The World of Tomorrow…Today

May 10, 2014

As recently as the beginning of this century, many scoffed at the idea that joysticks and computers would replace levers and mechanical linkages, or that we would find ourselves relying more and more on space-age wizardry to do jobs that, heretofore, only a lifetime of experience might allow us to approach with total confidence.

In an industry certainly more noted for its conservatism than forays into the ragged edge of the technological envelope, you have to wonder what got into the equipment designers’ thermos bottles as the last century drew to a close and then when all this change will slow down and allow us to catch up. My suggestion: don’t hold your breath.

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This is especially interesting when you realize that in the context of construction the limitations are no longer so much in the tools we use as in our imagination and the desire to wring every last morsel of potential from newfound capabilities.

The moment the equipment manufacturers dipped into their grab bag of tricks and emerged with digital replacements for their timeworn analog mechanical systems we crossed a magical threshold and stepped into a realm of incredible-I’m tempted to say infinite-possibilities bound only by our ties to the past.

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The astronauts who went to and walked on the moon, did so with orders of magnitude less computing power than we carry in our cell phones. Today, you can go down to your local shopping center and buy a computer, software, and peripheral equipment that would rival the best on the planet when the Berlin Wall came down, and you have in your grader or excavator or dozer or loader more intelligence in its bare-bones form than the Boeing 747 had when it came into service.

Watch any TV show about modern fighter aircraft and see what magic resides in the systems at the pilot’s fingertips and, in some cases, even beyond his conscious control. Look at the wealth of information available for call-up on multifunction displays or, more recently, the pilot’s helmet display. While the aircraft is waffling around in the dark of night or plunging through fog and clouds, sensors of various kinds are able to acquire detailed images in near-daylight clarity and display them in any of several ways that allow the pilot to perform the mission with confidence and precision. If this isn’t enough, the pilot can access data from the aircraft’s radar or threat-warning sensors and project them as overlays to visually enhanced imagery to aid in the solution of complex tactical problems. Do these capabilities seem too far-fetched for dirt-moving activities? They’re not. In fact they are very much within the capabilities of equipment and technologies in use right now.

If that’s not enough of a rush, what thoughts roll around your head when you watch a video of a drone catching the #3 wire on a carrier?

Most of us have to gulp at the thought of remotely controlled equipment running around a job site, but do you doubt that this is possible and in certain applications desirable if not downright necessary? Already we see this happening in farming operations where tractors grind their way over hundreds or even thousands of acres under GPS control, making furrows or laying down seed. Closer to our activities are a variety of remotely controlled robots used to work with dangerous materials or in lethally contaminated areas, so how much sense does it make for us to put operators at even a slight risk by having them work in contaminated soils when we have the ability to accomplish these tasks remotely or even robotically?

What excited me the most earlier this year at ConExpo was the enormity of the changes we’ve seen since the turn of the century, not only in the equipment and peripherals but also in our vision of the entire construction process itself. While many still struggle to gain a firm foothold in the new world technology has provided for us, the hoof beats of progress move forward and inward to the next frontier, the realm of full project integration.