Ten years ago, Miller Electric’s Prefabrication operations consisted of Prefab Operations Manager, Chris Nightser, a construction wireman, and a 3,000 square foot building. Prefab has grown considerably since then.
Today, Miller Electric has two prefab shops and a warehouse that together, occupy nearly 100,000 square feet. Two general foremen, six foremen and about 50 electricians, apprentices and construction wiremen (CWs) help keep Miller’s prefab operations humming. We caught up Chris to talk about all that’s changed over the past decade, the important role CWs play in the prefab shop, and some of the interesting applications that have passed through the prefab doors.
What’s changed (and what’s stayed the same)
Over the years, the number of people working in Miller’s prefab shop has fluctuated to as many as 80 to 100 people. As Miller’s project workload grew, so too did the need for prefab applications. Today, the warehouse, which didn’t exist a decade ago, is a critical component of project success.
“Having a warehouse allows us to deliver just-in-time shipping, which prevents theft and damage due to weather,” says Chris. “It also allows us to focus on documenting owner-supplied equipment and quality control in an ideal environment and make sure what we are shipping out is in great working order and ready for installation.”
One project that comes to mind involving the warehouse is the RiverFront Park projects in downtown Omaha. Chris says there’s nowhere to store the materials, or the hundreds of custom light poles, that project requires. So, the prefab shop pre-wires and assembles the poles, shipping them just in time for installation. The crew even had to outfit a custom trailer for the job.
“We can deliver 20 to 30 custom light poles a day with the trailer we modified to ship the poles. But it really makes a difference to the guys in the field and we’re happy to be part of helping keep that important project on schedule.” – Chris Nightser
Sustainability and Progress
Miller Electric’s prefab team manages all of the temporary lighting and power needs for every new and existing project. As Miller’s workload increased, so has the need for temporary power. The prefab shop builds power carts and Chris says that need quadrupled over the last four years.
A few years ago, Chris made the decision to move Miller’s temporary lighting to something safer and more cost and energy-efficient.
“It was an investment and a leap to go away from the traditional, old-school method we had used for temporary power for the past 100 years,” says Chris. “We used to use metal halide fixtures. Composed of glass and metal, they were very heavy, hot and dangerous. We had to constantly modify them to fit the available power onsite. Each site’s voltage needs required rewiring. By moving to LED lights, our power carts are cooler, lighter and safer. They’re only one-fourth the weight and we never have to rewire them.”
Chris says under the old approach, only nine or ten lights could be put on an electrical circuit. The new carts allow for up to nearly 30. The old metal fixtures were also broken down and recycled. And, they use less energy, which is helpful from a sustainability perspective.
Challenging Projects Create Learning Opportunities
The prefab shop is always soliciting ideas for parts that can be prefabbed, and regularly implement ideas from the field. They also appreciate the opportunities that challenging projects bring, because workers’ skillsets are expanded and refined in the process.
The custom light poles necessary for the RiverFront project were one such challenge.
“Our team learned a lot making those light poles. Every CW, journeyman electrician and foreman had to learn something new,” says Chris. “Understanding the system that controls the dimming and color-changing capabilities on the poles was imperative. Each pole talks to a network through multiple wires. While typical poles have three wires, these had five unique lights, each with five wires, on them. Some had dimming and some didn’t; some were electronically controlled while others were controlled traditionally. Overall, we grew and learn through the opportunity and now have more to offer future projects than we did before.”
CWs Grow and Learn in the Prefab Shop
Speaking of learning on the job, the prefab shop has become an ideal place for construction wiremen, who are new to the electrical trade, to learn and grow.
“We treat them just like apprentices and other electricians. We train them as if they were apprentices,” Chris says. “The role is significant, because they can try out the trade and advance their career before fully committing to an apprenticeship program. CWs get to learn a lot about the trade, including the basics that an apprentice would.”
Chris likes to remind people considering Miller Electric’s Construction Wireman program that they don’t need any electrical experience to join the program. The tools, methods and materials they’ll encounter are more basic than what they’ll see on a construction site, and they get to explore the trade in a well-lit, controlled, ergonomic environment with closer supervision. Chris offers conduit bending as an example of how a stint in the prefab shop can shape an electrician’s career.
“We use the large bender for conduit frequently here. That’s something you might not be exposed to in the field,” says Chris. “But getting the chance to use it here helps them understand it for the rest of their career. They’ll know how to order it and what terminology to use to get what they need.”
In the last decade, hundreds of CWs have gone through the prefab shop and entered the apprenticeship program. Chris estimates that about 100 of them have become apprentices.
“It’s a great option for anyone, especially if you have been out of high school for a few years and are exploring your options,” says Chris. “If working with your hands comes naturally to you, try the CW program and earn while you learn.”
A Bright Future Lies Ahead
As Chris looks forward to the next ten years, he’s excited about what the future holds for prefab.
“I’m confident we’ll continue innovating and creating ways to enable a safer, more cost-effective work environment. I’m grateful to be part of it and look forward to what we’ll accomplish together.”