The Steelwork Fabricator

One of my key aims writing for this site is to try to explain what makes the role of a consultant engineer different to that of one at a fabricator. To get at this we must first look at how the two types of company operate. There is a single question which allows us to get quickly to the heart of the matter: how does each type of business make their money?

The key deliverable, the thing that you pay your money to a Consultant Engineer for, is information. You pay them for expertise, and they provide you with drawings, reports, specifications, letters, statements and expert advice. This information is then turned over to other professionals who may use it to construct a building or other type of structure.

The key deliverable of a steelwork fabricator is, unsurprisingly, fabricated steel. A client approaches you with the requirement of having the structural steel frame of a building erected where it is desired, when it is desired, and your job as a fabricator is to provide this, for a price.

But from an engineer’s point of view, here is where it gets interesting.

It is interesting because a client will approach you with a set of drawings already provided by a consultant engineer showing by and large, a completed design. A small team of consultants may have worked for months, sometimes years on a scheme design, represented in, for example, 30 or 40 drawings but it is presented to us as an opportunity to do what we do best: to take those drawings and try to come up with something better as an alternative.

And let’s be honest, what that really means, is to come up with something cheaper. 
Before we go down that particular rabbit hole, it is only right that I explain a little about the two broad routes a contract in this business can go down. The typical mix of the two types of contract vary over time depending on the economy, and the types of work in the market, but it’s near enough 50/50 for the purposes of this series.

Traditional Contract

Fabricators call these “Engineered” contracts.  In a traditional contract, the Consultant Engineer retains all design responsibility apart from connection design - more on that later. Those 30 or 40 drawings I mentioned above form the basis of the contract, and the fabricator is engaged to supply the steelwork shown on those drawings to the client; fabricated, connected and erected. 

Design and Build Contract

This is the type of contract I alluded to previously - fabricators usually refer to them as “D&B” contracts. Our engineers take on board the engineer’s drawings, their loading schedules, their specification and crucially a similar set of documents from the project architect, as well as other things such as end user specifications. They then have a handful of weeks in which to:


  1. Assess whether or not there are any changes that can be foreseeably made to a scheme to generate any savings significant enough to warrant doing the work in the first place.
  2. Assuming a route to cost savings has been established, effectively redesign the whole building, whilst not deviating radically from what the architect expects. Our new, cheaper structure will still have to fit into the zones pre-established by the architect.
  3. Price up the work, including the costs of (to name but a few items) running one or more factories, office overheads, materials, fabrication labour, profit.
  4. Prepare and submit a detailed quote, giving sufficient information to give confidence to the client that we have not missed out any vital details, but hopefully vague enough to stop our design being easily copied by a rival should the client want to pass our quote around to get a better price.
  5. Be prepared to chase the work, via phone calls, emails and meetings to do their best to satisfy any queries the client has, whilst making sure the quote is revised to reflect any changes brought to light since first submission.

You can see that an engineer working on winning Design and Build work at a fabricator is required to fill two major roles, and juggle a minor third one. The major roles are that of engineer and estimator. The minor is a sales role. We are typically juggling two or three of these roles at any given time, and to pull back the curtain slightly I also have a managerial role, and a somewhat accidental role as IT triage support. 

Working at a fabricator is an exercise in furious, existential plate spinning. It is however, very, very rewarding.

To finish - If you have been reading closely, you may have spotted me gloss over something that you might question thus: if it took a small team of consultants many months to design something in the first place, how then can one person replicate something similar in just a few weeks? Next topic: time, deadlines, and fitting it all in.