Innovation Report: Our Grade Is a B

No One Ever Said Continuous Innovation Would Be Easy

Mark L. Johnson / November 2015

Let’s define innovation as something new that has value—a new method, idea or product of worth. What worthy things has the industry created?

We’ve got widespread acceptance and use of computer estimating and project management systems. Total station layout is being tried on many job sites.
    
Then, there are new building materials products, new tools and new categories of tools. Drywall milling machines, for example, have become all the rage.
    
Innovative apprenticeship programs churn out craftspeople up to speed on the latest techniques and technologies. Even a few open shops have innovative training programs, sources say.

“We’ve got companies and people and systems that are technologically advanced, and we’re progressing,” says Tim Wies, president of T.J. Wies Contracting, Inc., Lake St. Louis, Mo. “But as an industry, we have only pockets doing it. The brunt of the folks are playing catchup.”

Let’s define innovation as something new that has value—a new method, idea or product of worth. What worthy things has the industry created?
    
We’ve got widespread acceptance and use of computer estimating and project management systems. Total station layout is being tried on many job sites.
    
Then, there are new building materials products, new tools and new categories of tools. Drywall milling machines, for example, have become all the rage.
    
Innovative apprenticeship programs churn out craftspeople up to speed on the latest techniques and technologies. Even a few open shops have innovative training programs, sources say.
    
“We’ve got companies and people and systems that are technologically advanced, and we’re progressing,” says Tim Wies, president of Wies Drywall & Construction Corp., St. Louis, Mo. “But as an industry, we have only pockets doing it. The brunt of the folks are playing catchup.”
    
Welcome to innovation, where both new things and early adopters are required.
    
“Innovation is an interesting subject and one that, while important, is sadly underemphasized,” says Rob Aird, president of Robert A. Aird, Inc., Frederick, Md.
    
If drywall innovation has been downplayed, no longer. Gathered unscientifically through interviews with a handful of AWCI member contractors and our own editorial insights, overall, the industry scores a B. Read on for the breakdown.

Overall Innovation — B
Let’s start with the overall grade for drywall innovation—for technology, production, tools and materials, management and marketing combined.
    
“Overall, we’re a B,” says Craig Daley, president of Daley’s Drywall & Taping, Campbell, Calif.
    
“I give the industry a B-minus,” says Danny Bonnell II, president of Commercial Systems Plus, Inc., Myrtle Beach, S.C. “We need an answer to finding our lost labor force.”
    
“I’d say we’re a B-plus,” says Jeff Burley, president of B&B Interior Systems, Inc., Plantation, Fla.
    
What about grades for specific areas?

Technology — B
Available technologies score well for innovation. But not all new technologies find a home in drywall construction.
    
“Though everybody has laptops and iPads, and we’re starting to use remote control robot layout and we’ve accepted onscreen estimating, we’re short of where we could be,” says John Hinson, AWCI’s president and division president at Marek Interior Systems, Inc., Dallas.
    
Hinson’s frustration with technology lies with the cost of its upkeep.
    
“The GCs do not all use the same software, so I need multiple software licenses to do their jobs,” Hinson says. “And the systems keep changing. We spend $50,000 or $60,000 on 15 licenses, and six months later I have to buy a new product.”
    
Industry innovation suffers, he says, because software comes from a host of providers and is hard to integrate. Hinson gives the industry’s new technologies an A, but overall adoption of them “is in the B range,” he says.
    
Still, tech innovations are paying dividends, allowing firms to do things they never could before.
    
“We jumped onto all-in-one estimating, project management and accounting system software,” Daley says. “We’ve traditionally used different systems that didn’t talk to each other. The new systems link our projects and our accounting and are so much more ‘live.’”
    
Daley gives software innovation an A.
    
A new area in tech involves layout automation. Robotic layout stations hold much promise, but their practical application in wall framing is still in development.
    
“Robots can lay out the floors, but they have to have line of sight with the controller, which means we need to be on the job early with no materials in the way,” Hinson says.
    
This means a drywall contractor needs access to a job after the concrete is poured. Most GCs think sequentially, however, and often won’t see past the traditional order of the trades. Mechanical, electrical and plumbing contractors arrive after the concrete is poured, as they see it, not the framers.
    
Hence, robot layout, for now, gets a C.
    
“It’s innovative,” Hinson says, “but for now it’s just a dream.”

Framing — B
Some processes remain stuck in time.
    
“Why are we still building with wood? It shrinks and twists and rots and burns and reduces the forests of the nation,” Aird says. “Steel won’t burn, won’t rot, won’t support mildew and mold, and is recyclable. It’s difficult to change the ‘old way’ mentality.”
    
He’s not completely faulting wood, a renewable resource and an affordable staple. But, innovation calls for at least trying new systems. So, Aird gives wall framing a B.
    
Prefabrication is innovative, but it has gone through cycles of acceptance and rejection, which has impeded its full potential.
    
“You’re seeing prefabrication for an entire new generation,” Wies says. “In the 1970s, prefabrication was all the rage. Then, it went dormant. Then, it got resurrected in the 2000s. Now, we’re pushing the envelope.”
    
Wies says many owners and general contractors want prefabricated walls, but they often won’t commit to contract in a timely manner so as to make full use of prefabrication’s benefits.
    
“They still want us to hard-bid the job,” Wies says. “By the time you hard-bid the job, it’s too late to gain any of the value of prefabrication, because prefabrication isn’t necessarily cheaper. But it can cut time out of the schedule.”
    
GC wishy-washiness leads Wies to lower his mark for prefabrication to B-minus.

Taping and Finishing — C
“I think taping and finishing is a C,” Daley says. “We’re using the same tools and processes we used in the 1950s.”
    
To be innovative, the industry needs to find a different way to finish joints. Perhaps a new one-coat system or, as Daley suggests, a way that material could be spray or pressure-applied.
    
“But nobody has mastered that,” he says.

Building Materials and Tools — A
Manufacturers and suppliers are innovative at getting product to contractors quickly.
    
“I give them an A-minus,” Burley says. “But do contractors embrace the innovation? That may be where there’s a glitch.”
    
Burley says trying new products and systems usually moves slowly. There’s a tendency to resist replacing tried-and-tested products with something new. At least the industry’s manufacturers keep staying busy introducing new materials and systems.
    
“Manufacturers are up in the A marks,” Hinson says. “They’re always innovative. They have to be to outperform the competition.”
    
“Screw guns today versus years ago? You have to mark them an A,” Daley says. “We’re starting to see more use of the PanelMax-style of board milling machines. These get an A.”

Recruitment and Training — C-plus
Contracts are beginning to grow in number, but it can hard to find skilled labor. Are there any recruiting innovations out there?
    
“I give a C for recruitment,” Bonnell says. “It’s taking a lot of time and effort to get skilled people. I don’t know anybody who has resources to be innovative right now.”
    
Training is different, and unions get an A-minus for their innovative programs.
    
“The Carpenters are good at keeping up with new techniques, and the apprentices come out knowing how to use tablets and total station layout,” Daley says. “The Lathers are doing a lot of innovation with water barriers. They’re on the forefront.”
    
Open shop firms get not an A, but at least a passing grade. Some industry executives, however, candidly lament the lack of progress in this area of the industry.
    
“Texas and Florida, and much of the South, have not been innovative,” Hinson says. “Our wages are the same as 30 years ago. How innovative is that?”
    
“I’d give training programs generally across the industry a C,” says Aird, though he gives union training programs a higher score. “Few [open-shop programs] produce the quality of workers the industry desperately needs.”
    
Aird says the industry limps along with staffing ill-prepared for today’s work demands.
    
“[Companies] take shortcuts that hinder quality and safety and service,” Aird says. “Shortsightedness in training for proper procedures, quality work and jobsite safety foster poor building performance, lack of code compliance, accidents and lawsuits—none of which we need.”
    
The AWCI Project Manager On-Demand Webinar Series, however, scores highly among wall and ceiling contractors. This self-study program is derived from 35 webinars and has 63 lessons. Participants view lessons online, where they complete homework assignments and take tests.
    
“It covers every phase of what we do in the office—estimating, management, billing and submittals,” Daley says. “I give it an A. The fact that we’re delivering it to young people who don’t want to get on an airplane to spend a week on a course, but want to sit at their desks and work at their own pace, means more people will go through it.”
    
“This program gets an A,” Hinson says. “AWCI’s Doing It Right programs also get an A.”

Sales and Marketing — B-minus
You can look at the innovativeness of the industry’s sales and marketing programs in two ways.
    
On the one hand, marketing is persuasive communication across multiple channels, and some feel comfortable grading the industry high.
    
“Sales and marketing? That’s an A,” Daley says. “No, we’re not caught up on social media, so social media gets a B. But we’re as good as any industry at adopting the better ways to communicate.”
    
On the other hand, marketing involves propagating a high-quality image, and some feel that too many firms do subpar work in order for the industry to appear to be innovative marketers.
    
“The construction contractor’s work is his advertising,” Aird says. “If the job is done with high-quality, service to the customer and good safety practices, the payoff is having no returns for warranty items, gaining the trust the owner and general contractor and gaining the next job. A minority do the best work they can, so C for marketing and sales.”

Untie Our Hands
What’s the most innovative thing you’ve seen in the industry?
    
Aird has been working with the Air Barrier Association of America to improve building air tightness. The ABAA is developing a Web-based, energy-savings air-tightness calculator that he says the industry could use.
    
“It’s clear that making a building air tight is as important as making it water tight,” he says. “But getting the industry to acknowledge those needs and effect them is difficult.”
    
Why?
    
“The comfort of doing what one has always done trumps experimentation,” says Aird about owners and general contractors who tend to decline the ABAA’s recommended inspection regime in order to save money. “The irony is that new understanding of building science can set the forward-looking contractor apart from the pack and give him opportunities for work.”
    
Wies has a similar lament, but it’s about how buildings are constructed. He’d like to see more Integrated Project Delivery take place.
    
“We could change the whole thought process of construction and eliminate 30 percent of the wasted time on a job site,” Wies says.
    
“True IPD mixed with BIM is where I see the biggest innovation,” Wies continues. “IPD combines lean construction techniques with team partnering through design, building and modeling. You have shared successes and shared failures, shared cost savings and efficiencies that eliminate waste. It’s an A-plus.”
    
Wies has done only one IPD job in 20 years. That project saved the owner 8 percent on total put-in-place construction and boosted the subcontractors’ margins. Why not do more? Innovation would require others to change their thinking.
    
“Our industry [drywall construction] has been relegated by the general contracting community—and these are their words—‘to low-cost production pushers of a job,’” Wies says. “They don’t allow us to use our skills and technologies to the best of our abilities. Our hands are tied.”

Mark L. Johnson writes a lot about innovation and change. Catch him at @markjohnsoncomm and linkedin.com/in/markjohnsoncommunications.