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Nailed It!

From horse-drawn levelers and steam shovels to cordless drills and surveys by drone, the tools that make the trade happen have undergone some serious evolution in the time since AGC of America was founded.

The cornerstone of the grand and gothic Brookings Hall was laid in 1900. Its construction was completed in 1902. And it remains as one of Washington University’s most iconic buildings.

And so when Ryan Freeman, vice president of operations for McCarthy Building Companies, a member of multiple AGC chapters, stood, almost literally, at its front step, he marveled.

“To imagine how they built this castle-like structure, by hand in that era, and then for us to be building a whole, new modern campus – doing what would probably have taken them a decade in just 24 months – was just amazing.”

Freeman is quick to acknowledge what makes the difference.

“The only way any of this happens is because of the technology and equipment we have at our disposal,” he says. “From tower cranes to modern dozers and excavators with two-yard
buckets – it’s dramatically different.”

Indeed, the past century has seen the construction trade’s tools and equipment undergo staggering evolution. The first-ever power tool, a heavy stationary drill, was invented in 1895. Black & Decker patented the version we still recognize today in 1917. In the years since? Battery packs. Laser levelers. Drones. It’s the stuff of science fiction turned fact.

And all agree, the next wondrous breakthrough is always just around the corner.

The basic hand tools that were in use when the AGC was founded – shovels, pick axes and the like – are about the only things that haven’t changed but are still in use, says Tom Berry, archivist for the Historical Construction Equipment Association.

The machines, he notes, have undergone tremendous evolution, of course, but what hasn’t changed are the principles by which they operate.

“For example, a 1918 horse-drawn pull grader essentially does the same basic work as a modern motor grader with computers, lasers, GPS, variable horsepower, hydraulics, articulated frame, climate-controlled EROPS and all the other modern features does! Both machines move a curved blade along the ground to produce a smooth surface.”

The same, he notes, could be said of the tandem steam roller workers employed a century ago with the smooth-drum vibratory compactors of today. “The basic principles of the machines don’t change…What does change are the size, power sources, level of technology, safety and productivity.”

Faux pop-quiz: What’s the most prevalent reason for work-hour restrictions?

We don’t know the spot-on statistics, but McCarthy’s Ryan Freeman offered up a sound, educated guess, figuratively and literally: back-up alarms!

Brendan McCormick, industrial operations manager for Turner Construction Company, a member of multiple AGC chapters, in Nashville, may well have had a chuckle at that. Overall safety, he believes, is probably where tools and equipment have come the farthest. And he uses this common warning mechanism as a prime example.

Health, of course, is part of it, too, and on the rare occasion that necessity fails to be mother of invention, regulations are happy to assume the role.

2017 saw mandatory compliance with OSHA’s updated crystalline silica rule kick-in, which has prompted swift evolution in equipment-related thereto. The agency says the new standards will affect some 2 million construction workers who drill, cut, crush or grind silica-containing materials such as concrete.

“You’d be driving on the highway and see someone cutting with a concrete saw and there was just loads of dust flying from the saw,” McCormick explains. “The silica in that dust is not good for a person to inhale and this new standard reduces the acceptable threshold by five times. The tool industry responded and now the equipment catches that dust and contains it – so that our employees and the employees of other companies
do not have that exposure.”

McCormick, who began his construction tenure between high school and college as a laborer before becoming an engineer, remembers when accidents were both more frequent and more severe.

“Back then,” he notes, “people died. These days, it’s first aid – a Band-Aid-type incident, a sprain or a strain, someone trips. But more often than not, no one needs to go to a hospital or clinic, and they definitely get home to their parents or their spouses and kids.”

But although safety has come a very long way, he notes, there’s always room for improvement.

“Back when I started, fall protection was basically a belt with a ring on it,” he says. “If you fell, you got caught. It wasn’t a comfortable thing, but at least you didn’t go to the ground. Now, we have harnesses that support your waist and shoulders. There are multiple points of connections. And many systems have self-release mechanisms that allow the user to let themselves down slowly.”

Air quality notwithstanding, McCormick believes the biggest safety notch in the equipment realm probably belongs to cordless hand tools.

“The bad thing about cords,” he says, “is that you plug something in and run it across the floor and there are multiple points of risk – trip hazards, electrocution exposures – and so battery-powered hand tools helped to eliminate the majority of that risk.”

The advent of cordless, Bill Harman agrees, truly revolutionized the industry.

Harman, vice president of product marketing for professional power tools for Dewalt, a member of multiple AGC chapters, has seen a whirlwind of progress in his 22 years with the company – though its history (Dewalt is a subsidiary of Stanley Black & Decker; it’s been the company’s professional power tool since 1992) dates back to 1910. And despite
all the modern advents, cordless-ness remains a priority.

“We have an internal statement that we are relentlessly pursuing the cordless jobsite,” he says. “Cordless drills, of course, have gone down from big, monstrous tools to very compact tools – and while they’ve gotten smaller, their performance is usually enhanced.”

Though Harman has noticed an influx of women into the trades, he is quick to note that the desire for lighter, more compact and easier-to-use tools is not at all gender-based.

“It benefits everybody!

“When we look at an electrician, for example, we watch his or her workflow and how they do their jobs. We find the pitfalls or the things that slow them down. We identify where they might be straining or having difficulty accomplishing their various tasks – and then we go about finding ways to fix them.”

To his point, making things that work better and smarter enables people to work better and smarter. In Agrekko’s case, the health and safety can be tacked on for good measure, as well.

Headquartered in Scotland and in business since 1962, the company provides modular, mobile power and heating and cooling. In part, that means powering up massive construction sites – even in emerging markets where structural power deficits create challenges.

“Traditionally, diesel has been the fuel of choice,” says Thiago Moraes, regional sales leader for Agrekko North America. “However, with the rise of global warming and the growing list of stringent environmental regulations in place, Agrekko recognized the need to implement natural gas-powered solutions into our fleet.”

Natural gas, he notes, burns roughly 85 percent cleaner than diesel.

It’s also nice when efficiency and cost-effectiveness line up. Agrekko’s Next Generation gas generators boast this trait, as well.

“When used for long-term, continuous operation, natural gas units have been shown to offer total cost savings of 40-45 percent compared to diesel units, primarily due to savings in fuel.”

And on environmentally sensitive jobs, there’s no question. On a recent project for which both a large, complex tunnel-boring machine and a freeze plant were necessary, the possibility of diesel spills was particularly worrisome for the customer. Natural gas not only assuaged contamination fears, but emissions were lowered by 80 percent – and it saved money in the hundreds of thousands.

Time, as construction pros are well aware, also is money. And some of the most recent advances in technology have been massive game changers.

McCarthy’s Freeman has enjoyed seeing these innovations in real time. At Washington University, for example, they’ve already excavated at the front door of the campus to put in an 800-car parking garage.

“This required moving hundreds of thousands of cubic yards over a summer,” he explains.

“The technology now is significantly different. First, there are improvements in the creature comforts – like air-conditioned cabs and the things that make them much nicer pieces of equipment to operate and for longer periods of time. Then you can couple that with the GPS utilization these pieces of machinery have on them now. They actually know at what elevation they are digging or moving earth. They can sit back and dig to the excavation point they set without always having to have somebody out there checking the grade.”

Using GPS in this fashion, he notes, is still relatively new.

So, too, is the use of drones. Topographical surveys, which not long ago would take several days on a big site – “and if you’re earth moving while that’s going on, by the time you finish it’s already wrong!” – can now be done in a half hour with a drone fly-over.

“It’s only been in the past three years that drone technology has been adapted to do this – and that it has become cost-effective and practical.”

What’s especially nice, says Freeman, is that the industry seems to finally be over the hump on acceptance of technology.

“The thing that really started to move the needle, was when we transitioned from blueprints to digital documents, to tradespeople carrying around iPads,” he opines. “That was the turning point where folks in the field became more comfortable with technology being a daily part of their job.”

To those who remember that resistance, Dewalt’s Tool Connect inventory management solution – and its success – could seem inconceivable.

“Simply put: users want to know where their tools are,” Harman says.

The mobile app allows real-time location of individual tools and, he adds, “the big users want to manage their assets. So if you put the tracker on a lift or a hoist, all of a sudden I can track where it is. Is it being utilized on the jobsite? If I’m buying a lift, I don’t want that thing under-utilized because it’s costing me a fortune!”

If it’s a Millennial influx that has helped the tech adoption proliferate, the folks at Simpson Strong-Tie, a member of multiple AGC chapters, are happy to give them some credit.

“[Their] arrival to the construction industry and to contractor trades has had a meaningful impact to the evolution of tools and equipment,” says Director of Engineering for Concrete Construction Products Ryan Vuletic, “particularly as it relates to making product information and installation guides smartphone accessible.

“Smartphones and tablets have enabled a much closer and more immediate relationship between material manufacturers, building product dealers and builders, and the collaborative nature of our business has intensified as a result.”

For a hardware company founded in 1956 with a punch press, that’s a big leap!.

“In 2017, Simpson Strong-Tie acquired CG Visions Inc., a U.S. company providing BIM technology, services and consultation to the residential building industry…We’re also exploring the ways in which 3D printing can help to innovate product development, from rapid prototyping to just-in-time product manufacturing.”

As cool as the intangible tech advancements are, there are some things about construction equipment that will never, ever change.

During Freeman’s stint on McCarthy’s massive, years-long Jefferson National Memorial Expansion project, there was a moment he easily recalls when the crew – top to bottom – regressed back to preschool.

“We had a mechanical tunnel for the Arch expansion that had to be excavated. We got down into some pretty solid rock, and I’ve used a wide variety of equipment to rip rock, but in this instance, we actually brought out an excavator with a rock saw on it.”

On that first day, he says, everyone came out to watch it work in wide-eyed wonder. Phones appeared. Video and selfies were taken. Freeman, too, was wowed.

“I mean, anything that comes out with a saw blade that’s like 10 feet in diameter?!” the engineer says, voice boyish and animated. “People get excited!” He laughs. “They’re like giant Tonkas. It’s still just as thrilling. It never goes away.”