There’s an old joke about Michelangelo in which he explains how he was able to create his enormous 6-ton, 17-foot-high sculpture of the young, biblical hero David: Michelangelo shrugs his shoulders and confesses, “I just chipped away everything that did not look like David.”

Although it is a joke, that explanation comes close to describing what Michelangelo actually did. From 1501 to 1504, he steadily carved away at a huge block of marble, in what could be regarded as a “subtractive” process: removing significant portions of the basic material on which he was laboring to configure it into the finished product that he wanted. The Renaissance sculptor was employing a method that parallels ways in which today’s ECs perform their work.

For the most part in project construction and service work, ECs subtract from a portfolio of materials to install them in the field. For example, conduit is cut, threaded and/or bent with tools and equipment right on the job site, often from a large supply of common dimensions. Depending on the size and type of wire or cable, electricians do what is required to measure, cut and terminate it in the field. With these and many other goods and commodities, in essence, electricians perform the final steps in the manufacturing of products to permit them to be put in place. This on-location customization is almost always subtractive.

On the flip side, there has been growing excitement about the development of a process known as “additive” manufacturing: 3-D printing. It converts computerized images of product components directly into physical form by building them up in microscopically thin layers, which, fused together in the process, make up the parts exactly as designed (imagine an inkjet printer that builds up off of the page). Additive manufacturing omits subtractive activities that are intermediate steps in traditional production.

Additive manufacturing is a boon to the development of one-off models that can serve as prototypes, produced in a fraction of the time normally required to take them from the design stage to tangible form for use in the field. Sample parts, with complex shapes that would present a daunting challenge to conventional pattern makers, can be brought to life quickly. This 3-D printing equipment also is at a smaller scale, so manufacturing “shops” do not require the infrastructure investment of a production line and could become an on-site process.

In a step beyond prototyping, industry visionaries foresee additive manufacturing as a game-changing phenomenon that will inspire a new wave of cottage industries in a digital-age reprise of the Industrial Revolution. Even more exciting is the promise of medical research currently underway to take on the challenges of producing organ tissue using additive processes.

In our observation of additive manufacturing, we see a set of fundamental premises that cry out for adoption in electrical construction, most especially with respect to service work. We see additive construction as an integral part of a contractor’s overarching offerings and services that covers the complete spectrum from technical design to installation and embraces its guiding principles from workplace safety to green building. Here are some highlights of our thinking:

  • Waste elimination: Additive construction takes away productivity-reducing factors. By pointing toward an overall goal of making every activity a positive addition to the end result, it will eliminate waste. One of the most celebrated collections of thought on the subject, the Toyota Production System, can be boiled down to one simple command: “Waste nothing!” Traditional construction—service work included—is rife with wasteful processes. Additive construction will, therefore, always amount to profitable business.
  • Schedule achievement: With additive construction principles governing them, large projects and service work alike will achieve their schedules both in terms of “quantity”—the amount of time required for individual activities, and in terms of “quality”—the timeframes in which they are conducted. If there are uncontrollable delay factors, such as weather problems, additive approaches—for example, having shop-fabricated subassemblies ready-to-go when needed—will compensate for hold-ups in a way that built-in-place installations could never permit. Lean construction currently attempts to tackle this issue, but more from the subtraction of redundant sequences and actions in the building process.
  • Building information modeling (BIM): As BIM gains a larger role in construction, including core principles of cost, schedule and quality, opportunities to mimic the kind of leap that 3-D printing takes from a digital design to a physical product will increase. The use of additive construction techniques will only provide a competitive edge for contractors needing to promote cost and schedule savings and maintain high levels of quality. Service work, and its longer term relationships with clients, provides a better argument for additive construction techniques.

 

“I just chipped away everything 
that did not look like David.”
— Michelangelo

In an effort to maintain perspective as we look to the future, we do not foresee that 3-D printers in a field office or trailer will generate custom-made switches and receptacles. However, we can easily imagine how ECs can increasingly shop-fabricate subassemblies for electrical systems because, thanks to that approach, not only will their put-in-place schedule be more readily assured, their contribution to green building methods will be increased many times over.

Furthermore, manufacturers who work with ECs to provide just-in-time scenarios will realize benefits to the bottom line of all involved. For example, Legrand North America’s FAS Power prefabricated electrical assemblies combined with Walkerflex modular wiring products can provide a set of customizable solutions to the project.

According to Steve Killius, vice president of Legrand’s Contractor Resource Group, “We can customize wiring systems to meet specific project needs and help contractors realize immediate savings.”

ECs will never achieve the full extent of profitability that is possible from electrical service work unless they focus on measures of productivity in their field service operations. Whereas new project construction is most often measured by its labor productivity, service work is valued by its problem-solving component. The principles that define additive construction are primary guideposts to predictable profits in electrical service work and have the potential to pave the way to additive processes for the entire industry.

 

ANDREW MCCOY is assistant professor in the College of Architecture and Urban Studies at Virginia Tech. Contact him at apmccoy@vt.edu. FRED SARGENT, a 40-year veteran of the electrical contracting business based in Pittsburgh, can be reached at fred@sargent.com.