What Comes to Las Vegas?

Feb. 27, 2014

Hundreds of tons of equipment, thousands of exhibitors, and tens of thousands of attendees for the hemisphere’s mightiest construction show, ConExpo-Con/Agg 2014, that’s what…

…and nearly all of each won’t stay in Las Vegas when the dust finally settles.

This is my sixth ConExpo, which is enough to recognize the need to begin getting into shape several months before in order to survive the dozens of miles I will have trudged before the event folds its tent for another three years.

So what makes ConExpo such a heady experience?

Of course, there’s the sheer magnitude of the event where if 2 million square feet of exhibit space, the opportunity of being elbow-to-elbow with 150 thousand construction people slogging their way through the miles of aisle ways, or the profusion of equipment, hardware, software, and construction products and systems competing for your attention don’t make much of an impression, you’ve probably blundered into the wrong show.

To me, ConExpo is a great big time machine where we get a chance to see what new ideas and things the tides of change have washed up on the industry’s shore, what casualties have been soughed away to an ignominious death, or perhaps what existing systems have been refined in the three-year interim.

Using ConExpo as an historical bookmark, in 1999 we saw attempts to replace mechanically operated hydraulic controls with electro-hydraulic joysticks, but as many of you will recall, their acceptance was underwhelming. Ditto the use of digital displays, where what began as digital signals were used to mimic their more familiar analog cousins.

By ConExpo 2002, the worm had turned, joysticks were in, and machine guidance and control systems were drawing interest from the attendees. Operators who three years before had laughed at the idea that joysticks could replace levers were now switching over to the electro-hydraulic amen corner.

In 2005, the equipment manufacturers stepped to the plate with great advances to their electro-hydraulic systems, while the software and GPS/laser systems providers focused on job-site integration routines. Attendees were curious but cautious as to whether the cost of an unfamiliar system was worth the money and effort.

ConExpo 2008 signaled that the value of technology systems in construction productivity was no longer at issue. Phase one of the digital revolution was over. Equipment manufacturers and software providers showed up with so much in the way of new and exciting releases that attendees were overwhelmed by their promise of huge increases in productivity.

Then came the recession.

In 2011, while we were fully mired in the disastrous effects of the construction slump, we began to see more fundamental changes in equipment, changes that heralded the growing recognition that the largest needs in the future were a reflection of what was happening with the work force.

It’s the critical challenge we face today.

As well you know, with accelerating urbanization here in the US, the bulk of our entry-level work force no longer comes from a rural background, so with the exception of workers from Mexico or Central America (who often do not share the technical, educational, or societal grounding of those whom they are replacing) many of those applying for jobs today lack experience of their forebears.

On everyone’s mind this year is Tier 4’s impact on the cost of equipment, a situation the manufacturers have addressed with increased productivity in their machines. Though I am a critic of the requirements that have led to such huge expenditure of financial as well as intellectual resources to achieve Tier 4 compliance, I nonetheless marvel at advances in power plant and electro-hydraulic performance the equipment manufacturers have achieved to narrow the cost/performance gap.

But there’s a caveat here. With the increased complexity and sophistication of the equipment come new and even more fundamental challenges for our work force, which I see as:

  • Basic educational skills (language and math)
  • Basic construction knowledge
  • Detailed machine and/or data management knowledge
  • Overall productivity management skills
  • Equipment maintenance skills

What amounts to the digital revolution in construction has moved ahead so rapidly in little more than a decade and a half that in many cases our ability to adopt many of its features into our operations has failed to keep pace. So this leads to some questions we all need to consider:

  • What do your employees need to know before they use technologies that will make you money?
  • Can all your operators and employees take advantage of new technologies?
  • Can equipment and software providers develop tools to help you meet these needs?
  • And in all cases, if not, why not?

Grading & Excavation Contractor will be there at Booth 20109, located adjacent to the entrance to North Hall, so please stop by to chat with us about your work and show experience.