Engineers create value for clients

July 22, 2011
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Engineering traditionally has been a quiet profession. Often a civil, mechanical, or electrical engineer is not even mentioned in stories about successful land developments, tough manufacturing situations, or major building projects, especially those that go up on tight urban parcels and leave little room for error.

But engineers can bring true value to a project, and the net of that worth often can be multiplied by the number of years an engineer has been working in the field.

“Our experience in working with a variety of clients and localities provides us with an understanding of the expectations related to a development and preparation of plans and specifications. So we ask questions,” said Jim Rozema, an associate and project manager with Williams & Works, an engineering, surveying and planning firm in Grand Rapids.

“Frequently, potential clients, whether they are experienced or not, view the questions posed to them in one of two ways: Some view the questioning not as a time for discovery and understanding on our part, but as a sign that we may not know what needs to be done. Others see only the dollar signs roll up with every question,” he added.

Rozema noted that when engineers ask clients questions, it’s not a ploy to run up the meter, but to find a project’s value point where not having to spend any more than is absolutely necessary is the goal. “Value in this regard is realized through thoughtful consideration of the project and the personal relationship that is developed through those conversations,” he said.

As for those clients who question whether engineers know what they’re doing, Rozema explained that the inquiries are used to illustrate an engineer’s understanding of the issues that may relate to a job and the challenges he may face.

“Greater understanding of the issues provides a foundation for a successful project and will result in few surprises during the approval and construction phases of a project,” Rozema said.

Steve Williams, a partner at Williams & Works, offered an example of how an engineering firm brought value to a fairly rigorous situation by applying additional engineering.

Williams said Fisen Corp. in Dutton used its expertise to increase the performance and efficiency of a large HVAC system for a New Jersey-based data center that followed a strict energy-consumption practice and had stringent sound requirements, despite a presence of several noisy air-cooled chillers.

“Fisen engineered multiple levels of sound-attenuating solutions, packaged with multiple hydraulic coils and pumps, to provide the specified capacity at the sound levels specified. This project was engineered and assembled in Grand Rapids, where Fisen was able to convert a commodity HVAC product and package an engineered solution at a great value,” said Williams.

“The same efficiency and sound attenuation could be achieved with a complete custom product, but at a much greater cost,” Williams added. “Jason Pursell Fisen, a mechanical engineer, said, ‘By providing additional engineering to commodity products, we were able to create packaged solutions in areas where they didn’t previously exist.’”

Similar value can be found in civil engineering. Josh Dudicz, an associate and project engineer at Williams & Works, said a company that builds bridges recently contacted his office asking for help in developing a bridge that would extend over a six-lane highway and would be less costly than the initial design.

“The original construction documents specified using pre-cast concrete elements for portions of the bridge. For this style of construction, specific large pieces of the bridge were to be manufactured in a factory, then moved by oversized trucks to the construction site and assembled. While this method allows for quick assembly of the large pieces, there is substantial advance time needed for the manufacturer to make the parts,” said Dudicz.

Dudicz added that the pre-cast pieces were extremely heavy, and the builder would have to use a large and expensive crane to move the elements into position at the construction site. But the firm that contacted Williams & Works wanted to use “cast-in-place,” instead of pre-cast concrete pieces for the bridge project because cast-in-place concrete is fabricated and constructed on site and in position. The idea was to cut time, transportation costs and assembly expenses from the project.

“We worked with the original engineers of the project to come up with a design that met all of the project requirements and provided a substantial cost savings from the original design. The owner of the project selected the contractor due to the cost savings,” said Dudicz.

Sometimes an engineer can provide value to an owner by contacting other consultants to solve sticky situations. Rozema recently did that by getting specialized architectural firms to bid on assessing an industrial property. The firm, a national parts supplier, wanted to renew a long-term lease and refinance the building, but it needed to have soil borings and other environmental services done before going ahead with its plans.

“The client then evaluated the proposals and hired a team of consultants to prepare reports on the condition of the property. Ultimately, this effort led us to earn an assignment to evaluate the condition of the site’s utilities and pavement systems, and develop a plan for improvements that would preserve their investment and maintain their operation for years to come,” said Rozema.

“The coordination really didn’t take much time — probably four hours over the course of two days of making phone calls and sending e-mails,” he added.

As far as Rozema is concerned, the bottom line for members of his profession in creating value is to tell clients what they’re going to do and then follow through.

“The value of an engineer has a linear relationship to the trust and confidence we inspire in our clients. Taking the time to communicate with a client before, during and after a project builds that trust,” he said. “Doing what we say we will do helps, too.”

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