Flood recovery rush inspired piping workflow software, new venture


By Dave DeWitte

CEDAR RAPIDS—A new Corridor software company is introducing its first product this spring, inspired by the accelerated business demands the flood of 2008 placed on the Corridor’s largest mechanical contractor.

FabPro, a division of Modern Companies in Cedar Rapids, launched its FabPro 1 workflow software in beta last month, providing mechanical contractors with a powerful set of tools for tracking, pricing and reprioritizing work, and communicating with clients.

The 2008 floods on the Iowa and Cedar rivers left hundreds of commercial, education and government buildings underwater for days. When the waters receded, Modern Companies was left with a backlog of work replacing damaged boilers, installing new heating and air conditioning systems, and fabricating entire mechanical systems for replacement buildings.

Some of the biggest projects did not get underway until several years after the flood. Modern Companies has recently served as mechanical contractor on the new Hancher Auditorium at the University of Iowa, the DoubleTree by Hilton in downtown Cedar Rapids and an Alliant power station. At the same time, it has been handling mechanical systems for the new University of Iowa Children’s Hospital and a major project at General Mills’ plant in Cedar Rapids.

“That was a significant jump in volume for us,” said Britton Langdon, director of support operations and business development for Modern Companies. “The way to increase your capacity is to increase your productivity.”

Modern Companies bought and renovated the former Sign Productions building at 500 Walford Road SW in Cedar Rapids in 2014 to provide more space for offsite fabrication of piping in a secure, climate-controlled environment. The new location provided about triple the fabrication space of Modern Companies’ former facility at 1919 Dodge Road NE.

The many advantages of offsite fabrication include protection from bad weather and space conflicts with other building trades working on the same construction site. The piping is assembled in “spools” – large assemblies of piping that are still manageable enough to be transported by truck – and lifted into place on the job site with a crane.

But coordination of offsite and onsite work became, if anything, more difficult after the move. There was a greater need to coordinate what was going on in the fabrication shop with what was going on at the project site.

Mr. Langdon joined Modern Companies in 2013 after five years as territory manager for Victaulic Co., a global producer of pipe joining systems, and had a background in efficiency products for the piping industry.

“We built this [FabPro 1] really for our own use,” he said. “At the Mechanical Contractors of America Association fabrication conference in April 2014, they asked us to speak about what Modern Piping was doing with software in our shop.”

After Modern Companies’ 30-minute presentation, many of the contractors in attendance wanted to know when the software would be available. The immediate interest inspired Modern Companies to develop the software not just for in-house use, but as a commercial product, and to create a new business unit, FabPro, to manage it.

Mr. Langdon recently returned from Virginia, where he trained first of four mechanical contractors serving as beta users of the new software. For many customers, the new software will replace cumbersome Excel spreadsheets generated and distributed daily to track projects.

With FabPro 1, Mr. Langdon said customers can upload their isometric drawings for their piping systems directly into the software system. They can see exactly where each piping assembly is in the fabrication process, and how much longer it will take to complete. They can also reprioritize projects within limits, to ensure that the piping will arrive on the project site in the order it is needed.

“The ability to reorder and reprioritize for a customer is huge,” Mr. Langdon said. Whereas once such requests had to be channeled through multiple layers of project workers and managers, the customer can use FabPro 1 to do it instantly from a mobile device or their computer.

“Any customer can see where the product is in the process and ultimately when it will be completed,” Mr. Langdon said.

Modern Companies partnered with a software developer to write the code, and is partnering with a value added reseller of computer products to take it to market. Pricing has not been released.

The potential market for FabPro is surprisingly large.

“There are 16,000 CAD [computer-aided design] guys designing piping,” Mr. Langdon said. “But it [FabPro 1] can function in many markets. It can function in manufacturing. An electrical contractor is very interested in it for electrical kits.”

With the benefits of off-site fabrication, Mr. Langdon said it could drive more productivity improvements for Modern Companies and its industry.

“We’re still learning ourselves,” Mr. Langdon said. “FabPro is one of those things that is really going to help push us in that direction.”