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Contractors in the Trades Learn From One Another at 2023 MEP Innovation Conference

Diana Lamirand
March 17th, 2023
11 Min Read

For plumbers, electricians, and HVAC contractors, the term “innovation” can mean so many different things. It might mean something as straightforward as going paperless with automation features, or something more complicated like developing your own application programming interface to seamlessly connect with the software apps you’re already using.

In simple terms, “innovation” means the introduction of something new. At this year’s MEP Innovation Conference in Austin, Texas, in January, more than 600 mechanical system contractors not only learned something new, they also discovered value in their similarities.

“A big takeaway for me is just how similar we are amongst the three different trades in the issues we face, and how much our members can learn from each other,” says Sean McGuire of Mechanical Contractors Association of America (MCAA). “Just getting outside that bubble, and finding it's a very similar, if not the same, kind of process, just from a different perspective.”

Applying a certain approach to the same problem can offer contractors a different point of view, says Mark Terzigni of Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors' National Association (SMACNA).

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“In many instances, there isn't an exact right or wrong way to do something,” Terzigni says. “There are different ways to do it. And in the end, you have to find out what works best for your situation, your company, and your relationships.”

Known as the best technology conference for mechanical, electrical, plumbing, service, and sheet metal contractors, the point of this year’s MEP Conference was for contractors to not only attend 54 educational sessions and visit 33 exhibitors, but also participate in eight off-site tours to see firsthand how other contractors are implementing innovation and cutting-edge technologies.

“You can learn something from a different trade, or a different component of the business, that helps you as a contractor become better,” says Tauhira Ali of the National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA). “And get that innovative edge to continue to drive that market share, to continue to expand, and to continue bringing in those efficiencies, so that you're affecting that bottom line positively.”

Since NECA, MCAA, and SMACNA partnered together to host the 2023 MEP Conference, we asked these experts to participate in a ServiceTitan webinar to share their insights, which gives us a glimpse into how commercial and construction contractors work, and how we can best serve their technology needs.

In this webinar recap, you’ll learn:

  • Key MEP Innovation Conference takeaways 

  • Strategies you can apply to your business to increase productivity and profitability

  • Shared innovations and new technologies

But, first …

What is MEP?

The Mechanical, Electrical, and Plumbing (MEP) trades encompass a variety of skilled work in construction projects, including sheet metal and pipe welding. In today’s construction process, work performed by these trades takes a high level of coordination, precision, and skill. Innovation and technology play a large role, and these associations represent those trades that can provide your business with the education and training required.

Key MEP Innovation Conference takeaways 

Automation can boost profits for the trades

With process and operations a focal point of the MEP Conference, contractors learned how to automate and optimize their systems by sharing a few innovative ways to get more out of the tools they already use. The experts say it boils down to software solutions that work together. 

For instance, one shop used software as a job management tool to track labor and materials used on a job site, but they took it a step further to also track pallets of bottled water delivered to crews on the job site. This allowed the shop to account for every expense incurred for that particular job without tying up office staff.

“And that's where you're going to make or break at the end of the day—the dollars and cents that you have on a job,” says Terzigni, SMACNA’s Executive Director of Market Sectors and Construction Technology.

When it comes to automating processes and procedures in the trades, a common misnomer among contractors is that you’re replacing real people with robotics, says Ali, NECA’s Executive Director of Industry Innovation. But, that’s not always the case.

“A lot of times that automation is just, how do you eliminate rework? How do you eliminate these steps that are redundant? How do you get people away from these tedious tasks?” Ali says. “Do you need a person who's auditing and inventorying the water? Or can you use a system that’s intended to inventory and audit other things, then apply it in a way that gives your workers a chance to focus on different things?”

Software and new technology should be used to make things easier for your field technicians and office staff, not more difficult. 

“You can actually get too complicated in some of the processes you're building out, which doesn't necessarily make you more efficient or more productive,” says McGuire, MCAA’s Executive Director of Innovative Technologies and Fabrication. 

Treat your technology like an employee

New technology for your business can help improve the efficiency of your operations, but it’s not something you can just turn on, then forget about. To get the most functionality, you need to treat your technology as though it were an employee. 

“You can't invest dollars into this new technology and just expect it to work, any more than you can invest dollars into a project manager or a new estimator, and just expect them to immediately hit the ground running and not need any training,” Ali explains. “And we don't necessarily do that with our tech. We just assume it's always going to work, and you forget that people are involved, too.

“Approach tech in a way that you're not just trying to shove the technology into a problem, but instead allowing that technology to ease and flex, and grow to fit whatever scenarios you have as a contractor,” she adds.

McGuire suggests even writing a job description for the technology you seek to implement, as opposed to buying the software and trying to make it fit. In other words, determine what you want the technology to do before purchasing, implementing, or trying to modify it. 

“Sometimes, you really need to do a job performance evaluation on your existing software, on how well it gets along with its co-workers,” McGuire says. “If people aren't using it or they hate using it, treat it like a bad employee. Sometimes, you’ve got to look for a new hire and get rid of the one you're using.”

It’s also good practice to evaluate your existing software for possible modifications. And just like robotic process automation helps the tools you use work better together, building out your own application programming interface (API) is one way to modify or customize new software to work exactly as you need it to for your particular business.

“You want to try and make the tools you're using work together better,” McGuire says. To do so, ask for a software demo, and determine the steps required to build out an API and integrate with your other software applications. “Doing that even a couple times on some of your existing integrations and software features lets you know what you want out of the software you're using.

“It also lets you know how complicated it might be to do anything, and whether you need to go through a third party who can actually do some of the coding for you, instead of trying to do it yourself,” he adds.

Strategies to increase productivity and profitability

Adopting new technology always presents a few challenges for any service business, so try to develop a strategy for implementation to ease everyone in at the right pace. 

1. Get buy-in.

One of the biggest challenges, McGuire says, is changing the mind-set of the employees who need to learn the new software system.

“Even if you have the perfect solution, even if it's something that's going to save them time, trying to get buy-in from the employees, to get them all to pull in the same direction, is probably one of the bigger challenges with implementing a new piece of technology,” McGuire says.

As someone passionate about technology, Terzigni says it can be super frustrating to watch employees resist change and keep doing things the same old way, when he knows there’s a better way.

“I just got to get you to see that, and to embrace it,” Terzigni says. “And that’s tough, but if you're successful at getting that buy-in, you're probably 90% of the way there to implementing the change or new piece of technology.”

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2. Find the right person to champion change.

Implementing a new software system successfully requires rolling it out in bits or sections to minimize disruptions to your business operations and avoid the inevitable pushback from employees. Start with a superintendent or manager who’s open to trying something new, then use their feedback to massage the process before rolling it out to the entire team.

“If you just open the floodgates…We're not receptive to change at that pace, even if we think we're innovative,” Terzigni says.

Set aside enough time in the schedule for training employees to operate the new software system. This shows you value them as employees, and you’re willing to invest in advancing their skills.

“Innovation is a team sport. It's never meant to be something you do in a silo, even if you're the vice president and grand supreme ruler of technology at your company,” Ali says. “It's about getting the stakeholders, and the ones affected by that technology, involved early and often.

“And if you look at the parallels of technology versus an employee, you don't give someone a great onboarding experience, then just leave them, and check in on them five years later,” she adds. “You want to keep retraining, you want to keep understanding how that platform's evolving, as well as understanding how the people using it are evolving their own process.”

3. Solicit feedback.

Ask employees for feedback after trying the new system. What’s working well, and what’s not? What tools or modifications could we add to make your lives easier? Then, actually use their feedback to modify the process.

“Be flexible, expect feedback, and encourage it,” Terzigni says. “If you treat your technology like an employee, and if you're listening to employee feedback, it's going to do better. The product's going to be better, and your employees are going to be more likely to utilize it, and maybe become a champion of it.”

Shared innovations and new technologies

To compete in a digital marketplace, contractors in the trades need to be proactive about their tech stack. The MEP experts offer the following tips:

  1. Pay attention to your tech stack and evaluate its performance.

  2. Solicit feedback constantly to evaluate what you’re doing and how it’s working.

  3. Don’t be afraid to try something new.

  4. Don’t make things too complicated.

One of the coolest things about new technology, Terzigni says, is that it’s one of the best recruiting tools to attract younger people into the industry. It can also create reverse mentoring in your company, allowing younger, less experienced technicians to teach tips and tricks on using new technology with some of your more veteran techs.

“I think that's where technology shines,” he adds. “I'm the new employee, but now I have an opportunity to shine a little bit and show the journeyman, who's been teaching me all the tips and tricks of the trade, something on this app or this tool, and I'm bringing some value to the equation.”

Data collection is also very important, Ali says. Contractors need to know what data the software is collecting, why you’re collecting it, and what you can do with it to improve your business.

“You can't improve something if you're not measuring it,” Ali says. “That's so critical. What data do you have? What data do you need? What behaviors do you want to affect by knowing more about the project, the process, or the procedure?

“You can have the very best estimating software or the very best project management software, but if they don't speak to each other—and you didn't go to MEP and learn how to make an API—how do you get that information from one end of your team to the other? And how do you use that information to then drive trends and understand how to get better?” she adds.

To sum up, the MEP experts say successful implementation of new technology requires:

  • Buy-in from management and employees

  • Patience with the onboarding process

  • Staggered implementation to avoid forcing it on everyone all at once

“You can't just get everybody in the same place immediately,” McGuire says. “You really have to take time to test out the process, see where it's hitting, see where it's misfiring, and try to get through all the beta issues right away.”

Also, provide feedback directly to your software provider, so they can make improvements to the platform, Ali says.

“If you’re able to give them that customer feedback, that's more powerful than anything they could ever get from their design labs, prototype shops, their own R&D, internal ideations, or brainstorm sessions,” Ali says. “Make sure you put your needs forth, and challenge those in this industry to be able to meet you.”

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