Thoughts of Future and Past

2020 technology

For many of us, the year 2020 seemed so far away, but now it’s here and many of the technologies, products and processes that seemed implausible years ago have become standard ways of working.

Electrical contractors share some of the technologies and industry practices they never imagined would take off, things they thought would definitely materialize but didn’t and what they see as the industry’s most up-and-coming products and trends in the years to come. Perhaps we can revisit this article in 2040.

Surprising developments that came to pass

Alternative delivery methods—“What’s surprised me most was the use of alternative delivery methods in the electrical contracting industry, specifically integrated project delivery,” said Brandon Stephens, division manager at Rosendin Electric, a century-old contracting firm based in San Jose, Calif. “It surprised me because it’s such a major shift in the way construction has historically been done and brings trust, transparency and teamwork to an industry that’s traditionally been very focused on ‘what’s in it for me?’ While I’m surprised that this approach has become so relevant, I also wish more owners and general contractors would embrace it.”

The evolution of communications—“Several things have shocked me over the past 50 years in my career, but one of the biggest has been the total communication capabilities we have today as well as the ability to look on the internet for material and procedural direction,” said George Reynolds, division manager at Sargent Electric Co., Pittsburgh, founded in 1907. “From the pagers, flip phones and fax and copy machines of yesteryear to today’s smart phones, digital copiers, the internet and texting, we literally have the world at our fingertips.”

Technology and safety—Over time, many things have also surprised and amazed Mark Staudt, field operations manager at Sargent Electric. Among them are “BIM; 3D modeling/electronic drawing; the use of laser beam tools (like the ‘Laser Plumb Bob’); bidding software programs; hydro-trenching technology; the increasing presence of battery-operated tools; renewable energy like wind, solar and battery storage; arc flash safety equipment; and the widespread industry awareness of safety, safety audits, job safety analyses, safety training and safety certifications.”

GPS tracking—“I never thought that the utilization of GPS and vehicle-locating capabilities would be as important a tool as they are today,” said Joe Rubino, vice president of E-J Electric T&D Wallingford, Conn. “It not only gets us where we need to go from location to location and helps monitor our team’s productivity, but new adaptors now also allow safety observations (confirming, for example, when a boom is in the air and cradled), vehicle inspections and more. We started putting this technology in our vehicles eight years ago and it went from simple GPS to a tool that delivers greater safety, productivity and cost savings and helps us manage our business better.”

Total Stations—For Nick Rol, project manager at Sioux City, Iowa-based Thompson Electric Co., the integration and use of total stations has made an indelible impact on electrical installations. “The ability to have a draftsperson perform layouts with CAD technology and a total station has eliminated ever-so-valuable man-hours spent using a traditional measuring device and has been an amazing evolution to see,” Rol said. “This practice has led to more collaboration, preplanning and expanded prefab opportunities throughout our projects.”

The Growth of Wireless—“The product called ‘wireless’ is the most surprising development to me,” said Hal Sokoloff, president of Long Island City, N.Y.-based H&L Electric. “Did we ever think we would have no need for hard-wired telephones, cables running through televisions, etc.? Wireless technology has really changed our industry on the low-voltage side, and so much of the labor and materials previously used in construction aren’t necessary anymore due to Wi-Fi.”

According to Sokoloff, ethernet has changed the whole complexion of buildings. “Vertical electrical risers have been reduced because you don’t need the same power requirements for lighting or computer areas (as people now move with their laptops), which has reduced electrical requirements for whole buildings,” he said. “I remember reading about this trend years ago and thinking that wireless would diminish our industry and reduce our scope of work, but amazingly we’ve learned to diversify and explore other opportunities to make up for the shortfall.”

What didn’t materialize

Online/Remote Solutions—“In some ways, I think that the electrical industry is light years behind mechanical in keeping up with technology that could help us be more productive and competitive,” said Shane Snyder, executive vice president of Cannon & Wendt, a 75-year-old firm based in Phoenix. “As an industry, we tend to either pioneer something or sit back, wait for real-life data and see how others use it before we go all in. We’ve often been more inclined to wait as an industry, especially as it relates to driving remote access, asset inventory/documentation and online solutions to customer problems.”

Utility ‘Smart Cards’—Rubino had higher hopes for the Smart Card program. “At one point, five years ago, I’d heard that the IBEW/IDW and NECA would be coming out with a smart card that would hold all of a lineman’s info regarding their union hall classification, certifications, training, etc.,” Rubino said of a convenience that would be available when linemen approached different contractors for employment. “It was conceived of to confirm a lineman’s qualifications for utilities, but it never came to be; unions may have developed something like it for their members, but it never carried over to something that contractors could use.”

Fiber Optic Lighting—“During my apprenticeship years in the early 2000s, we were introduced to fiber optic lighting,” Rol said of a technology that he feels never materialized as originally forecast. “Back then, I believe that it was mostly a conceptual idea with some manufacturers doing R&D. Maybe, at the time, the cost to develop such a lighting system far outweighed manufacturers’ economic ability to sell it to customers, and they shifted their energy and resources to something else.”

Prefabrication—“The electrical industry still struggles with the adoption of true prefabrication by some of our longtime field leaders who are reluctant to trust the process,” Stephens said. “These are experienced people who take pride in being craftsmen, not installers. Given the size, scope and complexity of projects today as well as the shortage of trade workers entering the field, we have to adapt to a more modern process, but changing the mindset continues to be a challenge.”

Renewables—Sokoloff is surprised that renewable technologies haven’t penetrated the market faster. “I would have thought that we’d have more electric cars on the road and more home batteries reducing requirements for home generators than we do today,” he said. “We’ve done some major solar projects at our firm, but I would have thought that solar would be a building requirement by now; solar panels haven’t moved as fast as I thought they would.”

Trends in 2020 and beyond

Renewable Sources—“I think that the growth of renewable-energy sources like wind, solar and battery storage are some of our industry’s most up and coming trends,” Staudt said. “I can’t wait to see what the future will bring, but I’m sure it will be good for all.”

PoE—“Power over ethernet is changing our industry dramatically, and typical work done by electrical contractors is now being done by low-voltage contractors,” Snyder said. “Many of the connected loads we have today are accompanied by a cord and transformer, but in the future, in lieu of 120 volt (V) at the receptacle, we’ll have 24V available, which will eliminate the need for transformers.” Snyder said that mechanical/big loads and heating and cooling will still be regular voltage for the time being, but that all lights and convenience power will be low-voltage. “It will definitely drive changes in what contractors do. Once manufacturers figure out how to get the wattage through a low-voltage cable connector, the sky will open.”

Battery-powered tools—In the future, Rubino believes that the industry will see the increased presence of cordless power tools. “Most of the tools operated off bucket trucks today are done hydraulically, but with improvements in lithium batteries, manufacturers will increasingly be able to provide a means of doing work more safely and productively,” he said. “We currently have cordless drills and cordless cutters which can be operated remotely, freeing us from the hydraulic tether of previous tools—which is especially useful in places like manholes, etc.—and this trend will continue to progress.”

MEP partnerships—According to Rol, “an upcoming industry trend that I believe we’ll see is more partnerships between mechanical, electrical and plumbing (MEP) contractors that utilize a common facility to pre-fab a project’s MEP needs. These partnerships will need to happen in order to deliver a product and support a construction market that demands more for less every day,” he said. “The rapid changes in technology and how work is performed are requiring more collaboration, modeling, preplanning and nontraditional methods to deliver the end product to the customer. MEP facilities will be able to offset the challenges of workforce shortages and allow contractors to continue to experience market growth.”

Automation—“The technologies I’m most excited to see develop are automation/robotics and 3D printing,” Stephens said. “They’re still a ways out, but I think they’ll be game changers in the electrical industry at some point in the future.”

Decline of brick-and-mortar Stores—Looking ahead, Sokoloff believes that big-box stores will be a thing of the past. “I think that there will still be some main retail centers, but with people increasingly buying online and the high cost of constructing and maintaining buildings, I just don’t think that all of the malls and retail outlets will be needed anymore,” he said. “I never thought I’d be an online shopper, but it’s so easy. Would you have ever thought you could download an app that replenishes your supply of any product with the push of a button? With today’s connectivity, it’s mind-boggling how simple it is and how pervasive it will continue to be.”

As for the most up-and-coming trend in the years to come? “I think that all technology will be unbelievable,” Sokoloff said. “Things we can’t even imagine today.”

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