Every business sector presents different challenges, and managers must have an adequate combination of skills to face them. In the case of engineering management, a key challenge is the unique nature of every project. This contrasts with manufacturing firms that deliver large batches of identical products, or companies with a predetermined service offering.
Construction administration involves the direction of teams from different technical disciplines, who work on several unique projects at once. Since each project differs in scope, scale and deadlines, engineering managers must be capable of breaking them down into tasks, and assigning these tasks based on priority.
How a Construction or Building Renovation Project is Delivered
Manufacturing and service companies can focus on repeatability, delivering the same product or service several times as efficiently as possible. While there is some degree of customization, the starting point is normally a predetermined set of products or services. This does not apply for engineering management, where the technical specifications are unique for every project.
Requirements are discussed with each client in engineering projects, and these are used to define a project scope. The scope is then broken down by areas such as architecture, structural design, mechanical systems, electrical systems, plumbing installations and fire protection. Each area of work is divided into specific tasks, which are assigned to engineering teams.
- The building and its MEP installations are designed based on the project scope, and according to local building codes.
- After an approval procedure with local authorities, the project is built according to design documents.
- Normally, the building can be used for its intended purpose after a commissioning process and a final inspection.
At a glance this may seem like a simple procedure, but the challenge lies in the unique nature of each project. It is also important to note that construction work is performed outdoors, where there are uncontrollable factors such as weather and traffic. Engineering managers must be capable of delivering a project successfully, while meeting a unique scope and managing external factors that affect the construction process.
How Engineering Managers Handle Variability and Uncertainty
Since engineering is not a repetitive process, a constant management effort is necessary to keep projects on track. However, engineering managers can rely on technology and best practices in project management.
Risk management can make the difference between success and failure in an engineering project. The traditional approach has been responding to issues as they emerge, but this is risky and expensive:
- Without risk management, major issues that threaten the whole project may not be evident until they are about to happen.
- When risks are identified and preventive measures are developed, they can often be solved before they occur. Even if a problem is unavoidable, risk management mitigates its impact because the project staff knows exactly how to respond.
There is an entire chapter dedicated to risk management in the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK) from the Project Management Institute (PMI). This reflects the importance of risk management in engineering projects.
Other areas that must be managed actively in engineering projects are communication and procurement. If these aspects are left unattended, the project is likely to suffer from inefficiency and delays.
- When engineering professionals from many technical disciplines collaborate in a project with unique specifications, effective communication is key. Even with qualified professionals, progress will be slow if tasks are not clearly defined.
- Procurement also requires a management effort, since building projects often require materials and equipment that are not available on demand. Purchasing should be planned so that every component is already on site when needed.
When engineering managers handle risk, communication and procurement effectively, uncertainty is reduced. As a result, the project is more likely to meet its deadline and budget.
Why Engineering Managers Must Be Tech-Savvy
Engineering projects involve computer-aided modeling and simulation tools, which eliminate the need for manual drafting and calculations. Thanks to these tools, engineers can handle more projects simultaneously, compared with the time before these technologies were developed.
Engineering managers rarely use these tools directly, but they must have a solid understanding of how they work. This way, they can provide better guidance and instructions to design engineers.
Building Information Modeling (BIM) software goes one step beyond, since it combines modeling with team collaboration. Engineers from different technical areas can work on a single building model, visualizing how their designs interact with those from other teams. When projects use BIM, engineering managers must be familiarized with the technology to provide effective direction.
Michael Tobias is the founder and principal of Chicago Engineers. He is a graduate of Georgia Tech class of 2004, with a Bachelors of Mechanical Engineering with honors. His innovative approach to MEP engineering comes from graduating GE’s Engineering Leadership Program, where he designed wind turbines and biofuel power plant engines. Michael’s passion within design is energy efficiency and green technology.