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Finding Project Success in Mexico

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Designing and building projects in Mexico requires unique considerations that may differ from what many from the US, Asia and Europe think. Most of the projects Austin delivers in Mexico are for US, Asian, or European owners. Setting a project up for success is difficult, and doing so outside your home country can provide even more challenging. With more than 50 years experience delivery projects in Mexico and more than 8.5 million square feet (0.8m M2) of industrial plants and facilities completed in the past six years in Mexico, Austin team members have gained many lessons learned. Austin’s team includes members who have previously worked on the owner’s side of the owner-contractor equation, so below are two lessons learned from the owner’s perspective, and two from the contractor/design-builder perspective.

Lessons Learned from the Owner’s Perspective

1. Select the Right Contractor

Selecting a contractor to complete a project in Mexico is complex. To ensure you select the right one, interview the contractor in person, ideally in Mexico, to evaluate their presence, team members committed to the project, and how the work will be executed.

Beware of assumptions. Don’t assume that a Mexico-based contractor can save money or that going with a Mexico-based contractor makes sense. On the other hand, a U.S.-based contractor with reference projects in Mexico also might not give you the result you want. Do your due diligence by asking these questions:

1. Do they have a physical presence in Mexico?
2. Who will be performing the work and how and where will the work be performed?
3. When were their reference projects completed and what were the results
(safety, schedule, budget, etc.)?
4. What were their roles and responsibilities on those projects?

It’s critically important to vet your contractor, no matter where they are located, and lock in their delivery approach. This will help avoid a project that gets turned over to a Mexican operation without what you thought would be American quality and project management protocols, or a project executed from the U.S. that does not leverage Mexican resources, knowledge, standards and practices – leaving you with the same problems as hiring someone that has no real presence in Mexico.

2. There are Rules, Lots of Them

You might think it’s a lot easier to complete projects in Mexico compared to the U.S. or your native country. After all, its Mexico, right? No regulation, no permits, possibly no environmental permitting barriers like back home? Not the case.

In fact, Mexico has most of the same regulations and environmental permitting as the U.S., and in some ways, can be more burdensome. Coupled with the fact that you may not have connections like you do in your home country to get answers, guidance or an understanding of the permitting processes and procedures.
You will want to hire an engineering or design-build firm, and possibly an independent environmental consultant if the engineering provider doesn’t have environmental, that can speak intelligently about these topics and help guide you through the process.

Lessons Learned from the Contractor/Design-Builder’s Perspective

1. Real Design Is Critical, Not Just a Communication of Design Intent

First, design must be detailed. If you leave things as “field selected” or “field directed,” you are leaving it to whatever someone in Mexico decides they want to do in the field, potentially without supervision, and that may be different from what a craftsman would do in the U.S. in the field.

Second, ensure the design is Mexico-based. On occasion, Austin receives design packages that are completed in other parts of the world that include materials or equipment that are not standard or aren’t available in Mexico.

Third, Spanish is important. Outside the most senior level management within the trades, the ability to read and understand English, especially technical language, drops dramatically. Trade management can’t be one-on-one with every craftsman and still provide competitive pricing. Make sure you have Spanish-based drawings and specifications.

Fourth, translation tools are not viable solutions. Many times, Austin receives design packages completed in the U.S. or other parts of the world that were translated using software (e.g., Google Translate) and the translation was simply not right. Have the drawings and specifications created or translated by a native Mexican Spanish speaker. Or, develop your own in-house design operation in Mexico with native Spanish and English-speaking designers and engineers to complete the design.

2. Be Prepared to Stay on Guard in the Field

Safety and quality practices are not the same country to country. First, the “norms” in Mexico are different. Most of the time, especially on industrial projects, the bidding process drives pricing down. If nothing else is said and the field is not proactively managed, a craftsman may execute to the lowest cost Mexico “norm,” based on previous reductions to their cost and schedule.

Second, the Mexican construction market is busy. Most projects are fast-track, the workforce is stretched, and not the best craftspeople may be assigned to your project. Be engaged to catch this issue as soon as you see it. Also, these conditions cause field supervisors and managers to push their tradespeople more, which can lead to unsafe behavior and impacts to quality.

Successful Projects in Mexico

Designing and constructing projects in Mexico involves special requirements and unique considerations that are different from projects in the U.S. or other parts of the world. However, there are strong construction leaders in Mexico and talented craftspeople. The trick is making sure those are the people on your project. With the right experienced contractor who understands how to execute projects in Mexico and the owner’s active involvement in the vetting and execution of the process, projects in Mexico can be as successful and enjoyable as they are in the U.S.

This article was first published in Results Magazine, a publication by The Austin Company.

Engineering Goes Lean with Touchplan

Team of engineers review plans on screen

Time is a valuable commodity. For design-builders with single-source responsibility, mapping out the time it will take for each component of the project and having an organized plan are crucial to meeting the client’s needs.

Nirav Mehta, Austin’s Western Operations architectural and engineering design project manager, believes that the 30/60/90 day deliverable schedules developed at the start of a new project only tell part of the story. With the pressure to get projects completed as soon as possible, especially those with quick turnaround deadlines, engineering schedules are often compressed.

At first glance, the accelerated 30/60/90 day milestones can seem overwhelming to an engineering team. Mehta explains that the introduction of new software called Touchplan allows engineers a more practical focus on the individual tasks within those milestones, especially those they can begin immediately.

“Our general manager has already used this tool on a construction project with great success,” he says. “We were excited about adapting its capabilities to engineering.”

Touchplan is a web-based collaboration tool based on lean construction principals. The tool transforms the traditional sticky note pull planning process and connects the team digitally, providing real-time updates for greater efficiency and communication.

Mehta has found the program is excellent to help design teams—as well as construction teams—identify critical milestones, define a work plan, look ahead to identify potential constraints, increase accountability, and focus on continual improvement.

screenshot of pull-planning software known as Touchplan

Austin’s Western Ops has used Touchplan for several months now, and team members are becoming more adept at maximizing its features. The Weekly Work Plan and the Percent Promised Complete features are particularly helpful to engineers, Mehta states.

The Weekly Work Plan is a report of To-Do tasks that are to be completed before the next weekly meeting. Mehta says the report serves both as a meeting recap and to identify specific tasks for each team member.

The Percent Promised Complete report keeps track of the number of promised tasks that are complete. This report helps identify whether a team is meeting its deadlines or if it needs additional support to do so. It also reveals when a team is ready to assume other tasks.

Weekly Touchplan meetings promote communication between individual members of the team and the client. Using the tool to review task lists allows the engineers to see the sequence of events required and where communication can move the project ahead.

Mehta gives the example of an electrical engineer who might need to determine the placement of outlets in a room. To accomplish this, the engineer must have a layout of the room. However, the room layout cannot be sent to the electrical engineer until the client approves it. Touchplan allows the engineer to see on screen this opportunity for communication to move the project ahead.

Typically, delayed tasks are identified through these weekly meetings. As a result, a separate meeting can be held to determine how the engineering team can work to get the project back on schedule. By identifying the delay, the team can craft their solutions to reach the milestone date.

“Team members are encouraged to login daily to update tasks. Then during the weekly meeting, you can check off completed tasks. And for the tasks that are still open, you can determine if other issues have come up or if you’re waiting on information,” Mehta continues. “Once you know that, you can then plan tasks for the next week. Touchplan helps keep things on track. If you see things slipping, you schedule the necessary meetings to stay on track.”

Mehta feels that adapting this new program to engineering provides new opportunities for the team to fine-tune their processes. “Austin is always focused on meeting and exceeding clients’ expectations. Touchplan is another tool to help us do that on every new project.”

This article was first published in Results Magazine, a publication by The Austin Company.

Austin’s Critical Five when Building a Future Factory

Airplane hangar with airplane graphic overlay

For decades, the aerospace industry’s advances have been the very essence of innovation. This industry’s continual progress requires cutting-edge manufacturing environments or future factories as commonly referenced. For clients like The Boeing Company, Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin, General Atomics, and Aerojet Rocketdyne, choosing the right construction partner is critical.

We sat down with Jim Cathcart, Austin’s director of project planning for aviation, aerospace, and defense to find out what Austin considers the crucial focus areas when constructing a manufacturing facility, often called a “future factory” for an aerospace industry client.

“First,” says Cathcart, “the thought and creativity Austin invests in constructing these facilities are related to the way current aircraft and spacecraft components and assemblies are manufactured.” From there, five critical areas must be considered when designing and building a future factory.

1. CLIMATE-CONTROLLED ENVIRONMENT

There is a demand for temperature and humidity-controlled environments over a large volume of space, such as high-bays. “Composites, polymers, and lightweight non-metallic materials are sensitive to environmental conditions in maintaining critical tolerances during the assembly process. And that’s a challenge,” says Cathcart. The aerospace facility must sustain a consistent interior environment, which means designing for anti-static and climate-controlled areas, clean rooms, infrastructure and utility flexibility, as well as security for Department of Defense programs. “The temperatures, humidity, and air quality inside the facilities must be consistent around the clock every day of the year, even if there’s a monsoon outside,” he adds.

2. MANUFACTURING AUTOMATION

Demands for cutting-edge ideas aren’t limited to designing, engineering, and constructing these facilities. Technological advances in the methods of assembling spacecraft, airplanes, rockets and satellites have also required Austin to plan for new systems and techniques.

Cathcart explains, “Today’s sites must support automation and robotics, as well as additive manufacturing like rapid prototyping. In many cases, the manufacturing process begins with a powdered metallic or non-metallic material which is built up from there.”

Specialized spaces and environments are not necessarily common in general manufacturing, but in these cases, they are necessary. With potentially fewer humans involved in the manufacturing process and assembly floors occupied by robotic equipment such as AGVs and Air Bearings, Austin has to support these new assembly and material handling technologies. As an example, Cathcart cites the need for super flat floors in assembly plants where massive aircraft or spacecraft are moved throughout the facility using these material handling systems.

3. STRUCTURAL REQUIREMENTS

Austin also adapts traditional features of aerospace buildings to meet the industry’s ever-evolving needs. Newly constructed and renovated facilities are designed to meet current manufacturing needs, but often include the flexibility to adapt to future program requirements as well.

Cathcart says the use of trenches is one example. “The trench is nothing new in aircraft facilities; it has been used since World War II,” he explains. “However, the evolution of trenches for utility distribution has been remarkable.” Creating utility networks in a trench system enables the manufacturer to move processes quickly within the space because they can tap into the utilities in any part of the plant as needed.

In certain situations, especially in super flat flooring applications, trenches may not be advisable, so utilities are run underfloor in a grid formation. Utility pop-up stanchions are provided throughout the manufacturing floor to produce electricity, compressed air, and other services as needed. A retractable lid covers the stanchion keeping the floor smooth.

4. CYBER BORDER PROTECTION

In addition to meeting the structural requirements of manufacturing in the aerospace industry, Austin works with clients whose hardware, software, and communication channels must be secure without fail. Austin’s aerospace clients include defense contractors for the United States government whose security needs are particularly extensive. Cathcart says, “Austin must deliver solutions that keep clients’ facilities secure from both cyber-attacks and espionage.” Austin’s team members undergo extensive training to maintain compliance with ICD-705 requirements and other national and international mandates, including the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR).

“We comply with the federal government classified requirements,” Cathcart goes on. “Our solutions enable our clients to maintain the highest security to meet SCIF requirements and by addressing redundancy in systems such as backup generators and batteries. Even in an earthquake, these facilities cannot have any interruption in power and security. Our clients’ data centers are critical. Much like protecting our country’s physical borders, we make sure our clients can protect their cyber borders.”

5. ATTRACTING TOP TALENT

Modernizing manufacturing campuses has become a unique and intriguing aspect of renovating aerospace facilities. Austin plans and designs its clients’ facilities to entice the engineers and STEM talent that will be attractive to their clients’ potential workforce.

“Until five-plus years ago, most aerospace campuses were stuck in a time warp of antiquated buildings,” Cathcart says. “We’ve been modernizing facilities with mindfulness to employee retention and attracting talent. Through innovative design, engineering and construction, the renovated buildings are becoming exciting places to work and collaborate, “ he adds.

From creative solutions in the physical environment to creating spaces that are both efficient and appealing, The Austin Company will continue to meet the needs of its aerospace clients in the future and beyond.

For more than 100 years, The Austin Company has made enhancements in the design, engineering, and construction of aerospace manufacturing and assembly facilities to meet the needs of the aviation, aerospace, and defense industries.

This article was first published in Results Magazine, a publication by The Austin Company.

Resources

Building for a Century of Flight: https://issuu.com/theaustincompany/docs/building_for_a_century_of_flight_eb?fr=sMDExOTQxNjMxNw

Every Day Heroes in War Against COVID-19

Virus mask Causasian man wearing face protection in prevention for coronavirus. Isolated male looking into the camera in yellow jacket

Henry David Thoreau felt that “most men lead lives of quiet desperation.” I prefer to take a different view. I believe most men and women lead lives of quiet heroism. I am seeing it every day, and it shows the character of the people we encounter in our work and in our communities.

There is an overwhelming commitment for people to just do their part, and this commitment leads them to do more in unprecedented circumstances. Certainly and justifiably, we applaud those in healthcare and our first responders. They are seeing the tragic and heartbreaking impact of this pandemic each day. Like those on the frontline of a war – which this is- what they are witnessing and experiencing may even lead to the PTSD suffered by soldiers returned from the battlefield. We hear the stories of many people on their deathbed without the opportunity to see, touch and be with their most loved ones. It must be so hard on the healthcare workers and families.

Beyond the first responders and the healthcare workers, there are the rest of us. At the very least, there are people who are doing their part by staying at home and learning how to accomplish their jobs in a new work environment. They still have all the things that have always given them purpose in their work. Others may have an entirely new challenge, as both work and families must now exist in the same space.

There are others who are far less fortunate. They have suffered a loss of income and security. They may have more doubts about the future than they’ve ever experienced before. We are all impacted by this new reality that COVID-19 has brought to our doorsteps. 

The future. What will it be like? 

Change is hard enough as it is. Change that is driven by random circumstances that cannot be rationalized is an even greater challenge. What is most difficult is a change that is brought about randomly without the security of a clear path forward. How do we deal with that? For some, especially for those quiet heroes, it means going about everyday tasks despite it all, despite what it means. 

One of the essential industries where people continue to go to work every day is construction. Concurrently, the stimulus package allows some workers to stay home and collect as much in (or more) than they would make if they were working. Many chose to remain on the job. Others have chosen to stay at home instead of risking greater exposure because of family, personal health, or household members who have compromised immune systems, etc.

This situation is certainly not the equivalent of an NYFD firefighter running up the stairs of the World Trade Center, knowing he won’t likely come down alive. Still, for those of us who are not first responders, it has some similarities.

We, the Construction Industry, have a duty to build infrastructure and be a critical part of the economy. Some answer the call to that duty with dedication and focus on what the job requires, accepting the risks of that job.

I have a nephew in Chicago who delivers pipe to construction projects. He has never been busier. There is work going on everywhere in Chicago and northwest Indiana. At home, he has a wife who is an elementary school teacher and an 18-month-old daughter. He wipes down his truck every day, after every stop, and continually uses hand sanitizer. He does this countless times a day and is very careful when he comes home at the end of each day, taking precautions to minimize the possibility he would bring the virus into the home. 

His brother is an RN who had a “Hero Lives Here” sign planted in his yard by neighbors, which he humbly dismisses as he feels he is just someone doing the job he loves. His wife and three sons are staying with her parents to ensure proper quarantining. Although they are only a short distance away, he cannot hug his boys each night. 

I maintain that both are heroes in unassuming ways. Both go about their work, accepting the risks, taking the necessary precautions, and making sacrifices to do their part.

People are quietly and humbly going about their work in the face of a global pandemic, pulling their weight and making their contributions. In Kalama

Tech Tools to Map Locations

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Location, Location, Location

To say that Austin Consulting is all about the location is to state the obvious. However, for Location Consultant Kyle Johnson there is more to location than meets the eye. Johnson’s real-time, in-depth information on potential site locations provides clients with the data necessary to make important site selection decisions and gives them an edge to get the project deliverables quicker than ever before.

To do this, Kyle has mastered technology tools such as ESRI, EMSI, and CoStar. The valuable information these applications provide gives Austin the tools to advise clients quickly on everything from geological information to local labor market conditions to the property listing specifics of potential locations.

ESRI

ESRI is spatial mapping software, explained Johnson, “In layman’s terms, it’s a human-made system with which you are deciding how far you are from other things in terms of physical space. Like, from this spot on the map to a river.”

Using ESRI, Johnson can see a complete picture of the physical site, including topographical information. “We can look at the contours of hills, or whether the site is flat. We also look at utility locations because the client will need access to water, electricity, gas, and sewer to be operational.”

Johnson also uses ESRI to map existing site features that will impact clients. “We can identify railroads and highways, which is helpful to our clients. But we can also locate our client’s competitors relative to a site,” Johnson added. “What other manufacturers might be nearby? We map those, too. An adequate workforce, as well as the local competition for that workforce, are always big considerations.”

That’s when Johnson will employ another software program known as EMSI. This program is a labor market analysis tool that provides Austin a valuable snapshot of the local workforce.

EMSI

EMSI analytics focuses on general population demographics like education, age, income and wages, and population and employment changes. But, said Johnson, it takes a much deeper dive into labor, specifically in determining how many people in a particular industry are employed in a specific region.

This sort of information is crucial to site selection, Johnson added. “We look for the location of a potential workforce physically. Maybe the nearest population center is within 15, 30, 45 minutes or an hour. We’re determining whether or not there are enough people to meet this facility’s needs. If they need 2,000 workers, selecting a site near a town of just 10,000 people may not provide our clients with sufficient workers to operate their facility.”

Johnson explained further, “A lot of this information is just not readily available to the average researcher. If we secure detailed data on workforce populations based on legitimate labor statistics, we can give our clients quite an advantage.”

EMSI also offers a deeper dive into workforce parameters by providing job-posting information. “We have real-time postings,” said Johnson. “So, we can tell our clients which businesses are hiring, how long it takes that employer to hire, and how many positions they’re looking to fill. Whatever info our client needs can be on the screen in front of us and presented to them in a matter of minutes.”

Costar

In addition to ESRI and EMSI, Austin has added CoStar to its technology arsenal, which Johnson described as “The property listing database. It’s what real estate brokers use.”

Thanks to CoStar, Austin’s site location team is now able to access valuable property information in a matter of minutes. “Before CoStar,” said Johnson, “Austin depended on individual communities to provide property information, which could not be delivered as quickly. “This allows us to see all the same information that a broker sees: transactions on a property, square footage of a building, how quickly it sold, how long it was on the market, and other site information. We can also learn about the acreage, how many floors the building has, and special features like the presence of a crane inside the structure. This information gives us a detailed snapshot upfront of what’s available.”

ESRI, EMSI, and CoStar have changed the landscape for Austin’s site location team, as well as for its clients. Working with these new tools is an ongoing task for Johnson. “I constantly keep an eye on new programs and technology being released to see if any of them can increase the advantage we provide to our clients in site selection.”

“I’m continually figuring out what’s going to be cost-efficient as well as beneficial for us,” he added. And most importantly, “All of this is proving to be immensely valuable to our clients. With the addition of these technologies, we are now able to provide more accurate information to clients more quickly than ever before.”

Get to Know Kyle Johnson, Location Consultant

Kyle brings over nine years of valuable experience in location, community, economic development, and real estate consulting to the Austin team. He maintains a strong background in research and redeveloping strategies for complex economic issues, including trade, supply chains, industry competitiveness, and business intelligence. Kyle has performed work in the food and beverage processing, agriculture, general manufacturing, consumer products, business services, healthcare, and public safety industries.

This article was first published in Results Magazine, a publication by The Austin Company.

Resources

Building Women

WIC Results Article Hero Image

In preparation for this article, I recalled a quote I read from an Austin Board meeting sometime around 1942. At the time, Austin’s sales were peaking at $285,000,000. The company grew from a staff of 571 employees to over 49,000 employees in just two years. The quote I remembered referenced workforce shortages and then complimented the resourcefulness of our construction executives, where “you will now find ‘girls’ working on our job sites.”

What an interesting perspective on how times have changed. Austin’s historic Fort Worth Bomber plant was likely where many of these “girls” worked. Coincidentally, Fort Worth was the birthplace of the National Association of Women in Construction just eleven years later.

In 1991, I sold a project at the Denver Airport. Austin was selected by the City and County of Denver to be the architect and engineer for a hangar, cargo facility, flight kitchen, and ground support equipment facility. Instrumental in our winning this work was the advice and counsel of Ginger Evans, who was the assistant director of aviation for the airport in charge of a $16B program. Ginger was one of the most impressive, genuine, and down-to-earth professionals with whom I have ever dealt. As this was early in my career, I had no preconceptions about women in construction. After working with Ginger, I knew without a doubt that women belong in this profession.

It is encouraging to see the continued growth of women throughout our projects and our company. I recently visited the Project Palladium site with Kajima USA Chairman Nori Ohashi. Project Palladium is one of the most complex, process-heavy jobs we have undertaken since the 1980s. Giving us a complete review of the project was Site Safety Engineer Daphnie Sharp; Design Team Captain for Mechanical and Process Engineering Sara Simpson; Area Superintendent April Harmer; and Document Control Specialist Ashley Shugar. Project Controls Manager Sandi Shubert was unable to join us that day. All of these team members—these women—bear the responsibility of wearing the Austin hard hat and continuing our legacy of Results, not Excuses®. They are a strong, cohesive team dedicated to the successful completion of one of our most challenging projects.

Last quarter, we awarded our first round of value coins. Value coins go to individuals who have been recognized by their peers for living one of Austin’s values in the work they perform. Those values are: Committed to Service, Passion, Innovation, Get It Done, Team Builders, and Own It. 25 percent of those first-round coins went to female team members for exceptional dedication to their roles at Austin.

All told, Austin’s female workforce totals about 20 percent of our ranks. When I began working at Austin in the early 80s, most women in the company were in administrative, clerical, or accounting roles with an occasional architect or engineer thrown in.

Today, almost 75 percent of our female workforce are in technical or professional positions in engineering, preconstruction, construction, marketing, and accounting. And, at the mid-management level, we have many women holding leadership roles in engineering, project management, and marketing. No doubt, these rising stars will change the leadership landscape in the years to come.

The design and construction industry needs to increase its efforts to educate and attract more women to participate in the creation of buildings and infrastructure. Just as it was in 1942, workforce shortages are a challenge we face today. By necessity, this shortage will force an end to old preconceptions and create many new opportunities for women to have an increasing impact on the future of our industry.

There is no room for the old preconception that this industry is not for women. Here at Austin, it most certainly is.

Article published in Results Magazine, Winter 2019.