Continuing our interview series with leaders in project management, we had the opportunity to meet with John Fish. John has over 40 years of experience in engineering and construction, specializing in Front End Planning (FEP) and work flow process development. He is also on the board of advisors for Construction Industry Institute (CII), a Team lead for Process Industry Practices (PIP) and FIATECH and also a member of several CII research teams.

Joel Gray, Director of Product Management at Coreworx, met with John at the CII Annual Conference in Indianapolis to discuss workflow automation.

What are some of the key challenges facing the construction industry and how can these challenges impact your contractual requirements as an EPC?

John: Well due to the windfall in natural gas in the United States and Canada, I guess the northern hemisphere, there’s going to be a tsunami of projects coming this way between 2014 to 2017. There’s not enough engineering capacity, not enough construction capacity to handle all of these. So there’s going to be a shortfall in skilled labour. In Louisiana alone, we’re going to need 80,000 craftsman, in Texas it’s almost double that amount.

What are some of the possible solutions for the work force challenges?

John: Well the obvious are we can re-scope, we can delay projects, we can just figure out which ones are not going to be done, but what we really need to do is really go for automation. Automation is going to be the base of engineering and we’re also going to have to attack it in construction. We’re really going to have to move the construction into the manufacturing concepts.

You mentioned construction must move from the field to manufacturing. What do you mean by that?

John: The main thing is we need to think in terms of standardization. By standardization I mean we need to standardize modules that can be built in a controlled environment. The fact of it is, is our construction craftsman their like all of us, they want to stay home with their families and they want to be able to have a backlog of work. If you standardize the modules first, put them in a factory where they can stay home, work on these things day after day and go home like everybody else to their family, that’s going to help a lot. Also it’s a controlled environment, because it’s out of the weather, it’s going to be safer and everybody will benefit.

I’ve heard you in the past mention advance work packaging, what do you mean by that?

John: Advance work package is a concept that the Construction Industry Institute and Construction Management Association is promoting. Simply stated, it means you align the engineering work packages, the flow of work coming out from engineering, with the construction work package. This has to be done in the front-end planning phase in order for it to be successful.

Explain why this work packaging concept is so important.

John: Really, what you’re trying to get to is what we call a field installation work package. What that consists of is roughly one week’s work for one crew, that’s kind of a subset of a construction work package. Now, CII research has indicated that the average craftsman spends approximately 2.5 hours on his tools, that’s pretty pathetic if you come right down to it. The real objective here is to make sure the craft guy has everything he needs – tools, resources, scaffolding, whatever is required so they can actually do their work. If we do this right, we can almost double – oh and by the way, a lot of his time is spent waiting, waiting for something or searching for something – if we can eliminate the wait, eliminate the search, then we can literally double the amount of time a craftsman spends on his tools. So instead of needing 80,000 craftsman, I only need 40,000 craftsman, that’s kind of the bottom line.

I’ve heard you mention before that we still provide the craft the same deliverables for the last 50 years.

John: That’s kind of the pathetic part. With all the millions and millions of dollars we spend on 3D technology, 3D models, and all these different things for engineering, we are not doing construction a lot of favours. We still have what the field calls a construction unfriendly model, it’s very difficult for the field to benefit without really trained technicians on the job site and very few people seem to have this. So our challenge is to actually take this technology that’s working really well in engineering and figure out how to make it work for the guys in the field because we’re not doing a good job of that right now.

Speaking of engineering, what are the next steps to automate engineering?

John: I’m glad you asked that, because I’m convinced we’re using engineering automation today about like we have a sophisticated etch-a-sketch. I don’t think we’ve tapped the power of automation specifically to eliminate redundant activities and actually get productivity on the engineering side.

So what are some of the typical barriers that companies will run into?

John: Actually, they need to rethink everything. When you have technology, you don’t want to automate what you’ve always done, which is exactly how we’ve done it in the past. So what you want to do is rethink everything, how are you going to do technology? One of the biggest barriers is the roles of the disciplines, we have really stupid things going on that are turf battles. This is the way we’ve always done it, electrical has always done this, and piping has always done this. I think the whole thing needs to be rethought who is best suited in this new technology to do what is required to achieve automation. That could very well mean we actually eliminate or merge the disciplines into more of a generalist design concept.

Do you know of any resources that might exist that might help owners, EPCs, and service providers in this area?

John: Yes, as a matter of fact, FiatechProcess Industry Practices, the Construction Industry Institute, and the Construction Management Association of America – they are all doing a lot of research in this area. Now, the challenge is that we need owners. Owners have to support these initiatives and have to really require them on the job sites. Contractors are only going to do what the owners pay them or want them to do. So to get the real benefits, we need owners, we need owners to support the initiatives that are already on the table and there is a lot of really good work that’s already been done.

Have you seen examples of companies that have done this really well?

John: Yes, it seems like commercial adopts technology and innovation quicker than industrial projects, or infrastructure projects as far as that goes. Commercial has done a really good job of picking up on the field kiosk, the mobile IT concepts, a lot of these things that I call shovel-ready – they can be done today. The real value of these mobile IT things is what we call boot-timeBoot-time is the ability to keep the foremen in the field keeping working with his crew. This is industry proven, if the foreman spends time with the craft, they’re going to be more productive, they’re going to be safer, you’re going to have less re-work. So anything you can do to move the information flow out to the job site where the guys are working, that’s where the power is.

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