By Peter Bigwood
The demolition contractor who walked into the Walter S. Pratt & Sons’ rental office in late 2013 had a problem. Workers were quitting almost as fast as he could hire them.
By Peter Bigwood
He knew the cause – fatigue from operating handheld air hammers – but wasn’t quite sure what to do about it. With a big project coming up, the contractor needed a solution. Wayne Pratt, the rental company’s co-owner, saw not just one opportunity, but several.
In the contractor’s predicament, Pratt sensed a chance to not only gain a new customer, but also to expand the business into specialty areas it hadn’t been able to serve before. The fact that Walter S. Pratt & Sons would be able to help improve worker safety and longevity was a bonus.
“Finding workers that can operate 60- to 90-pound breakers for a few hours, let alone an entire day, is becoming more and more of a challenge in the labour market,” Pratt says. “A lot of times, those workers just quit because they can’t work like that for a full day. That leaves contractors struggling to find new employees and scrambling to make up for lost time.”
The project in Albany, N.Y., entailed replacing 35- to 40-foot-tall concrete piers that road salt had eroded over more than 30 years. It required extensive, elevated concrete demolition. Based on what the contractor had heard from others in demolition, operators would be able to hoist a remote-controlled Brokk machine over the piers and use the attached hydraulic hammers to quickly and precisely break apart the concrete. This would eliminate fatigue caused by air hammer vibrations and was safer than putting a worker on top of a crumbling pier with a pneumatic hammer. If that were the case, the contractor would be able to use workers who would have been running air hammers all day elsewhere on the job.
“At the time, we didn’t know too much about Brokk or its machines,” Pratt said. “But after speaking to people at other rental companies, we thought there was an untapped market for more robotic units in specialty applications, not to mention a better future for crew members who were running demolition tools all day long. With a remote demolition machine, those companies only need one person working the controls to complete all kinds of projects.” Walter S. Pratt & Sons bought three machines – a Brokk 100 and two Brokk 160s.
Mechanic and operator training began shortly after Walter S. Pratt & Sons received the equipment in December 2013. Brokk’s field sales application expert, August Scalici, visited the rental centre to spend a few days training rental staff and members of the local labour union. After a basic introduction to the machines, they split the course between mechanics and operators.
While the mechanics learned about components that make the machines tick, such as the hydraulic and electrical systems, the operators learned how to use the machine effectively and efficiently. Safety was another major focus. With the unit’s remote controls, operators can safely stand yards away from the working surface to avoid being hit by flying debris and have more time to react in an emergency situation. The emission-free electric motors make a difference, too.
“When operators sit inside the cab of a machine, they’re stuck with the diesel fumes and need to think about how to get out if there’s an emergency,” he said. “With the a remote unit, operators can stand up to 1,000 feet from the machine. That puts them two steps ahead when it comes to safety because they only have to walk away from the machine if worksite conditions change for the worse.”
The labourers also liked the fact that they would be liberated from vibrating tools. Operating bulky, vibrating equipment, quickly strains the body and leads to dull, long-lasting pain.
Pratt quickly recognized another opportunity in training, one that created a win-win-win for the business, its customers and the manufacturer. The rental company took a step not many businesses take in a world of tight budgets: it loaned the machines to labour union trainers and operating engineers, no charge.
As more union members received training, the machines came back from jobsites with less and less wear. That saved contractors on repair costs when they returned the equipment. It also helped brand Walter S. Pratt & Sons as a leading rental location.
“More workers are becoming more familiar with remote-controlled demolition equipment, so contractors are getting more comfortable with renting them,” Pratt said. “When a contractor calls a union to find someone to run the machine, the worker can say he was trained on remote demolition equipment from Walter S. Pratt & Sons. It’s good for everybody.”
It’s no secret that in a tight economy large construction companies make money by shaving time off of projects. They’re always looking for new pathways to making that happen, and the next generation of construction leaders uses technology to find the right equipment.
“Young superintendents and project managers want to work smarter, not harder, and more and more often it’s falling to them to find those efficient and economical solutions,” Scalici said. “The old way was to take a unit to the jobsite, do a demonstration and wind up with a new customer. Now, before they even start the job, they do their homework and include remote demolition techniques from the beginning.”
What they learn is that a construction crew using remote demolition can perform better and finish projects sooner than other contractors using hand tools and rolling scaffolds. Further, they can work these time and cost savings into their bids to gain a competitive edge.
Scalici says he’s seen instances where contractors tried to get by with handheld tools, but wound up opting for remote demolition when the project became too difficult. “Instances like that are getting less common because we are getting more well-known,” he said. “As people share their opinions and experiences over coffee and on the Internet, there’s more understanding about what they can do with remote demolition machines.”
Walter S. Pratt & Sons’ latest problem is meeting the demand for the Brokk machines. “We’re building up customers and utilization; we’ll be expanding our remote demolition fleet and looking at other attachments, such as shears. We’re learning how to rent these machines, but for now we expect to finish the biggest year we’ve ever had.”
As for the contractor who started it all, with remote controls in hand his crews were able to demolish the piers just as he had hoped. Cranes hoisted the Brokk units to platforms on top of the piers where the operators broke apart the eroded concrete to create an optimal surface for workers to set new concrete. And all from a safe, efficient and cost-effective distance.
Peter Bigwood is vice-president of sales and marketing for Brokk North America.