Construction Logistics: Raise the Roof!
When building contractors converge on a site with their materials, equipment, and appliances, it takes planning, patience, and a good bit of luck to fit all the pieces together.
Let’s talk about brick and mortar, but not the metaphorical materials that signify "retail store" when we describe sales channels. Let’s talk about literal brick and mortar, plus concrete, lumber, steel beams, roofing, and all the other materials you might need to erect a building.
Moving those materials, plus heavy equipment, to a construction site at the right time, in the right order, demands intricate orchestration. Get the details wrong, and you’ll see well-paid workers and expensive machines standing around with nothing to do.
How do the pros get construction logistics done the right way? We asked a few to build on the details.
Plan Early, Stay Flexible
Ryan Transportation Service, in Overland Park, Kansas, contracts with more than 20,000 trucking carriers to serve its construction industry customers. It arranges transportation for all kinds of construction materials, including bagged cement, precast concrete panels, concrete forms, insulation, heating and air conditioning systems, heavy machinery, and more. Ryan Transportation’s customers include building product manufacturers, general contractors, subcontractors, and machinery suppliers.
One essential behind this kind of transportation is pre-planning. "If a big project is coming up, we reach out to a broad network of carriers," says Stephen Bird, senior director of business development at Ryan Transportation.
Price is important when the third-party logistics (3PL) provider seeks a truck to move construction materials. But the carrier must also be able to adhere to a strict schedule. A driver making a delivery might encounter other trucks hauling all manner of supplies to perhaps one dozen different subcontractors.
"There are a lot of moving parts, and it all has to work perfectly to avoid an accident or delay," Bird says. "Time is very expensive on those jobs." For a large project, the company might have to move several hundred truckloads, coordinating pickups at suppliers all over the United States, plus arrivals at the job.
Ryan Transportation uses both large trucking companies and small owner-operators to serve its customers. It qualifies each one carefully. "All our carriers have to pass a strict safety background check based on government safety scores," Bird says. "We make sure they have the correct insurance and that they understand where they’re going, that they’re taking the right route through downtown congested areas, that they have the right-sized equipment, and that the driver has the right personal protective equipment: hard hat, safety vest, boots, no shorts."
Moving According to Plan
Planning also is essential when it comes to loading a truck. Say, for example, a subcontractor hires Ryan Transportation to move pre-cast concrete panels from the vendor to the site where a large manufacturing plant is under construction. Those panels must go on the truck in just the right order, so the recipient can unload them correctly for installation.
"It’s a puzzle," Bird says. "If number 24 shows up before number 23, you’ve got a problem." That’s especially true at a crowded job site, where space is at a premium. "There’s no place to put the truck while it waits for an earlier panel to arrive and be unloaded," he adds.
The problem becomes especially severe when a crane is waiting to unload the pre-cast panels and the delivery runs late. "That delay can cost several thousand dollars per hour with the crane and crew sitting there," Bird says. To avoid mistakes, truck drivers must check that the number on each panel matches the number they are supposed to be loading.
"If the panels need to be there at 9 a.m., and there’s any issue, such as a weather delay, we’ve got to be in communication," he adds.
Drivers also need details about the freight so they’ll be sure to arrive for pickup with the correct number of straps and other equipment for loading. "If you need 15 straps and you show up with eight, there’s not much to do," Bird says. "We have to send that driver away, or back to get more straps, and it creates a delay."
Once drivers get to the site, they need precise instructions about where to go. For example, say a driver is delivering forms for pouring concrete at the site of a new sports stadium. That site will also be busy with trucks delivering materials to plumbers, electricians, carpenters, and others, plus forklifts moving items from place to place.
"Drivers have to know exactly where they’re going and who they’re supposed to meet to unload," Bird says. "If they get into the wrong spot, they can literally get the truck stuck where they can’t turn around."
Despite all the careful advance planning, drivers making deliveries to construction sites often meet with surprises. "The schedule could change once or 20 times in one day," Bird says. Drivers must be patient, and both truckers and the 3PL need to be flexible.
"We might think we will haul 20 loads today, and then the wind could be too high for the crane to unload," he notes. In the face of that uncertainty, it takes strong communication to keep things running smoothly.
Ryan Transportation uses a transportation management system (TMS) for many functions, including routine data exchanges. But when exceptions arise, that technology isn’t sufficient. "You can update the system and send that information, but if you rely on the carrier to check its technology, ultimately something is going to be messed up," Bird says. When a message needs to get through, the most reliable tool, he says, is "a good, old-fashioned phone call."
The Philadelphia Story
In January 2017, Equinox Management and Construction wrapped up one of its latest projects, a building on a small side street in Philadelphia that houses nine market-rate rental units. Built in a tight space, with work by numerous subcontractors, this job posed many of the typical challenges that Equinox faces in its jobs, says Steve Steinbrook, the company’s director of construction operations.
Based in Philadelphia, Equinox serves as the general contractor—and sometimes also as developer—on high-end, multi-family townhomes and condo complexes in the city and nearby suburbs. It usually subcontracts most of the construction—from digging foundations to installing sprinklers and security systems—to other companies. Equinox coordinates all that work and purchases many of the necessary materials.
The two main team members responsible for logistics on any project are the site supervisor and Bill Rullo, Equinox’s purchasing coordinator.
"The superintendent builds a schedule for when all the trades [the subcontractors] are going to be there doing their part," Rullo says. "Then he works with our purchasing coordinator to make sure all the materials are arriving one or two days before the subcontractors are ready to start."
While some subcontractors supply their own materials, Equinox often does the purchasing to gain greater control over deliveries and costs. For example, the company will buy lumber for its framing subcontractor and arrange for the product to arrive in stages. Especially at sites in Philadelphia’s Center City, there’s not a great deal of space to store materials that won’t be used soon.
Even when there is some storage space, how to store materials may require some thought. "Sometimes we have an inside delivery to a new home, where the tenants aren’t in yet but the house is secure," says Rullo. But if construction isn’t nearly complete, Equinox might have to build lockable storage boxes on site or—if the building has walls—install temporary locks. Otherwise, Rullo might need to put the delivery off. "It’s a chess game, getting all the pieces lined up perfectly," he says.
The chess game gets especially tough when a supplier doesn’t have enough product in stock. "We might get 90 percent of the plumbing or electrical fixtures, with a few on backorder," Steinbrook says. "Then it’s a challenge to get those subcontractors back out."
Luckily, that doesn’t happen often. When the building requires an unusual product—say, handmade light fixtures for use in a historical neighborhood—the company tries to place the order well in advance. Those items might wait in Equinox’s small warehouse until they’re needed on site.
Summers in the City
Beyond questions of storage, Center City projects also pose other challenges. Sometimes Equinox or one of its contractors needs to close off a street while workers unload a tractor trailer or move a crane into positon. That’s a familiar scenario for John Summers, owner of Summers Quality Services, a contractor that installs heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC), plumbing, and electrical systems. Summers provided and installed the HVAC for Equinox’s nine-unit rental building project.
"It can be a headache to block off a street for 30 minutes to unload a truck," Summers says. "We try to coordinate an early morning delivery, before rush hour." Closing a street for a longer period—say, to bring in a crane to install a unit on a roof—requires approval from the police, who send a squad car to keep traffic away.
Summers recalls one project where the presence of a crane made coordination especially complex. The company had to lift a piece of equipment to the top of a four-story building, with high-tension wires in the way. Philadelphia Electric Company needed to put protective covers on those wires.
"We had to coordinate the utility, the crane, and the street closing," he says. "And they would only allow us to do it at 6 a.m., so it would have the least possible impact on residents." It took about 10 days to get everything lined up, but it all went well in the end, he says.
When Equinox puts up a building in one of Philadelphia’s older sections, sometimes delivery trucks can’t make it up the narrow streets at all. Then Rullo and the site superintendent might meet the driver in the parking lot of a big box store to transfer the freight to the company’s local delivery truck. Because that truck is only 24 feet long, this isn’t simple. "We unload as much as we can, take it to the site, unload, come back, and do it again," Rullo says.
Kronos vs. The Crane
In late January 2014, W.F. Magann Corp. bought a 100-ton Manitowoc crawler crane, which it needed it for a job near its headquarters in Portsmouth, Va.
"We were using the crane as a rig to drive concrete piles into the ground," says Stan Magann, vice president at the concrete, heavy, and marine general contractor. The customer was Coastal Pre-Cast Systems, which was building a concrete runway for an overhead crane in its production facility.
Magann needed the crane quickly, but the equipment still had a way to go. Freshly arrived from Japan, it was waiting in Manitowoc’s facility in Houston.
The job of getting the crane to Virginia fell to Next Exit Logistics, based in DeSoto, Texas. The 3PL, which specializes in heavy hauling services, had just five days to arrange the move. Next Exit needed five trucks to transport the crane—one for the massive power unit and four others to carry the counterweights and booms.
"We hired flatbed and step deck trailers and an eight-axle tractor-trailer," says Chandler Magann, president at Next Exit. (Stan and Chandler Magann are cousins, but their companies are not related.) "We put the upper works on the eight-axle tractor trailer, then we put crates of parts on the others."
To guide that work, Next Exit relied on a loadout plan—a packing list that provided the dimensions and weights of each piece of equipment. The company arranged to do all the loading on the same day.
Each driver involved in the move was an owner-operator working for a different carrier. Next Exit qualifies its trucking companies carefully. "We look at how long they’ve been in business, their reputation and safety record, the insurance they carry, and how long that owner-operator has been with that carrier," Chandler Magann says.
As Next Exit and its drivers started loading the trucks, they ran into their first big challenge. They needed to drive the upper works onto its trailer, but the crane wouldn’t start. "Manitowoc had to get a battery from across town, which took hours," Magann says.
Why the delay? As Next Exit was getting the trucks loaded, Winter Storm Kronos had descended on Houston, shutting down the city’s roads. The weather also complicated the freight pickup. "We had issues with sleet forming on the decks of the trailers," says Chandler Magann. Once loaded onto their trailers, some of the crane parts kept sliding around.
Luckily, by the time the Manitowoc technician returned with the battery, the sun was out and the ice was melting. By afternoon, the wails of emergency vehicles on nearby highways died away, and traffic cleared. The trucks were ready to move.
Permits, Escorts, and Curfews
Of course, a truck hauling an oversized load such as a crane doesn’t just hit the road. It needs permits and escorts, and it’s subject to both state and local curfew laws. Permits dictate the route the truck must take. State curfews keep oversized loads off the roads after dark; municipal curfews keep them out of rush hour traffic.
"Curfew can catch people by surprise if they’re not being proactive," says Chandler Magann. If it takes too long to load the truck, or an accident causes a traffic delay, a curfew could sideline a load.
Even oversized loads moving locally require special permits. "I currently have a crane on a job site that’s 20 minutes from our yard," says Stan Magann. When W.F. Magann hired a local hauler to move that crane, it took about seven days to obtain the necessary permit.
For drivers hauling the Manitowoc crane, the excitement didn’t end when they started rolling east. Winter Storm Kronos was headed the same way, and not as quickly. "One driver caught up with the same storm," says Chandler Magann. And then, as the trucks reached Virginia, they ran into a second storm, dubbed Leon.
Next Exit wasn’t getting enough information to tell if the roads ahead were safe for the flatbed carrying the crane. So the escort drivers were deputized as scouts. They drove ahead, checked out conditions, and then drove back to report.
In the end, everyone reached Portsmouth safely. W.F. Magann used another crane at its site to unload the Manitowoc’s parts. "The crane we were unloading came with the tracks on it," says Stan Magann. "So it walked right off the trailer; all we had to do was assemble the counterweights and booms."
In any construction job, timing—getting materials to arrive when you need them, getting permits approved before it’s time to ship an oversized load—is a big logistics challenge. But at certain times of year, weather poses the biggest obstacle, and not just when it comes to transportation.
"We have to pick and choose our days," Stan Magann says. "We can pour concrete when it’s 50 degrees out, but if it’s 20 degrees, we can’t."
Weather, timing, labor, materials, equipment, permits—with careful planning and attention to detail, all the elements of construction logistics build a product that’s solid and strong.