Designing, selling, and producing air handling units is a long process. I know, because I’ve been working on custom AHU projects for nearly 30 years now. If you’ve worked in custom AHU manufacturing, sales, or on construction projects that require custom AHUs, you know that it takes time to design and produce new units. But why does it take so long? Is there anything we can do to accelerate the process? And if it ain’t broke, why should we fix it?
If It Ain’t Broke
Insiders will often say, “No, that’s just the way this industry works.” And in some ways they are right. This process has worked for years. But let’s dig in and see what drives time (and cost).
There’s a design stage, validation, and pricing. They all rely on the same data, but they are viewed as separate stages, so they are carried out sequentially. Then there are engineering submittals, customer reviews, and approvals, and that almost always means a back-and-forth with changes and adjustments. Any changes or adjustments need to go back for pricing and validation. Once the engineering submittal is signed-off, the drawings are sent off to production, and the submittal is often reworked in additional detail to meet manufacturing requirements. What’s more, in a typical AHU manufacturing business, each one of these processes is carried out by a different team, using different software.
At each stage, the project is handed to the next team, who often have to take the time to re-enter key data. And if there are questions or concerns, emails and e-messages start flying and documents are sent back and forth. It all sounds laborious because it is.
Up until now, the time requirements of the process didn’t really have a serious negative impact (except on cost) because of the lead time involved in the types of large-scale construction projects that require custom AHUs. Innovations like component selection software have accelerated parts of the process, and manufacturers try to optimize productivity because time is money. But until recently, there’s been no driving need to change tried and tested practices that have yielded solid results for years. In fact, for the most part, only visionaries and new startups really questioned the way things were being done.
Two Factors Will Break the Custom AHU Status Quo
Today, that driving need is arriving fast in the form of climate change and COVID-19. These two factors are set to generate increased demand for more efficient AHUs in greenfield projects as well retrofits to existing buildings. Climate change will result in the need for more cooling and more efficient cooling to deal with higher temperatures, energy costs, and net zero requirements. HVAC systems in new and existing buildings will also need to be upgraded with more circulation and better filtration to cope with post-pandemic air quality standards.
The problem is that most AHU manufacturers are limited in their capacity to capitalize on this demand because their processes are calibrated to meet current demand. Maintaining the status quo and trying to meet this new demand will require major investments in both human resources and manufacturing capacity.
But the answer isn’t to throw more resources at the problem — that will just magnify current inefficiencies and reduce margins. The answer is to find a new way to organize the process end to end to eliminate inefficiencies, improve collaboration, and streamline operations.
Time Is Money
If time is money, my thesis is that as an industry, we are currently leaving a lot of money on the table. An AHU veteran might say, “It’s all baked into the price.” And that is true for a single project. But what about overall capacity and velocity? The longer a project takes, the fewer projects you can take on in a year — that definitely impacts the bottom line. Also, your pricing has to be adjusted higher to factor in the inefficiencies baked into your process, making you less competitive.
The key to improving efficiency is digital transformation. Across virtually all manufacturing industries, digital transformation takes aim at siloed processes and platforms. The goal is to leverage shared data and systems to optimize workflows, improve collaboration, accelerate communication and decision-making, and automate or streamline inefficient manual processes that hold back productivity.
For the AHU industry, the biggest payoffs will come when we unify the fragmented processes and platforms used to design, sell, manufacture, and support our products. Up until now, unified collaborative platforms for the custom AHU industry were a nice-to-have idea that appealed mostly to visionaries and mavericks. But with the new wave of demand about to hit our industry, AHU manufacturers large and small will benefit from adopting cloud-based collaborative platforms that allow internal teams, external sales specialists, and even clients working from anywhere in the world to come together and manage the entire lifecycle of an AHU. The competitive edge in capacity and efficiency will mean faster RFP response, quicker turnaround for submittal and production, fewer mistakes, and lower HR costs. And those advantages will largely decide whether manufacturers ride this new wave of demand or get swamped by it.
By Vicken Arabian
Vicken Arabian is cofounder and CTO of Kinetix Air AHU Selection Software. He is a mechanical engineer (Cal Poly Pomona) and project manager (UC Berkeley) with over 30 years of experience working in the custom AHU industry.