Amidst persistent supply chain challenges affecting data center construction, implementing flexible planning, transparent communication, and client-centric strategies is crucial to keeping critical projects on track.
In September 2022, a major data center operator based in the western suburbs of Chicago was facing a dilemma that has become all too common in today’s climate.
The delivery of the power distribution units, or PDUs, the operator relied on to keep centers running was extremely late, delaying the opening of a new 185K SF facility. This delay was costing time and money and keeping clients from gaining access to the data storage they needed.
Thankfully, Clune could offer solutions. Over the last few years, Clune has adopted strategies for overcoming the supply chain issues that have been plaguing data center construction.
After the client decided to select an alternative brand of PDUs in case its preferred choice didn’t arrive, Clune Senior Vice President and Senior MEP Coordinator Joe Zobel and his team devised a plan to prep the location so they could work with either solution.
“We needed to accommodate multiple choices,” Zobel said. “This way if our client were to change their minds on which equipment to install, there would not be any cost impact. It gave them the freedom to make the right decision for their facility.”
He added that there were 75 of these units, so it would have been very costly and time-consuming for this data center client if an adjustment to its new facility was needed to accommodate a last-minute decision to go with a different solution. Having freedom like this has become particularly important for data center operators, who have been dealing with significant project delays since the pandemic began, which led to major supply chain disruptions.
While these disruptions have impacted every asset class, Zobel said that they can be particularly devastating for data centers, which are mission-critical facilities that can cost companies thousands of dollars for every second they aren’t operational.
“As soon as construction is completed, data centers can net a lot of income for our clients,” he said. “So if there are delays and they can’t receive a month or two of rent from their clients, it can be significant. It can also make those who are renting the space consider other options.”
The Clune team has decades of combined data center experience, so it is uniquely positioned to understand these challenges and devise strategies to overcome them. In recent years, these strategies have included developing new workflows to minimize the impact of delays.
When Clune is awarded a project, its team analyzes the specified equipment and materials and is upfront with the client about the lead times it can expect for these items. If necessary, it proposes alternatives that can be purchased immediately to ensure the best price.
“We adjust the bidding process to reflect what we are seeing in the design and the potential delays that may arise from it,” Zobel said. “We view our clients as partners, and the more we collaborate with them and understand what needs to happen and by what date, the better we can meet their schedule.”
Zobel’s role as mechanical, electric and plumbing, or MEP, coordinator at Clune has also evolved as the company continues to work to meet its data center clients’ needs. He said that while Clune has always partnered with clients and taken responsibility for the equipment, now, when there appears to be no end in sight for supply chain delays, the team is going above and beyond to ensure clients are getting the materials they need.
“We have weekly calls with all vendors and we get into every detail of their fabrication schedule. This helps confirm that they have all the necessary parts from their vendors to build the equipment,” Zobel said. “If they are having trouble obtaining a part, we then get on the phone with the engineer of record to decide if we can recommend an alternative to keep the flow going.”
His team also includes its trade partners on these calls to discuss installation methods with the vendors. The goal is to make sure that all parties completely understand how everything should be installed so Clune is aware of and can prepare for any changes that must be made at the factory.
Zobel said that in the past, factory witness tests where the Clune team would go and personally test every piece of equipment being manufactured were common practice. These visits can be expensive, and over the years, clients stopped requiring them. Now, however, as supply chain issues persist, Clune has brought this practice back, letting clients know which pieces of equipment are worth the trip to test in person.
“Sometimes it’s because the information we’re receiving from the factory isn’t clear,” he said. “Other times, there are elements that could potentially pose field-related challenges if we don’t verify it prior to their arrival at our site. Our motto in these scenarios is, ‘Trust, but verify.’”
As a result, Zobel said Clune and its factory partners have been able to strengthen their relationships. In the past, vendors have occasionally tried to resolve minor issues before sharing the problem with Clune or its clients, he explained.
“We have created an environment so if they have to, they are able to give us bad news, even if the bad news is only a possibility. This way we can decide if we need to make a change in the field,” Zobel said. “There’s no penalty. We just want the truth. The more we know, the better we can mitigate the problem.”
He said that to better plan for the future and the likelihood of continued supply delays, Clune is developing a database of lessons learned and things to look for, so it has more details to share with its partners and its teams across the country.
“The more information we have, the more tools we gain to help us make the best decisions for our clients,” he said.
Written in collaboration with Julia Troy, Bisnow.