Remember the telephone game? You get a bunch of people in a line, the first person whispers a phrase or sentence into the ear of the next, and it goes on like that until the information is passed down to the last person. Often, by the end, it’s hilariously nonsensical.
But to steel detailers at the end of a construction-project line, it’s not so funny. “It can definitely be like playing a game of telephone,” says David Merrifield, a thought leader at the National Institute of Steel Detailing (NISD) and vice president of operations at SteelFab in McKinney, Texas. “Everyone is connected, but communication between any two team members might be through several layers of management and require ‘translation’ of different standards and ways of working—and actual different languages. Disconnection and miscommunication are real dangers.”
Merrifield is referring to the large global teams and many layers of oversight that are now routine in the world of steel detailing. “Increasingly, cost-effectiveness is requiring, and technology is enabling, the design of complex construction projects by global teams,” he says. “This can present major inefficiencies and challenges for the industry as nonstandard practices and training—along with country-specific mandates and labor shortages—amplify disconnected workflows.”
Working productively with globally distributed teams is now a routine challenge for design firms working on major infrastructure and construction assets. In steel detailing and fabrication in particular, in-house detailers have nearly disappeared at steel-fabrication firms. “In today’s world, the detailing community is international, there is a lot of outsourcing, and fabrication companies are end users of detailing work done by other firms,” Merrifield says.
So instead of in-house detailing, fabricators usually have managers who oversee detailing by hiring and issuing POs to third-party vendors. Most of these detailing companies are offshore, mainly in India and the Philippines. English usually serves as a common language, but due to time zones and language difficulties, it’s easy to miscommunicate nuances. Developing trust between partners and communicating effectively are major challenges.
To complicate matters further, fabrication firms often don’t work directly with overseas detailers; they communicate through intermediary firms that understand the specific workflows and languages of the offshore-detailing firms. “A lot of these relationships are mediated by a small number of detailing project managers onshore,” Merrifield says. “You could call them ‘fixers’: They’re the ones who actually smooth the way with the offshore detailers. So more often than not, no one at the fabrication firm is speaking directly with the people doing the detail work.”
Though it sounds like a communication nightmare—multiple layers of management, multiple firms, different cultures and languages, different work certification standards—this system is effective . . . most of the time. “It can be rewarding or disappointing,” Merrifield concedes. “A lot of it comes down to trust.”
The NISD believes that one good way to develop more trust between fabrication and detailing partners is to develop standards and certification programs that are widely accepted around the world.
“We’re trying to level out the playing field,” Merrifield explains. “If standards and certifications can help all the stakeholders to trust each other’s skills, knowledge, and workflows, that goes a long way toward improving communication and project quality. We think this is a vital piece of training for the next generation of technicians working in this new global construction space.”
To that end, here are three certification programs created and offered by NISD to build trust and better communication.
1. BIM Certification. The newest of the certification programs, launched in October 2015, is the Certificate of Development in BIM (CD-BIM). “We’d like to establish a single standard for BIM-based workflows that aligns with existing apprenticeship programs,” Merrifield says. “There are already general contractors in the United States who are considering this certification as part of new contracts.”
CD-BIM was developed with industry stakeholders such as Autodesk and is, according to the NISD site, “an assessment-based certificate credential that establishes the knowledge and understanding of BIM concepts and detailing practices that are important for all BIM teams to know.”
2. Detailer Certification. The Individual Detailer Certification (IDC) was developed to assess the skill level of individual steel detailers. It’s a rigorous program based on proctored exams, intended only for detailers with a minimum of five years’ experience and focusing on two disciplines—Bridge and Structural/Miscellaneous.
“It’s our way to verify that detailers around the world really do have the critical skills and knowledge base needed to work with fabricators,” Merrifield says. “And it’s going over well: Companies in the Philippines seem to be especially enthusiastic about getting their detailers certified.”
3. Company Certification. The Quality Procedures Program (QPP) addresses steel-detailing companies, not individual detailers. According to the NISD site, it certifies “that recognized quality procedures are established [in a firm] so the end result will be quality detailing services available to the steel-construction industry.”
The certification process is very thorough, including triennial recertification and review of quality-procedure manuals and documents by the QPP panel (consisting of fabricators, erectors, and other steel-industry professionals). The NISD lists several major firms that have obtained certification, and the program promises to be an important link in the chains of trust supporting global fabrication and detailing.
“For the industry to continue moving forward with offshore detailing and global teams,” Merrifield says, “programs like ours, and good common standards, are really the best way we have to ensure that the next generation can work together effectively.”