Tech disruption can be a scary phrase. It can feel too fast, too soon. Break through the anxiety, however, and technology can ease and improve processes and performance. For the electrical contractor, maybe the time is ripe for a little disruption.


“Disruptive technology is good disruption,” said Tim Speno, president and CEO, E2E Summit, a firm that brings together contractors and innovators. “E2E works to match the latest technologies with contractors seeking new ways to do their jobs better and stay ahead of the curve.”


However, Speno admits emergent technology does disrupt the status quo.


“It’s new, and maybe intimidating, but know that change is inevitable and disruption can bring positive change to how people work and safely work,” he said.


Speno often uses an analogy showing an image of a World War II soldier contrasted with today’s soldier, who is more technologically geared for efficiency and success.


“I challenge the audience and show them what a tradesperson of the future could look like and engage a discussion in how we need to define that person,” he said. “Embracing technology is part of being more productive. If you don’t do it, assume your competition will.”


Promising tech today


Joey Shorter, Ph.D., director of research for the National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA) and executive director of ELECTRI International, heads The Project for Applied and Disruptive Technology. Like Speno, he believes new technology should be welcomed, not feared.


“LED is a clear example of a recent disruptive technology where attention needs to be paid not only due to its quickening adoption and energy efficiency but the role it now plays in advancing building controls,” Shorter said. “Today, you ignore LEDs at your own risk.”


Looking ahead, Shorter sees three developing technologies that could benefit ECs. Augmented reality is one.


“Augmented reality is inherent in the name,” he said. “Like virtual reality, you wear headsets or goggles. But here’s the difference. Say you’re on a job site facing a building design problem. Design team partners can conference in with you through your headset and see what you are seeing. They can help troubleshoot by projecting a useful design overlay to what you see through your headset. Maybe that overlay is pulled from a BIM design or other resource. Together, you might craft a solution in real time.”


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Augmented reality has already been introduced on some job sites. Safety, however, may be a consideration. Incorporating sensors in an augmented reality helmet to alert users to dangers—such as vehicles nearby—may be necessary.


Other wearable tech might be woven into the fabric of clothes such as worker vests. This fall, Levi Strauss & Co. plans to introduce wearable tech denim jackets woven with Jacquard conductive yarns. The smart jacket could interact with your smartphone by the touch of your sleeve.


“Wearable tech could also have GPS capability, allowing others to find you on the job site,” Shorter said. “It could be used medically to track if someone is incapacitated or in danger of heat stroke or experiencing low blood-sugar levels. It could capture worker habits and identify peak productivity periods to better plan job site manpower.”


Such tech capability also comes with unique considerations.


“With biometrics, privacy and worker rights questions arise,” Speno said. “It becomes a larger discussion in how much do you monitor a worker and how are you using the information gathered? Such technology requires a level of trust and partnership between employer and employee.”


Big data is a third disruptive technology. Shorter sees it through the lens of project opportunity.


“ECs should pay attention to data-center projects,” he said. “Big centers are employing hundreds during construction with additional opportunities for maintenance and service agreements longer term.”


From another perspective, ECs can glean all sorts of helpful information using big data gathered through smart devices and filtered through the right software, leading to improved business operations, processes and, ultimately, customer satisfaction.


When tools become smart


Milwaukee Tool, Brookfield, Wis., has created a platform of smart tools and software called One-Key. Embraced by early adopters, One-Key combines tool electronics with a custom cloud-based system, so tool operation and user preferences, such as power settings, can sync with smartphone software. The integrated tool-tracking system uses “Tick” trackers to help locate lost tools. Stolen tools can be deactivated.


Milwaukee Tool hopes to double the number of One-Key-enabled tools in 2018—currently there are 20—and eventually make all of its products smart-tool capable. 


“[Bluetooth] opened the floodgates to other capabilities, such as tracking tools, security and asset management,” said Christian Coulis, vice president of product management, Milwaukee Tool. “These smart tools actually gain value once they are owned as we update their software and apps every six weeks, often sooner. Their data can be mined by contractors to discover tool usage patterns, tool condition and needed recalibration.


“On a weekly basis, thousands upon thousands of inputs are being made into the inventory management functions of these products. The popularity of this capability was unexpected and has taken off with customers. Milwaukee Tool is now retaining app developers. Five years ago, that was unimaginable. We now have server managers and engineers with radio frequency [RF] expertise. Our hope is to lead the change to a more technologically adapted construction workplace,” he said.


Distribution advances


In May 2017, Graybar, based in St. Louis, opened its Innovation Lab at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Located within Research Park, an incubator campus for startup companies, Graybar is one of 100-plus companies using the campus as an off-site think tank, tapping the skills of faculty members and students.


“The campus has strong data-analytics and supply-chain programs, which interested us,” said Dave Meyer, vice president and CIO, Graybar. “We have teams of technical and business students figuring out how to leverage disruptive technologies. We want to explore and gain insights on technologies that enhance what we do and make life easier for our customers.”


Graybar wants to “smooth the supply chain,” which includes an inventory with hundreds of thousands of product SKU numbers.


“We want to close the gaps,” Meyer said. “Disruptive technology may get us there. Big data is a good example. Analyzing the data we gather is helping us consider how to better automate our warehousing operation. Better product distribution extends to making ordering and reordering seamless for a contractor at the office or job site. We’re building prototypes around mobile sensor-type technology to help us. We’ve also adopted internet of things technology, incorporating geo-fencing to track our truck fleet and potentially allow customers to follow their delivery.”


With trade industries increasingly recognizing the value of disruptive technology, Shorter said it is the technologically skilled and savvy workforce that will win the day.


“Our industry needs more and better workers,” he said. “To do that, it has to be tied to disruptive technologies that attract and build a needed workforce, advance the construction profession as a whole, and, ultimately, contemporize the electrical profession.”