Brands like Caterpillar, Volvo, and John Deere are stars of the heavy equipment industry. But impressive as their products are, they pale in comparison to recent mammoths like Hitachi’s tunnel-boring ‘Big Bertha’, or the 400-ton loader made by Komatsu. Is this the future of construction?
Famous around the world, these manufacturers and others, including Liebherr, South Korea’s Doosan Infracore, and Sany and Zoomlion from China – are known for their lines of heavy-duty machinery including hydraulic excavators, bulldozers, graders, backhoes, compactors, wheel loaders, dump trucks, and loaders.
Now we’re also seeing the arrival of highly specialized products like ‘Big Bertha,’ a tunnel boring machine (TBM) created specifically for Seattle’s Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement tunnel.
Designed and built by Japan’s Hitachi Zosen Sakai Works at a cost of over $80 million, Big Bertha was a staggering 326 feet (99 meters) long, weighed 6,700 short tons (6,100 t.), and boasted a cutter-head diameter measuring 57.5 feet (17.5 meters) before it was disassembled in 2017.
The rise of mega machines
While massive equipment like Big Bertha and the 400-ton capacity P&H L-2350 Wheel Loader (also known as the L-2350 loader) made by Komatsu hold Guinness World Records for sheer size and strength, the rise of heavy equipment on the world’s construction sites is fascinating and well-documented.
Organizations like the Bowling Green Ohio-based Historical Construction Equipment Association (HCEA), a 501(c)3 non-profit, and Ontario’s HCEA Canada, feature and display collections of vintage road excavation, steam shovels, rock-crushers and other vintage equipment.
As cities grew and became more populated, the need for more factories and other buildings increased, especially during the time of the Second Industrial Revolution in the United States. Spanning 1870 to 1914, the Second Industrial Revolution saw an increase in machinery such as gas-powered tractors.
This technology, particularly continuous ‘caterpillar’ tracks – used initially for agricultural applications – soon found its way into tanks used in the First World War, and later the construction sector.
Despite landmark projects like the Hoover Dam and San Francisco’s famous Golden Gate Bridge in the 1930s, construction equipment manufacturing saw slowdowns during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Following the end of World War II and into the 1950s, America experienced a construction boom unlike any other in its history.
Widely supported by the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956, projects including the landmark Interstate Highway System required more machinery, resulting in the development of high-horsepower construction equipment, particularly scrapers, needed to move countless tons of earth and aggregates necessary for road construction.
From highways to suburbs
Signed into being by U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower, the 1956 Act – also known as the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act – not only started the 35-year-long construction of 41,000 miles of interstate and defense highways, but fueled America as a nation of commuters.
To take on this massive challenge, more and bigger pieces of construction equipment were needed to build thousands of miles of new roads and highways. More Interstates and affordable vehicles made traveling easier and convenient, which led to the growth of the suburbs. No longer needing to live in major urban centers, families moved to smaller communities outside large cities.
To meet the needs of booming suburbs, including homes, schools, shopping malls and churches, more and bigger heavy equipment for digging and earth-moving was needed. To construction buffs, historians and the HCEA, it was this period going into the Sixties that represents the rise of the heavy construction equipment market.
Leading the way with changes and improvements were companies like Caterpillar, Melroe, Hymac, Allis-Chalmers, Volvo, and John Deere. These manufacturers, and many others, were responsible for many industry innovations to scrapers, loaders, tractors, hydraulic excavators, bulldozers, haulers, and other large construction machines.
To keep up with demand, larger machines were manufactured, including multi-ton shovels and haul trucks to remove earth and rock, making room for roads and buildings.
Over the years, economic factors led to major shifts in the industry. Some companies consolidated. Diesel emission standards introduced in the mid-1990s compelled machinery companies to produce cleaner fuel burning and more efficient machinery.
The economic downturn of 2008 saw more construction companies move away from ownership – requiring massive investment including the cost of upkeep, ongoing maintenance, repairs, insurance and storage – towards the rental market, which keeps growing.
About 30 years ago, over 95 per cent of North American contractors owned their own equipment, and rental options were few. In its five-year forecast released in 2018, the American Rental Association (ARA) anticipated consistent growth in the rental market, with total revenues of $59.6 billion in 2021.
Big big business
From scrapers to skid steer loaders and dozers to dump trucks, heavy equipment is a must-have on construction sites. With its reinvigorated construction sector, the United States represents the largest market on earth for this equipment, with expenditures exceeding US$1,293 billion.
According to global business data platform Statista in its U.S. Construction Industry – Statistics & Facts update from 2019 (https://www.statista.com/topics/974/construction/), construction projects that had been suspended were now underway, and more were in the works. “Positive trends in the residential market are the primary drivers of the booming construction industry growth,” says Statista. “Within the United States, new construction put into place is among the highest in the South Atlantic and Pacific regions.”
In Canada, residential and non-residential construction continues growing (one need only look at the many skyscrapers being built in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver). With no signs of slowing down, the demand for heavy equipment on construction sites continues.
While some machinery is used for specific tasks, there is overlap with others, especially for heavy material lifting. Some machinery, like articulated trucks which consists of a cab and a trailer, are well-suited for handling rough terrain. Other items, like backhoe loaders, combine backhoe, loader, and a tractor. Great for digging, backhoe loaders can rotate 200 degrees, and are used to lift and move heavy loads from one place on a construction site to another.
Can bigger be safer?
As the scale of construction equipment has grown so radically, so have the number and effectiveness of safety features found on equipment.
And while technology can never be a substitute for rigorous training and instruction in identifying hazards, situational awareness, respect for equipment and common sense – like wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) and a seatbelt – can up any construction worker’s safety quotient considerably.
Just as important as qualified operators, trained flaggers need to be assigned in and around construction sites when heavy equipment is in use; caution signage and barricades should be erected, and potential blind spots for operators identified.
From a maintenance perspective, all large machinery, including bulldozers, trucks excavators, compactors, backhoe loaders, graders and trenchers, needs regular visual ‘walkaround’ inspections before being started up; to check for signs of wear, fractures, cracks, or other damage.
These steps, along with regular maintenance and parts replacement performed by qualified mechanics, are a further assurance that large equipment on construction sites will operate more safely for operators, other workers, and the public.
Heavy construction equipment has grown noticeably in size over the years, helping earth-moving companies and builders get their jobs done faster, more efficiently, and with improved safety.
Just as consumer automobiles are being outfitted with an array of devices, many pieces of heavy construction equipment like dozers and the Hyundai HX series of excavators have panoramic cameras linked to a monitor inside the cab. Affording a 360-degree view through All Around Visual Monitoring (AAVM), the risk to other workers on site is greatly reduced, and productivity increased.
As demand keeps increasing and construction projects grow remorselessly, the need for bigger and bigger equipment able to handle massive loads will be just a fact of life.