Supply Chain Partners Step Up to Meet Pandemic-Related Construction Challenges

Necessity is the mother of invention – English Proverb

Like a lot of people, I had concerns early in the pandemic about the construction industry’s collective ability to keep projects on track. Meetings to plan and manage projects would have to be done over the phone or on video. More importantly, the on-site inspections we traditionally rely on to ensure that specifications are being met weren’t going to happen. If we couldn’t improvise on the fly, timetables would be at risk.

A few months into the pandemic response, I’m happy to say that Flexential’s data center projects are still on track – in some cases ahead of schedule. And that’s not all. We’ve been successfully creating efficiencies to deal with the challenges at hand, positioning us for better things going forward. It’s like the old proverb that necessity is the mother of invention.

For all this, we extend a great deal of thanks to our dedicated contractors, vendors and other partners who’ve gone above and beyond what any of us could have expected. Our electrical subcontractor Sturgeon Electric, general contractor Skanska, architectural firm The Mulhern Group and design firm KW Engineering are just a few of the partners who’ve rolled with the challenges and kept things moving, not missing a beat.

One of our biggest issues was making sure procedures were being followed to a “T” at job sites themselves. We would normally have extra people on-site to work with contractors, coordinate equipment deliveries, troubleshoot problems as they arise and sign off when work moves from step to step. The pandemic forced us to limit access to construction sites and figure out another way to ensure that work was getting done. That other way is now a huge benefit to keeping everyone in the know.

We decided to do it virtually, purchasing several GoPro cameras and delivering them to each of the dozen construction sites currently being worked on. The goal was to make these cameras serve as our eyes and ears, connecting our supply chain remotely and giving every stakeholder an up-close-and-personal view of a project as it gets done.

Here’s an example of one situation where video network connections worked like a charm. One of our Hillsboro, Ore., sites needed a new mechanical cooling system installed. These SuperCRAC systems are assembled at an off-site factory and brought to their destinations on trucks. They weigh more than 60 tons, and they’re tricky to install. When our system arrived in Hillsboro, a crane picked it up, put it on a pad and attached it to the building with a metal collar. An electrician then wired it up and flipped the switch.

Normally, we’d have inspectors on-site to make sure every step proceeded without incident. This time, workers on-site tracked the process using our GoPro cameras, projecting video onto our screens thousands of miles away. We supplemented these video feeds with footage from on-site stationary cameras, helping us make sure the critical piece of equipment got installed safely and efficiently.

We’ve also doubled down on our use of videoconferencing for conventional design and project update meetings. While nothing beats face-to-face, our staff and our contractor teams have not only become more comfortable with the remote meeting process – we’ve embraced it. Remote meetings that used to take more than an hour can be wrapped in half that time. Meetings we’ve always done on site have been handled flawlessly over video, spurring us to reconsider some of the travel we used to take for granted. We can channel the savings into services that directly benefit customers.

The pandemic has forced us to rethink a lot of what we do in our business. For example, we’ve created an innovation team to guide us in our development of next-generation data center management processes. This includes representatives from all relevant internal stakeholder groups – design, construction, operations, product development, procurement, marketing and sales. We’ve also given key supply chain partners advisory roles to help us vet solutions and processes.

So, bottom line: The pandemic has had an impact on construction. Necessity has created great innovation in our processes, and in our case, it’s made us stronger.

How has your team pivoted during this pandemic to ensure that your projects stay on time? Let me know in the comments – I’d like to see and hear how your business is moving its construction projects forward.

Michael Silla

SVP of Design & Construction