How to Plan for Metal Fabrication Lead Time

by | Jun 7, 2018 | metal fabrication

What is the typical metal fabrication lead time for custom architectural and miscellaneous (commercial) metals?

The “Amazon Now Effect” on Metal Fabrication Lead Times

Today’s fast pace world expects everything right now. Amazon adds to this mindset with their same day shipping. I call this expectation of thinking ‘everything can be had in your hands at your command’—the “Amazon Now Effect.” Seemingly, this effect finds a way into the metal fabrication industry, as expectations are built by our typical day-to-day environments.

Taking this thought into consideration is necessary to build good working relationships with vendors, subcontractors, employees, and clients.

Why is the “Amazon Now Effect” important? People’s expectations may be set to a different level than what a supplier can provide. The custom metal fabrication industry is often a misunderstood industry for lead times. Usually, the metal fabrication process requires weeks to draw / engineer / fabricate, depends on timelines of other subcontractors, and client approvals, wheareas Amazon supplies on-the-shelf-ready-made items.

How to Balance Metal Fabrication Lead Times and Working Relationships

The key to balancing lead times requires management of expectations, and understanding implications in all areas of expertise outside of your own. For instance, miscellaneous metals may be small in comparison to the rest of the building structure, but those items may require more detailed upfront work to ensure ease-of-fit at the installation phase. As an example, a recent steel stair project had one inch of wiggle room at the concept phase of the building, and dropped to a ½ inch of wiggle room during the build phase. This becomes precisely important when you’re installing at high rise buildings. Imagine the amount of additional design, fabrication, and installation planning that has to go into place to fit into this gap of tolerance. This takes either an expert team, familiarity with all trades, good communication, and/or a big leap of faith. Midwest Stairs & Iron relies on the expert team, good communication, familiarity with all trades, and leaves the big leap of faith for the lowest cost metal fabricators.

A few recommendations for balancing lead time and working relationships:

  • Proactively manage expectations
  • Build a schedule at the project start
  • Seek to understand the pressures your client faces to get their job done
  • Work together to identify efficiencies
  • Keep the client informed of expected lead times
  • Mutually work out an agreeable lead time
  • Consistently aware the client of approaching deadlines and potential constraints
  • Have empathy to understand perspectives
  • Eliminate assumptions
  • Translate the needs to the rest of the team

What is the average lead time for metal fabrication?

The average lead time for metal fabrication can change daily. If you have a project during the winter months, lead time can be much shorter than during the fast paced construction time of spring and summer. Here is a snapshot on what the lead time process can look like for metal fabrication (note: this is just an example as lead times are dependent on many factors):

  • Design conceptual drawings— 1 – 2 weeks
  • Engineering review— 4 days – 1 week
  • Submittals (conceptual drawings) / client approval— 3 days – 1 week
  • Design changes / re-design conceptual / re-submittal / client re-approval— 1 – 3 weeks
  • Await building status— varied
  • Field measuring— 3 days
  • Design shop drawings— 1 – 2 weeks
  • Order material— 1 day
  • Material lead time— 3 days – 1 week
  • Fabrication— 1 week – 2 weeks
  • Finishing— 3 days
  • Installation— 3 days – 1 week

With these lead predictions in mind, you’re looking at about a minimum of 8 weeks lead time for custom metal fabrication items. Many factors can affect lead times, so it’s always best to ask the Estimator for expected lead time during bid, and expect the lead time to change at the contract phase (especially if you’ve made a decision to move forward during spring time—in Wisconsin.)

Of course, if you have a really tight time frame, and budget is no object, anyone will get the project done, and we’ve had our share of miracles. The benefit of understanding needs and lead times of all parties helps ensure happier employees, mitigates accident risk, increases quality, meets or beats the construction budget, and proactively preps for any unforeseen circumstances (ability to use a contingency plan.)


Typical Factors that Add Lead Time:

  • Contract and scope approval timing
  • Limited information on architectural drawings
  • Holdups on approvals
  • Change orders
  • Multiple changes during design process
  • Adjustments by other subcontractors on the job site
  • Vendor (e.g. finishing, raw material) lead times
  • Number of projects occurring at the same time
  • Seasons of spring and summer
  • Number of skilled staff

For example, you’ve heard the construction industry faces a shortage of few skilled tradespeople. This is one area that’s greatly affecting all lead times within trades and manufacturing. We count Midwest Stairs & Iron lucky to retain a good base of highly skilled individuals who have met aggressive lead times countless times. Sure, they might shout a few obscenities in the shop, but at the end of the day, they’ve sacrificed personal and family time to get the job done. To further shorten lead times, we’re investing in infrastructure areas such as the Python X CNC machine, steel industry detailing / project management software, and staff training. All of this in place will allow better JIT delivery, optimize the supply chain, and satisfy more rush orders. Additionally, ownership of transport trucks improves time management and reduces use of outside transportation markup.

Suggestions for the Best Budget Number and Best Lead Time

Here are some helpful suggestions that can help you get the best budget number and best lead time for your construction projects:

  • Ability to accept completed metal fabrication at any time
  • An idea of construction timeline, with adequate lead time
  • Flexibility in design to balance time, quality, and price
  • Accurate drawings and specifications (initial drawing drafts or parts of drawings for a quick estimate will quickly lead to inaccuracies and assumptions)

Do you need a quote for an upcoming project? Here is a list of useful items to get started:

  • Architectural Drawings (pictures of existing conditions are helpful; hand drawn/self-fabricated drawings are ok, if you provide well detailed and accurate measurements)
  • Measurements
  • Predicted Need By Date
  • Scope of Work (e.g. number of risers, number of runs)
  • Stairs—# of risers; # of flights; # of intermediate landings; if requesting floor landings (how many); surrounding wall construction
  • Rails—steel or aluminum; if glass, what is the framing; type of rail (e.g. strand, picket, cable, other); length; quantities of rail runs
  • Location
  • Supply / Install or Supply Only
  • Photos (e.g. existing building, design idea)