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Concern Rises Over Services Becoming Highly Commoditized
April 21, 2011

Many design industry services are becoming highly commoditized, with builders and architects often treating certain types of engineering services as merchandise, practitioners proclaim in a recent issue of The Zweig Letter, ZweigWhite’s weekly management publication.

Most agree that technology is perhaps the biggest culprit, with services that once required a specialized hand now easily performed by non-technical—and often outsourced—workers.

Gregory DiFrank, president of consulting engineering firm River Consulting, LLC in Columbus, Ohio, told TZL that while parts of the engineering field are already commoditized, others will never be. “I view the engineering industry as a continuum of services, an ‘engineering food chain’ if you will,” he said, “with lower value services at one end and higher value services at the other. At the low end, we have basic CAD drafting, manpower augmentation, single discipline detail design, and other services that have been offshored for years.

“So how do you fight commoditization at the lower levels of the food chain?” he continued. “You can start with service and value.”

Others told TZL that they believe the industry is becoming increasingly commoditized, often by its own design.

“Structural engineering has become a commodity in many people’s minds, largely through the actions of our own profession,” said Joshua Carney, president of Carney Engineering Group in York, Penn. “Through delegating of responsibility to others, and unwillingness to be accountable for the quality of the work we do, the structural engineering profession has hit rock bottom. The level of expectation is so low that anyone, including outsourced and international low-cost firms, can provide essentially the same finished product.”

Economic pressures are also to blame, says Stuart Jacobson, president of Stuart K. Jacobson & Associates, Ltd., a consulting structural and forensic engineering firm in Northbrook, Ill. “Our experience of the past few years is that the general public, as well as many architects and developers, are looking to buy engineering services based upon low ‘bid’ alone,” he said. “Except when there are two low ‘bids’ that are close to one another, they will consider past relationships and qualifications secondarily. Being a very slow time in the construction industry, engineers and architects as well as contractors are shopping the bottom line on almost every project.”

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