It will be easy to get exactly what you want in the 24th century. Just speak clearly into the Replicator. Then, after a two-second whirl, there’s your “Tea. Earl Grey. Hot” just as you ordered. At least, that’s what the Star Trek fans say.


On CNN’s public affairs show, “Fareed Zakaria GPS,” Neil Gershenfeld, director of MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms, said recently that we may have something similar perfected within 20 years. Zakaria and Gershenfeld were talking about digital fabrication made possible by 3-D printing.


An article in this magazine in December explains that 3-D printing “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.” This is also known as “additive manufacturing” because it’s based on the idea of building up a product, tiny bit by tiny bit, rather than starting with a block or sheet of material and then removing the material that isn’t needed.


The first working 3-D printer was created in 1984, and practical uses for this technology have been found. Some high-end, decorative fixture manufacturers, for example, use it for rapid prototyping, but what really gets progressive thinkers excited is the prospect of advances that may soon enable anyone to create almost anything on demand.


This summer, NECA’s blog (energysolutions.necanet.org) mentioned the possibility of printing our own lighting fixtures in the future. This magazine first discussed the process as long ago as 2000 and as recently as December 2012’s Service and Maintenance column (www.ecmag.com/smdec12). While these articles didn’t go so far as to predict that all electrical contractors will keep 3-D printers in their field offices so they can custom-print receptacles and switches on demand, they did look forward to such benefits as ECs increasingly shop-fabricating preassemblies for electrical systems.


We can easily imagine that because so many contractors are already participating in the prefabrication of outlet boxes with raceway and cable attached and cut to length, temporary power supply units, lighting fixtures, precut cable and other components. The companies I am involved with got into prefabrication several years ago. I can attest that it offers significant benefits to us and our customers—including significantly reduced project duration, improved productivity, improved quality, reduced labor needs and costs, improved safety, and substantial reduction in lost and wasted materials. Many other ECs have discovered that off-site manufacturing provides greater assurance of quality, delivery and cost after reading an ELECTRI International-published research report providing best practices on prefabrication for electrical contractors.


What prefabrication most obviously has in common with digital fabrication is that they are both forms of prework, referring to activities that take place off the construction site. However, they also share something with several other concepts we have been hearing more about in recent years, including (but not limited to) lean construction, building information modeling, integrated project delivery and design/build. That is, they involve electrical contractors collaborating with the project team, so they can better satisfy customers’ demands to keep costs down and maintain budgets, meet deadlines faster, avoid potential pitfalls and deliver a quality product.


Of course, one major difference between prefabrication and digital fabrication is that the former is available right now to help you boost productivity and profitability (though some staff education and training on this topic may be needed), and the latter is a very interesting development to watch so you can possibly take advantage of it when the time is right.


The ELECTRI (EI) report on prefabrication notes that, “as the construction industry continues to face challenges such as labor shortages, fast-track project demands, and increasingly complex projects, contractors are adopting innovative approaches to construction.” Our research foundation has documented many of these innovative approaches through nearly 100 publications that are available from the store at necanet.org. Also, each issue of this magazine is practically a primer on new and emerging trends as well as practical ways to improve your company’s profitability on the job every day. Furthermore, NECA’s family of websites provides more information that you can apply, immediately or in the future. The educational events hosted by our association, including our convention and tradeshow, enable ECs to bring the learning home.


And, that’s actually the point of this column. NECA, ELECTRICAL­ CONTRACTOR and EI really are the best sources of industry information and education. They even scooped CNN! So I urge you to take advantage of what they offer. That’s how you can make sure that new trends and innovations—and new opportunities—don’t pass you by. That’s how you grow your business!