For the past three years, the supply chain has been a rollercoaster for the architectural, engineering, and construction (AEC) industries — facing challenges, such as manufacturing disruptions, labor shortages, logistical issues, demand fluctuations, supply chain complexity, and regulatory hurdles. Some of these supply chain issues have been addressed, leading to a more stable and predictable environment for the AEC industry.

While some supply chains have indeed stabilized, it's important to highlight that the health care supply chain still grapples with critical challenges, particularly in the realm of switchgear packages and generator packages. These pieces of equipment are experiencing extended lead times, and the associated low-voltage power circuit breakers, in particular, are facing the longest delays, often surpassing a year from the time a purchase order is issued.

The disruptions caused by the pandemic initially jolted the supply chains, bringing to light the vulnerabilities of the widely embraced "just in time" method, where minimal inventory was deemed cost-effective and efficient. With the onset of COVID-19, even the simplest product supply chains faced breakdowns, leaving manufacturers and vendors scrambling for materials. This situation was likened to the struggles of securing basic necessities during the pandemic, but now it’s applied to the complexity of manufacturing and delivering sophisticated equipment like 2.5 MW generators.

The ECU Health Duplin Hospital power system replacement.
The ECU Health Duplin Hospital power system replacement.
Image courtesy of RMF Engineering

The heavy reliance on integrated circuits, mainly produced in Taiwan and China, posed additional challenges when restrictions on factory operations in China led to a rapid depletion of just-in-time supplies. These circumstances have put the health care industry in a critical position, necessitating innovative solutions to stabilize and fortify the supply chain for essential electrical systems.

How Disruptions are Affecting the Health care Industry

Supply chain challenges are significantly impacting the health care industry, forcing engineers and decision-makers to face complex dilemmas early in the design process with limited information at hand, since mechanical engineers aren't done with their work. For instance, the extended lead times for essential equipment, like generator packages and switchgear lineups, which typically take around 15 weeks, have now elongated to over 92 weeks. This situation is exacerbated by the fact that project specifications often undergo significant changes between the conceptual and detailed design stages, making it challenging to accurately size critical equipment. Additionally, time is being lost as the design matures to the point of size gear. Every delay in the equipment sizing during the mechanical engineers’ work leads to a delay or redo of the electrical engineer’s sizing. When program changes occur as a result from architectural changes, it creates a domino effect on both mechanical and electrical engineers’ work.

The Duke Health Generator Hub switchgear.
The Duke Health Generator Hub switchgear.
Image courtesy of Sterling E Stevens

In an attempt to meet project deadlines and avoid setbacks, health care facilities tend to order oversized equipment to accommodate potential changes or uncertainties. However, this practice results in excessive costs and inefficiencies. Oversized generators and switchgear lead to higher expenses on both upfront procurement and ongoing energy bills, contributing to a larger carbon footprint for health care facilities. Considering the health care sector is responsible for approximately 8% of global carbon emissions, this inefficiency has significant environmental implications, making medical facilities the most concerned about the environmental health impacts of carbon emissions.

The impact of these supply chain challenges is particularly severe for the health care industry due to its substantial reliance on specialized equipment, like generators, automatic transfer switches (ATSs), and paralleling switchgear/generators, to ensure continuous power supply — a critical necessity for medical facilities. Unlike other facilities that may not require such specialized electrical infrastructure, hospitals have their own code/legal standby power requirements that necessitate the use of reliable and high-capacity equipment.

How to work around delays

In the face of supply chain delays, engineers and architects can strategically navigate these challenges by fostering tighter collaboration between their electrical and mechanical teams. By encouraging the mechanical team to promptly finalize equipment sizes, engineers can expedite the downstream electrical processes, mitigating the impact of supply issues. While electrical systems often follow the lead of other trades, adopting a proactive approach can create a buffer against disruptions. There’s more than one way to wire a switch and more than one way to design a system.

One effective strategy to reduce lead times involves rethinking equipment choices. For instance, when faced with a client's request for a single large piece of equipment with a daunting 52-week lead time, our engineers explore alternatives. Given that smaller units tend to have shorter lead times, a successful solution could include ordering two smaller units that fulfill the same purpose. In such cases, our collaboration with manufacturers plays a pivotal role. They diligently review our designs and assist in identifying alternative equipment options that achieve the desired outcomes.

This is where having an open and ongoing dialogue with product and equipment manufacturers is particularly essential. An engineer's relationship with a manufacturer is not merely transactional; it's a partnership. By maintaining those lines of communication, we can stay better informed about new products and solutions being introduced and provide feedback on opportunities to fill gaps in the market. This relationship ensures that manufacturers are aware of any supply chain challenges we encounter and empowers them to adapt in real-time. Together, we work to bridge the gap between what's not working and what's needed, helping us overcome disruptions and deliver innovative strategies efficiently.

Additionally, engineers, architects, and medical planners can address the recurrent practice of last-minute alterations by advocating for early and stable communication with electrical engineers, avoiding unnecessary changes that prolong the design phase. This includes considering alternative solutions, such as used generators, often underutilized despite accumulating hours of run time primarily involving testing, which can serve as a resourceful option to alleviate the need for last-minute changes and even provide spare parts in a time crunch.

Recognizing the role of owners in exacerbating these delays, particularly those lacking familiarity with intricate project dynamics, underscores the importance of striking a balance between prudent budget considerations and the urgency of swift decision-making. A judicious blend of cost-consciousness and expeditious choices throughout the entire design and construction process is crucial for achieving projects that align with owners' aspirations for both cost-effectiveness and exceptional quality.

The AEC industry has witnessed a supply chain ride over the past three years. While the industry has managed to address many of these challenges, the health care sector continues to grapple with critical issues, particularly concerning generator and switchgear packages. The prolonged lead times for these essential components have forced health care facilities to make difficult decisions, often resulting in oversizing equipment to accommodate uncertainties. As the health care industry seeks to balance budget considerations with the critical need for reliable and high-capacity electrical systems, strategic decision-making becomes pivotal.

Eric Nimer, PE, LEED AP, PMP, CEM, is an electrical engineer and team lead for RMF Engineering - Georgia Buildings with experience primarily in health care, higher education, and governmental projects. He started his career as a master electrician (unrestricted). This experience provides him a unique awareness and insight into his engineering designs. His ability to connect the dots across the various areas of the design and construction process enables him to anticipate issues that might otherwise be overlooked. He is proficient in all phases of design and construction, including schematics, design development, construction documents, and construction administration. He has extensive knowledge of the design of normal and standby power distribution systems, interior and exterior lighting and lighting control systems, telephone and data systems, fire alarm systems, and special systems design in new and renovated facilities. Nimer’s passion extends beyond the industry and into local communities. He is a volunteer supervisor for Habitat for Humanity as well as delivering food for Open Hand Atlanta, which provides healthy food access to people in need.