The man moves the joystick on a controller while several yards away in a confined space, the robotic excavator responds to the electronic command. Robotic excavation is the bread and butter of Interstate Sawing Company in West Bend, WI, of which Duke Long is president. “We’re either 300 feet up in the air or 800 feet underground,” notes Long. His company provides sawing and drilling services and robotic excavation and demolition work, especially in confined spaces. In 2007, Long bought his first robot—a Brokk—at the World of Concrete. The Great Recession soon followed. Long’s continued investments in robotics enabled him to expand in a declining market. “Even though we were down 35%, at that point it was gross dollars,” he says. “We were making very good bottom-line margins. By 2013, we bought four more robots and expanded. I’ve bought 24 robots since 2007. As a concrete cutter, we’re used to working at $175 an hour. With robots, we’re used to working at $300 an hour.”
Diversification has been Long’s winning strategy for responding to economic fluctuations. Currently, he is concentrating on grinding concrete and surface preparation, especially following freeze/thaw cycles that create tripping hazards. He also works to lower debt. Adding attachments to the robotic machines has created more work opportunities. Long continues to invest in his business, having purchased a remote-control battery-powered skid-steer at BAUMA. He has robots no bigger than a vacuum cleaner that can dig up to 13 feet deep. One such job entails excavating at a Milwaukee hospital to make way for a plumbing replacement. Workers have to navigate a bottom floor with maintenance rooms, a boiler room, and a morgue to cut concrete and excavate down to the pipe. In projects with a deep reach, workers can drop a smaller robot down in the hole while the operator safely stands on the concrete, digs, fills up hoppers, and pulls them out with another robot.
Long says he has no problem finding employees, all of whom make more than $100,000. His blended workforce of 46 consists of experienced employees and millennials whom he credits for being computer-savvy. “As long as a guy can pass the drug test, driving record, and shows up every day, I can give him joysticks and within three days the same job 15 years ago that would take up to a year to train a guy to physically run the equipment is now being done with a joystick within one week, doing the work of 20 tradesmen.” Long credits robotic excavation for lowering his company’s Experience Modification Rate (EMR) for workers’ compensation from .1 in 2007 to .073 today. “We’ve not had one incident,” he says. “My EMR rate is the lowest achievable for my industry, which is a very dangerous industry.”
What He Does Day to Day
Long spends his days overseeing every aspect of the operation, doing engineering jobs, and helping the sales force. He does public speaking around the country to showcase special equipment. “Once you know the technology that’s out there, you really open your eyes and how you bid a job is completely different,” he says.
What Led Him to This Line of Work
A ninth-grade dropout, Long tried joining the US Navy, but knee surgery following a motorcycle accident rendered him unable to pass the physical exam. At 18, he began working for a road builder and later for a general contractor. Long started in concrete cutting at age 25. “At age 33, I thought I could do it better. I sold everything I owned and started my own business in November of 1996. From there, we quickly became a real player in concrete cutting throughout the Midwest,” he says.
What He Likes Best About His Work
“I’m a handshake guy,” says Long. “I love to go look at jobs and engineer solutions.”
His Biggest Challenge
Educating potential clients about his company’s capabilities is Long’s biggest challenge. “With all of the money I spend on advertising, I hear, ‘I didn’t know you guys did that,’” he says. However, posting robotic excavation jobs on YouTube has attracted attention as far away as from Africa, the United Kingdom, and the Czech Republic.