Hiring a Fabrication Partner
Business is booming across our many sectors and clients today bring the most amazing and exciting challenges. A common denominator for many of them is the challenge of how to right-size expectations when moving from design to fabrication—and ultimately to installation.
Said another way: How can you get set up for success when hiring a fabricator—and ensure a smoother process around the creation of your new museum, theme park attraction, exhibition, visitors center, and/or compelling brand experience?
As fabrication experts, we regularly engage with clients who come with great design (and often designers) as part of the project mix—often to learn that key issues need to be explored in detail before settling on a final concept. The most common early issue is around the budget—and whether the design they have come to love will greatly exceed their budget.
Of course, it’s critical that we meet clients where they are—which typically involves an initial conversation to explore the process of value engineering with them, especially its usefulness in resetting expectations, revisiting material choices, and sometimes prioritizing needs.
Value engineering (or VE as most project managers call it) often works wonders, but there are drawbacks. For a start, it’s time consuming and based on compromise—it typically involves giving up some of the things your team probably grew to love.
We gathered a Chicago Scenic brain trust recently to explore that important question—to better equip current and prospective clients for success. For about an hour, this group threw around ideas about how to help our clients – and their designers—begin a new project: the questions to ask, things to consider, the partners to engage at the very beginning. And decided to share that information with you.
These folks together represent more than 85 years of experience in scenic fabrication and project management. They know materials and vendors and new ways around old problems. They’re here to provide some ideas about kicking your project off on the right foot, saving money, time, and a bit of heartbreak on your next big project.
Ten Key Ideas for Bridging Design to Fabrication & Installation
1. Begin with the end in mind—and work back from there.
We’re talking about installation – first and foremost. Clients often have a ‘one-installation-fits-all’ mindset for project budgeting. That’s a sure way to add in unexpected delays and extra hours (translation: overtime). Where will the exhibit or set be installed? What are the pathways into the final assembly area? Are large dock doors involved? Are the freight elevators large enough to accommodate assembled components or will they need to be disassembled at the shop, transported, and reassembled at the jobsite? Will installation be done during regular hours or will crews need to work overnight? Is the jobsite closed to the public or will crews need to hang privacy screens to limit noise, fumes, and dust?
Want proof that this works? Invite three project managers out for drinks and ask them about (anonymous) clients who forgot to share certain details about project installations. You’ll be entertained by their stories for several rounds of drinks.
2. Enlist a professional to ensure that your project design will honor principles of engineering.
Entertainment venues, museums, amusement parks are always looking for the “WOW” factor in their new attractions and their design firms work 24/7 to deliver ideas that are on fire. But when you’re dealing with public interactions, safety is always your #1 concern. Be sure your initial designs—and subsequent technical drawings—get the blessing of the professionals who can create theory of operation descriptions, proof of concept mock-ups or 3D computer simulations that will help ensure safety. Pushing the boundaries often make a cool project a WOW! Figure out how to walk the line, but remember that innovation at this level is expensive.
3. A variety of tools provide a better picture of your design
Seasoned project managers can advise you about the value of using renderings, mock-ups/prototypes, or computer simulations to visualize your design as it comes to life. If it’s all about scale—how big or small the end product will be—a full-scale mock-up or replica may be the best alternative to provide a true sense of scale early in the process and to avoid surprises at the end.
4. Materials matter more than most people know
Our years of experience with materials of all kinds—from wood to plastic to steel—can help steer you toward selecting the right material for the right project. Want a realistic barn wall in your lobby? Sometimes what you really need isn’t barn wood, it’s scenic painting.
And, speaking of wood: One of our clients recently saved a bundle of money by installing a printed, textured vinyl graphic that looked like wood flooring right over their existing laminate floor. That won’t work on high traffic areas, though, so be sure to consult with your fabrication partner before you make the switch.
And if your audience is kids—pick your materials carefully. Kids love to scratch, peel and crack surface areas. They really love a challenge.
5. Anticipate maintenance challenges & realities
If your exhibit or attraction will include lots of simple and high-tech interactives, budget for ongoing maintenance. Guests of all ages—and, yes, especially kids – can wreak havoc on the best designed and built interactives. Sometimes, we recommend a more expensive and intricate build design because we understand it will take less time to repair or reduce downtime.
Be sure to build in enough time and budget to create prototypes, too; it’s the best way to work out all the bugs and ensure that your interactives will perform reliably and repeatedly.
6. Love technology—but don’t forget the simple stuff.
Walk into any space lately—from a corporate lobby to a visitor center or a gigantic theme park—and tech is everywhere. Who doesn’t love technology?
Sometimes, though, it’s the simple interactives that get the most attention. Watch your kids walk into a space: they’re likely to run to the crayons and paper before they sit down at the iPad station. And at the American Writers Museum in Chicago – a museum that relies on interactives, not artifacts - one of its most popular exhibits features old-fashioned black typewriters; the typewriters are always clacking away as visitors sit down to write the first few lines of their Great American novel.
7. Assemble the best team—to deliver.
Talk to your design team (and your fabrication consultants, too) to identify the complex components of your project and the exact team partners you need to put into place. Will you need interactive developers, audio/visual hardware and software folks? Electricians? Engineers? Light box developers? How about graphics and printing specialists? Plan to put those partners in place before technical drawings are done, not afterwards.
8. Pick partners with a diverse team.
You’ll get the most out of a team that has a solid mix of seasoned professionals with years of decision-making power behind them coupled with fresh young professionals with new ideas, a deep understanding of technology (its power and its shortfalls), and as many talented team members in between. Diversity in age, ethnicity, gender, ideology, education—well, you get the idea—counts.
9. Get project quotes along the way.
Your design team is creating a design that they want you to love. But here’s what’s true of even the most talented designers—many of whom we work with all the time: They don’t know how long it’s going to take to build – or if what is designed can be built. And they don’t know what it will cost.
So, before you do fall in love with design, maybe invite a fabrication team member to join you and the design team early in the process. As the design begins to develop, the fabrication team member(s) can begin to build a budget, make alternative, cost-saving suggestions, and keep your budget in line with expectations. (Remember Value Engineering? Engaging a fabrication partner early on can limit the need for course-corrections and keep VE at a minimum).
10. Remember: The pandemic changed so much—at least for now.
We’re all a little sick of hearing that but when it comes to materials, labor, and costs, it’s reality. If you were accustomed to getting a quick-turn project done in three months and you’re expecting that to happen this year, you’re in for a big disappointment. Material shortages are a real thing. And if you’re looking for microprocessors, get in line.
Your costs will be higher because our costs are higher. Raw lumber pricing doubled during the pandemic but has fallen recently; it’s still not down to pre-pandemic levels, however. Steel has followed a similar run. Shipping costs have ballooned with little retreat. Labor has increased, too, and we’re running into significant labor shortages around the country. Remember, none of these issues are fatal; we can overcome all these challenges with early planning and ongoing communication.
One more thought…
We don’t mean to be the voice of gloom here. In fact, we’re here to tell you that we can make your design dreams come true. We can help you avoid unexpected delays, keep your costs down, and your expectations high. Together, we can make your project everything you—and your design team—imagined it to be.