Imagine a day when electrical contractors or suppliers can manufacture the components, tools, even cable they needed on a construction site with a 3-D printer. A CAD drawing of a part would be all they require to simply print the part—even a specialized part—using a process also known as additive manufacturing (AM). It still sounds like science fiction, and while it’s not happening quite yet, it’s not far from reality.
There are obvious advantages to using the technology. Having 3-D printing on a construction site could mean components would be available as needed with less staging, eliminated waits and less hauling. Even if the work is done off-site, the process could enable just-in-time deliveries and mass-production of custom parts when needed.
In the meantime, 3-D printing is making other inroads that are no longer so futuristic, and the technology has already had an impact on the construction industry and electrical contracting. The deployment and benefits are coming in stages.
ECs should have three levels of interest in 3-D printing, said Kenny Aron, engineering director for architecture and innovation, Schneider Electric, Andover, Mass. ECs should consider how it affects their lives today and what it could mean in the next few years. The long-term future—the one in which ECs may be printing their own tools and equipment—is still many years out.
Delphi, Molex, Schneider Electric and TE Connectivity are electrical component suppliers that are using 3-D printing for some prototyping applications.
As Schneider Electric builds its own tools, it uses 3-D printing to create mockups that contractors can test. Pieces include variations of existing tools, such as components that might hold assemblies in place or that are included in utility junction boxes.
Pieces manufactured by 3-D printing are not necessarily plastic anymore. Ceramic and metal parts are also being built with AM. Aron likened the necessary materials to a shoe box full of copper or other metal powder. They can be molded into devices that are fully functional with moving parts (think of a crescent wrench, which is already being 3-D printed). Also, the copper in parts can be conductive, so it can theoretically create a fully functioning electrical system.
Contractors who participate in of Schneider Electric’s research have already seen these parts and used them, Aron said. They typically receive the 3-D printed prototypes and put them through their paces to ensure the developed idea works, before the part is manufactured the standard way and in large volume.
The realities of cost and quality are keeping 3-D printing off of construction sites, at least for now.
“It’s always better and cheaper to make it the traditional way,” Aron said.
The complexities of some parts that make an electrical system limit 3-D printing. Technically, it’s feasible for parts to be built by and for contractors as needed, even on the job site. But most parts still require reforging, or other multistep processes, which is more than a typical construction site can accommodate affordably. For more complex parts, Aron said each part has to be engineered specifically.
Despite the current shortcomings, Aron is impressed with the technology’s potential.
“3-D printing has moved as fast as any new technology I’ve seen,” Aron said. “The question is, how fast will they be able to make it affordable?”
Manufacturing electrical components
Most of the existing AM technology growth is in manufacturing, especially in industries such as aerospace. Boeing, for example, has been 3-D printing some parts for years. As manufacturers further use and refine the process to make simple components that are part of systems and tools, the items can be produced faster and at a lower cost. That savings could be passed on to the EC buying those parts.
“In the next 5–10 years, you’ll see measurable penetration in manufacturing,” Aron said. “The consensus is that 3-D printing will still be centered around spare parts [for the coming years].”
[SB]That’s especially true for contractors, since the quality of their products and tools matter as much as or more than cost.
Manufacturers use 3-D printing for prototyping, optimizing and, most recently, actual manufacturing. Some of the parts they make are electrical or electronic.
For instance, Optomec, Albuquerque, N.M., has developed Aerosol Jet printing technology that effectively produces 3-D printed electronics, said Natasa Mrazovic, Stanford University researcher and Ph.D. candidate at the university’s Center for Integrated Facility Engineering. It uses the additive manufacturing process to produce conductive, dielectric, semiconductor and biologic inks onto a variety of 2-D or 3-D plastic as well as ceramic and metallic substrates.
Her research focuses on developing a systematic method for those in the electrical engineering and EC industries to evaluate the choice between AM and conventional manufacturing to produce specific building components as needed.
“The potential of 3-D printed electronics for buildings is unlimited,” Mrazovic said. “Imagine 3-D printed materials for any product, building components, as well, with the 3-D printed layers of sensors. The material becomes alive.”
Once construction-based printing is established, Mrazovic speculates that the 3-D manufacturing of parts and supplies on construction sites will be more likely to occur at nearby service provider facilities and then transported to a construction site. That could change if the transportation and operation of 3-D printing technologies to a construction site is realistic.
AM is poised to offer contractors many benefits, first and foremost might be the faster and more accurate construction. That reduces labor costs and the potential for waste that results from ordering more inventory than needed for a construction site. Also, it could be potentially beneficial to the environment since products can be made from recycled materials. Contractors could also save the cost of staging a large amount of equipment on-site, although the printer itself would require space.
Challenges for 3-D construction market
The challenges to adopting AM include the high manufacturing costs for materials, technology and production and the lack of information about its value to those who would be using the process, Mrazovic said. In fact, educating the industry about the existence of the technology and the ultimate benefits it is going to provide is a crucial first step.
“Currently, AM technologies are not applied in AEC [architecture, engineering and construction] because of their lack of technological maturity,” Mrazovic said. “If AEC practitioners [had] transparent metrics about 3-D printing technologies, they would make more informed decision about applying it on a construction site.”
However, that would aim at manufacturing of specific components, not necessarily the whole building.
While cost is still an obstacle, that is likely to change.
“We can expect that the cost of 3-D printing will drop as the patents expire,” she said.
Following the hype around plastic 3-D printing several years ago, the cost has already dropped 10 times its original level. Considering the future for the technology, Mrazovic said contractors can expect to have some role in the further deployment.
“If I were a contractor, I would invest or assign this topic to be researched in my company’s [research and development] group and perhaps have prepared or educated a couple of experts about the technology,” she said.
That would include studying the potential for optimizing its use and learning how the features and values of the technologies might affect the electrical parts manufacturing for buildings. She also said that inventing a 3-D printed electrical parts and patenting the service would be the smartest move one could make today.
For those that don’t want that level of involvement, a safer option is to have somebody in the company monitor the trends, become an expert on the topic, and be ready when the application starts booming. They should already know how to apply the technology when it comes to fruition.
“Until the cost of 3-D printing becomes competitive with conventional methods, I’d say that the contractors are safe in doing business as usual,” Mrazovic said.