Can making MEP leaner and greener solve construction’s skilled labor shortage?

Three firms demonstrate how BIM-based planning isn’t just future-proofing MEP building services—it’s helping solve construction’s skilled labor shortage.

man with tablet looking at boiler piping

Harald Henkel

March 31, 2023

min read

There’s a global shortage of skilled workers across industries, and the situation is projected to worsen during the next 10 years. One of the hardest-hit sectors is construction, which includes mechanical, electrical, and plumbing engineering (MEP) building services. This field covers a wide range of technologies, from heating, ventilation, air conditioning, and sanitation to building automation, communications, data connections, and electrical installations.

In late 2022, nine out of 10 companies surveyed in France and Germany said they were unable to find enough skilled workers. Austria, a country with a population of just 9 million, has a gap of 250,000 positions to fill. According to a report (PDF, p. 4) by the Korn Ferry Institute, this global trend will continue; it predicts a global shortage of 85 million skilled workers by 2030.

Skilled labor shortage exacerbated by demographic change

The situation is similar in the United States. According to a study by Stanley Black & Decker, US building trades are currently experiencing a shortage of more than 650,000 skilled workers—a problem that was exacerbated by the pandemic. Data from the US Chamber of Commerce suggests that about 47 million employees have since withdrawn from the labor market or moved to other sectors. Demographic factors are another reason for this supply bottleneck. Baby boomers were well trained and well represented in skilled trades, but those who haven’t done so already will be retiring in the next few years, leaving an even greater gap in sectors such as MEP building services. As early as 2017, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics found that 43% of the skilled workforce were more than 45 years old while 16- to 24-year-olds made up just 10%.

To combat these shortages, efficiently using scarce human resources isn’t enough. From an environmental perspective, it is also essential to integrate innovative technologies. The construction industry has one of the world’s largest environmental footprints. Building offices, housing, industrial facilities, and infrastructure consume a huge number of resources. According to a UN report, the global construction industry is responsible for 38% of all carbon dioxide emissions. In the UK, construction is responsible for approximately 20% of built environment emissions, and based on current estimates, that number is likely to rise to more than 50% by 2035. In 2018, construction and demolition projects in the United States accounted for more than 600 million tons of waste, over twice the amount of waste generated by US households and businesses.

Integrated data and project management 

MEP machinery and piping
Austrian MEP specialist IGO Industries uses the cloud to plan MEP building services and plant technology effectively and across teams. Courtesy of IGO Industries.

The construction industry has been impacted by increasingly stringent efficiency and project-management requirements. The particular pressure on MEP building services and industrial plant engineering provided the impetus for a pilot project between Autodesk and Austria-based IGO Industries, an international company specialized in these sectors. IGO uses Autodesk Construction Cloud (ACC) to bundle the advantages of a cloud-based management tool for large-scale construction projects and to create a single-source-of-truth database that it can share with its partners. Together, they use this information from the planning stage to completion of the project.

“The solution uses secure technology to integrate multiple stakeholders into a single large-scale network,” says Michael Mair, a CAD and IT administrator with a focus on software development at IGO subsidiary Ortner Anlagen.

ACC builds on existing programs, including Autodesk Assemble, BuildingConnected, BIM 360, and PlanGrid. These programs benefit from new functions, including a cloud storage system, where projects, data, and participants work together. The data generated during the planning and construction phases can also be used when the MEP building services are up and running. Costs for energy and other resources can be kept low, which also reduces CO2 emissions.

Up-to-the-minute plans 

These technologies have made an impact at PH Electric, an electrical contractor based in Plaistow, New Hampshire. The company offers electrical services, engineering, and construction, as well as telecommunications and fire alarm systems. Corey Coleman, director of virtual design construction (VDC), appreciates the significant improvement in the data flow between the back office and the construction site.

“Staff used to work with outdated sets of drawings, which was a problem,” he says. “Updating these files was tedious and cost us a lot of time and resources.” Now, using BIM 360, the foreman has access to the latest version of the drawings.

Optimized planning for materials and resources

people working on a construction site
Using the same model in a BIM-based building services planning tool reduces redundancy when implementing construction projects. Courtesy of PH Electric.

“It’s also much easier to coordinate with those working on-site now that we share information and everyone works together via BIM 360 Glue or BIM Collaborate,” Coleman says. A cooperative design process avoids the blinkered approach to individual tasks that often used to result in inefficient cable and pipe routing. Another upshot is significant savings in terms of labor and material. “Using [Autodesk] Revit allowed us to minimize and simplify any subsequent changes,” he says. “We can now have the required parts manufactured and precisely cut to size in advance, which makes things much easier for the workers on-site.”

Now that the parts fit together perfectly and trial and error is no longer necessary, the construction-site staff uses significantly less material. Building information modeling (BIM) helped PH Electric to raise its material efficiency from 50% in some cases to more than 90%. “These gains in efficiency not only reduce our costs; they also make construction cheaper for our clients,” Coleman says. “And we can offer our services at a better market price, which gives us a huge competitive advantage.”

Identifying energy-saving potential

PH Electric uses Revit to check the energy efficiency of a building in advance and identify its potential for optimization. Revit can also create a heat map for the building and simulate energy consumption. “The 3D model gives us a solid cost analysis,” Coleman says. “This information helps our customers operate their building efficiently, which in turn helps protect the environment and climate.”

Takasago Thermal Engineering Group, which operates in the air-conditioning industry, is also implementing more BIM-based processes into the construction phase of its projects. The Japanese firm recognized that demographic factors and workplace practices have boosted demand for solutions that reduce workload and increase efficiency. “Our challenge is to improve productivity and increase the attractiveness of the construction industry as a whole,” says Motokazu Furuya, CEO of the company’s DX Management Headquarters.

More movement toward BIM 

construction workers using ipad to collaborate
MEP building services planning using BIM-based tools offers huge potential for combating the skilled worker shortage.

Soon after Takasago announced its switch from traditional CAD systems to BIM, many of its suppliers also opted to integrate the solution into their design planning. But it is still early days in the transformation process. “Changing workflows takes time,” Furuya says. “In terms of just creating drawings, it’s faster to use specialized CAD, but BIM has some great advantages in terms of the process as a whole, including things like wholescale changes and managing progress.” Takasago is increasing the number of projects that use BIM incrementally. “We’re trying to quantify specific improvements in productivity and demonstrate them to our partners,” Furuya says.

Simulating a building’s footprint over its entire lifecycle 

Furuya says the information in a 3D model can be used throughout a building’s lifecycle, including its operational lifetime—and that such a model brings more value than using traditional construction drawings. “Our corporate goal is to be an ‘environment creator,’” he says. “BIM-based projects provide the foundation for this goal.” Takasago’s ultimate goal is to provide comprehensive solutions by taking into account a building’s carbon footprint during every aspect of its lifecycle, from construction to demolition, including its operational CO2. The company plans to show simulations of the greenhouse gases generated in the building’s preconstruction phase and during construction, giving its customers a range of options to increase efficiency.

Cloud-based BIM tools offer tangible economic benefits for MEP building services planning while also improving resource efficiency and climate protection. These factors might convince young people to once again pursue a valuable position as skilled workers in the construction industry.

harald-henkel

About Harald Henkel

After his degree in international relations and theater, film, and television studies at the University of Cologne, Harald Henkel completed an internship at inmedia Verlag, a publishing house specializing in the real estate industry. Since 2009, he has been working as a journalist, editor, and PR consultant for B2B trade publishers, SMEs, and international companies. His main topics are business, finance, real estate, technology, and software.

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