The Technology Evolution

MEP Innovation Conference drives collaboration to help solve the industry’s challenges.  

MEP attendees engaged in various teambuilding activities to open lines of communication and build trust (top). Attendees participated in an exercise as a part of a presentation by Project Give-A-Hand to build artificial limbs for those in need (center). The visits to several Orlando-area MEP contractor sites were an important part of the program (bottom).

Collaboration and innovation are most effective when connected with one another. These concepts feed off of each other to create new ideas and move an industry forward. Collaboration enables the free flow of ideas that breed innovation, while the excitement of innovation helps nourish an atmosphere where opportunities for cooperation are rampant.

There are fewer places where this is evident than in the mechanical, electrical and plumbing trades. Technology within these individual spaces is evolving at a breakneck pace, with contractors having to keep their heads on a swivel to understand, much less successfully employ all the new tools and technology potentially at their disposal. At the same time, there is an incredible opportunity to utilize these tools successfully, and it's not hard for contractors to be overwhelmed by the sheer volume of assets at their disposal. When you factor in that business owners and technology managers must also juggle the reality of day-to-day operations, maximizing the potential of innovation becomes challenging. This apparent reality could leave contractors in a spot where they see themselves leap-frogged by their competitors, harming their ability to compete long-term.

With the express goal of bridging these knowledge gaps, SMACNA annually conducts the MEP Innovation Conference in cooperation with the Mechanical Contractors Association of America (MCAA) and the National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA). The conference offers several critical and unique opportunities for all MEP contractors to grow their knowledge base on how technology is evolving within our space.

Travis Voss, SMACNA's Director of Innovative Technology and Fabrication, outlined the core goals of the MEP Innovation Conference: "We are all trying to solve the same or similar problems across the MEP space. The MEP Innovation Conference highlights those struggles and challenges. It allows our memberships the opportunity to collaborate on how to address them. A great deal of care goes into building the educational sessions around those issues and then pairing members from each association giving real-world examples of contractors attacking them."

The general sessions let attendees hear about broad themes impacting the MEP sector from industry pacesetters. One of these instances featured the national presidents of the three organizations, including SMACNA President Carol Duncan. This panel talked about how the industry has changed during their time as business leaders. This conversation was thought-provoking for all attendees as it painted an incredibly accurate picture of how quickly the tides of innovation are indeed changing.

Additional general sessions included similar content designed to illustrate the forces currently in play within the MEP trade from a macro level. Concepts such as how cross-border and cross-cultural interactions and relationships can prove pivotal in addressing international challenges within the sector. SMACNA Premier Partner Procore's Sasha Reed delivered general session remarks on how data can help contractors relieve the financial stress caused by inevitable delays and how technology can be deployed to maximize the bottom line.

In addition, breakout sessions occurred throughout the event. These sessions tackle a variety of essential topics for those in attendance. They ranged from the impact that technology has on recruiting and talent development, how to successfully take technology from the drawing board and implement it  throughout your corporate structure, and learning some of the best practices in building an overall culture that is one where innovation is encouraged from top leadership all the way down to the apprentice level. SMACNA participated in several of these sessions, including a safety session where Justin Crandol, SMACNA's Director of Safety, served as a panelist along with his counterparts from the other associations.

Poynter Sheet Metal President Joesph Lansdell addresses the audience during an MEP general session meeting.

Linda Jennings, SMACNA's Executive Director of Innovation, Integration and Learning, talked about the importance of safety and the work of the three associations in improving overall industry awareness of this critical topic. "Justin, along with the safety directors from all three associations, has been tasked with innovating a vital part of the industry. Safety is no longer just about machine guarding but includes the health and well-being of the people running those machines. To be a successful MEP contractor, we must advocate for our employees' mental and physical health, and our innovation efforts have focused on that very issue."

The 2024 edition of the conference, held in Orlando, Florida, served as an avenue for learning about the available state-of-the-art solutions and providing a unique opportunity for contractors across the MEP trades to network with their peers. This type of face-to-face engagement can go a long way in helping contractors better understand the best practices that their colleagues are employing within their own shops. By talking to individuals who have encountered similar challenges, MEP attendees can discuss challenges and develop peer-sourced solutions that can positively impact their businesses. This combination of cooperation and innovation is at the core of what the MEP Innovation Conference tries to accomplish, and the 2024 edition was no exception.

SMACNA President Carol Duncan joins her counterparts from MCAA and NECA to talk about the impact that technology has had on their businesses.

Voss expanded on these opportunities, stating, "The theme around this conference has always been sharing. Attendees truly embrace this, which is apparent in the sessions and the breaks between. The discussions are powerful and refreshing."

In addition to the programming within the convention venue, there were opportunities to tour three leading Orlando-based MEP contractors: Carter Electric, Maddox Electric and Miller Electric. Attendees had the chance to travel to their respective shops and learn more about the specifics of their operations, ranging from human resources and talent development to how they specifically work with clients to deliver high-intensity projects. This taught attendees more about how each company utilizes emerging technology, such as virtual reality, to provide the highest quality end-product at the highest possible value to the client. Tour attendees often had the opportunity to interact with these tools, ask questions and brainstorm some potential applications within their 
own shops.

The event also served as a moment for contractors to use their technical skills and teamwork to assist those in need. Attendees participated in an exercise led by Project Give A Hand, a charity that works to provide artificial limbs to those who have lost them due to disease or accidents. After a presentation about the organization's mission, conference attendees came together in teams to help build some of the limbs that will be distributed by Project Give A Hand to those who are in the greatest need. The groups worked collaboratively to assemble these critical tools while learning more about those needing this aid.

Staff assists attendees with registration (top). SMACNA, NECA and MCAA members used the session to engage and network with each other to build relationships (center). An attendee visits the booth of SMACNA Premier Partner Milwaukee Tool during the MEP Innovation Conference’s product show (bottom).

In addition to learning and networking, the conference served as an opportunity to recognize achievement in the MEP space. Each of the three associations recognizes an Innovator of the Year, an individual who sets the pace for embracing and incorporating new technology not only within their shop but also serves as an enthusiastic industry champion for encouraging their peers to push the envelope. Chris Hronek, Application Engineer with Tweet/Garot Mechanical based in De Pere, Wisconsin, was named SMACNA's 2024 Innovator of the Year. Hronek has earned a reputation for being a solutions-oriented individual who not only encourages his team to open themselves up to new ways of doing things but also serves as a mentor to his team and works with them to maximize how they interact with new tools. One of Hronek's passion projects at Tweet/Garot has been integrating digitized systems into the company's day-to-day operations. By encouraging his peers to adopt new methods of project planning, management and execution through further adoption of digital tools, Hronek has been a tireless advocate. Hronek's work is not limited to his work within Tweet/Garot. He is known as someone who works with other contractors in developing solutions to emerging challenges across the space and provides feedback to others in a collaborative manner. Finally, Hronek's work extends to the labor/management partnership as a member of SMART, where he works to find solutions to challenges beyond what might happen in the technology realm.  

The lessons learned at the MEP Innovation Conference will prove crucial as the trades strive to remain state-of-the-art in their processes and adoption of technology. As technology changes and evolves, the industry must do so as well.

Jennings elaborated on where she thinks the MEP trades are going, "The construction industry does not stand still. Just as duct, pipe and wires can be walled in during the construction process without proper planning, contractors too can be left behind without collaborating and innovating their processes — whether it's in the design phase, in their back-office procedures, in the fabrication shop, or on the job site. The MEP Innovation Conference provides attendees hands-on opportunities to collaborate, innovate and grow within the changing construction landscape."