assembled, they also pull out the stock list of material. These items are then shipped directly to your shop rather than to the jobsite. You can also reuse a lot of short, cut-off pieces at your shop that would otherwise be thrown into a jobsite dumpster.
- • Coordinating your pre-fab deliveries with the general contractor and other trades can minimize crane or forklift rental. Good coordination will also put your fabbed items on each floor or in each enclosed area as they are constructed.
- • Some of your assemblies can be built on an inexpensive, tagalong trailer bed that fits the ball hitch on your pickup trucks. This allows your foreman to deliver those items on his routine trips to his jobsite.
3. Pre-fab is not practical or economical for every installation. This is why you need a jobsite-experienced estimator to value engineer each project and pull out the items that are feasible to pre-fab. You can involve your general superintendent or any of your foremen who have a positive pre-fab attitude and a conceptual ability to visualize, understand and create fabbed work.
4. Our last negative con item is your capital investment and increased overhead costs of owning and maintaining the fab shop. As with all of your overhead, you must use it to offset those expenses. You would naturally rent a warehouse or old barn to fab a single project rather than make a permanent investment. Contractors will often use a rental situation for pre-fabbing remote projects.
That was the bad news. Here’s the good news:
1. When I asked Frank what he liked most about his new shop, he smiled and replied, “I’m not discounting the amount of money it will save us, but hands on training tops my list. With today’s skill craft shortage, we have to make our own craftsmen. This task training is far too difficult for a busy foreman on a tight project jobsite. Here we have the time and convenience to help supervise anyone willing to learn.”
Frank knew that after-hours training and updating his employees’ skill inventories is also the No. 1 item on my list. In addition, a fab shop is much safer and more accessible for retired or light duty “gold” instructors and supervisors. Frank also uses vendor training by inviting the manufacturers’ reps to come to his shop and teach his employees all of the do’s and don’ts for installing their products. He likes that impressive image of providing all of his customers with “certified installers.” As you might suspect, so do his suppliers!
2. Second on this list is the feasibility of “around the clock” flex time. Any jobsite employee can now miss a day or two because of personal needs or bad weather and still earn a full paycheck. Some jobs are not accessible after normal working hours. But there are no time limits in a lighted fab shop.
His shop employees can also choose whatever time schedule fits their personal needs. Some are full-time employees who adjust their schedules to coordinate childcare or “together time” with a working spouse. Some are involved in little league or other sports activities. Flex-time schedules are natural for college students or any type of moonlighters to earn extra money and help get the job done.
3. Your quality control is much better under shop conditions. You are able to oversee all of the work, and your employees know their workmanship will be closely scrutinized by other craftsmen before it is installed.
4. Your “float time” non-critical path schedule provides “as you need it” billable work for your service techs when they are not busy. This allows you to maintain a bigger service fleet for those hectic days and not worry about excessive “make work” overhead when the service phones are not ringing.
5. Today’s CAD isometric perspectives will reduce your layout and drafting costs along with increasing your employees’ ability to visualize a conceptual image of what they are building. This is especially effective with training moonlighters and green help in your shop.
As we finished the tour of Frank’s new shop, he looked back, smiled and remarked, “To be perfectly frank, what I like most about this fab shop is that it is mine!”
Pre-fabbing does not fit every project and definitely does not fit every contractor. You should look carefully at the type of work that best suits your company in your market place. Consider what pre-fabbing would cost vs. how it would affect your bottom line profits, and then make a viable business decision. I highly recommend you go back over my pros and cons to help justify your decision.
If resistance from jobsite plumbers is blighting your decision, you should observe the sheet metal duct work installers who have always been in the pre-fab business. You can also watch the efficiency and cost savings enjoyed by the fire sprinkler contractors who have traditionally pre-fabbed their installations.
Pre-fabbing and pre-assembling little pieces into large assemblies have always been an efficient and profitable method for jobsite installations. Today’s critical skilled craft shortage would probably justify pre-fabbing even if it would cost more. You may also want to remember Frank’s comment, “I hope they never change because I’ve always loved competing with their mentality.”
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