Evolution turns to Revolution

The global demolition industry finds itself on the cusp of the most monumental and fundamental period of change in its illustrious history; an age when evolution will give way to revolution. Mark Anthony reports.

Has there ever been a period in which the global demolition industry was confronted with the level of monumental and fundamental change as that which faces it today? Certainly not in my lifetime, and I am so old that I had graduated by the time Methuselah started school.

I will accept that WWII, a period that spawned the creation of the National Federation of Demolition Contractors, was intense. But, in truth, even that was just making safe or removing bomb-damaged buildings using proven methods only with a workforce cruelly decimated by a prolonged, global conflict.

Even the gradual move from crawler crane and wrecking ball to hydraulic and subsequently high reach excavators today seems about as swift and as straightforward as the switch from regular coffee to decaf.

The changes facing the industry today, however, have the potential to redraw the very landscape of the industry; to render obsolete much of what we today consider the industry norm within just a few short years.

Unrest & Upheaval

We find ourselves in an age in which there is political unrest and upheaval on both sides of the Atlantic and pretty much everywhere else besides. Even setting aside political allegiances and beliefs, it now seems clear that there is a widespread dissatisfaction with the way in which nations are governed and how those nations interact with one another. If, as the song suggests “the children are our future”, then we must surely be approaching a period in which division and conflict will finally be set aside once and for all.

What that will mean for global demolition practitioners, frankly, is impossible to tell. But if future generations can break with traditional politics and end racial, national and gender division, then surely it is not beyond them to finally end the peaks and troughs cycle of demolition and construction demand. Perhaps if we ever reach a time in which infrastructure decision making is driven by the needs of the people rather than by political expediency and the need to win the next election, demolition firms might be able to plan more than a week or two in advance and to invest accordingly.

And, make no bones about it, they will need to invest, because the future will not come cheap. In fact, in many ways, it will require starting over, almost from scratch.

Technology spells the end for dog-eared site paperwork

Those site sign-in “books” (and when I say books, I mean dog-eared bits of A4 paper covered in coffee stains and regularly sodden from having been left out in the rain) are already being replaced by fingerprint and retina scanners and by iPads. You can’t pick those up at your local stationary shop. At a time when legislation and environmental pressure from clients is driving the demolition agenda, it will be impossible to justify the use of a rainforest-worth of paper when contract information belongs on a computer hard-drive and is far more readily shared in the cloud.

Getting Social

And speaking of “sharing in the cloud”, let us not forget that we now have the good fortune to be witnessing a communications revolution - the likes of which the world has never seen – through the use of social media. Not so long ago, a demolition company might have a printed brochure to help sell its wares. But the addition or discontinuation of a service, the change of a telephone number or the arrival or departure of a member of staff could render that brochure instantly obsolete and require a costly redesign and reprint. Such issues were banished by the arrival of the Internet. And the improvements haven’t stopped there.

It was once said that a half of all advertising is wasted; but we don’t know which half. Today, through the use of online promotion and social media tools, every aspect of that advertising can now be managed, measured and enhanced. Frankly, if you’re wasting half of your advertising budget today, you’re just not using the tools (most of which are free) that are at your disposal.

Social media affords unprecedented loval, national and even global reach

Of course, the use of social media still faces some resistance; it is still widely dismissed as the sole preserve of the young; filled with selfies and photos of avocado-based breakfasts. But that too shall pass.

I am old enough to remember a time when the magazines I worked upon received outside communications via Telex. Telex ultimately gave way to fax machines which in turn were replaced by email. Social media is merely the latest communications tool in a long line of ever-improving systems and solutions. Demolition companies dismiss the reach and penetration of social media at their own peril and to their own detriment.

I know of demolition contracts that have been won on the strength of a YouTube video. How do I know? Because I shot the video. I know of demolition companies that have purchased equipment based upon its exposure on social media. How do I know that? Because they saw it on DemolitionNews’ Instagram feed.

It might sound like I am selling the notion of social media. But, in truth, there is nothing to sell. Most of the social media platforms are free to use. Sure, they do require some work to fully understand them. But you learned to drive a fax machine, right?

Adieu to Diesel

The demolition sites of yesteryear and today carry with them a familiar whiff of diesel. But for how much longer? Certainly, some of the largest equipment manufacturers in the world are currently working towards a diesel-free future. Komatsu and Kobelco already offer hybrid machines. Bobcat, Caterpillar, JCB and Liebherr each have electric machines within their product offering. And when Case unveiled its ProjectTETRA concept wheel loader at Bauma earlier this year, it pinned its colours squarely to the natural gas mast.

The end is nigh for diesel

It is far too early in the process to tell which – if any – of these has selected the right path. But, as it stands today, none of them has chosen the wrong one. Each is striving to satisfy the need and the demand for alternative fuels but, ultimately, the success or failure of all these will hinge upon take up from customers.

That decision process will likely be made considerably easier by the incredible advances that are being made in the field of equipment monitoring and management. Not so long ago, the relative “thirst” of a specific machine only became apparent when the fuel bill arrived. Today, through remote machine monitoring and telematics, a plant manager can ascertain just how “juicy” each machine is with nothing more taxing than a swipe of his mobile phone. That same technology will also reveal which operators are consuming the most fuel, offer recommendations on how that might be reduced, place limits upon an engine’s RPM, or even to shut it off while the machine is idle to minimise fuel consumption.

Of course, if electricity ultimately wins the battle for alternative fuel supremacy, such issues will be purely academic. Any concerns over which machine or which driver consumes the most fuel will give way to discussions about how to squeeze more solar panels onto the roof of the plant workshop and how much energy can be sold back to the grid after machines have been charged ahead of another shift.

Man Surpassed

All of which leads us to perhaps the greatest change facing the global demolition industry. For generations, the industry has pushed men (and women) further and further from the work face in pursuit of safety. Manual demolition gave way to mechanical demolition. Mechanical demolition gave way to hydraulic excavators and a plethora of work tools. And the arrival of remotely controlled demolition robots afforded us the ability to take workers even further out of harm’s way.

The human element could one day vanish from demolition sites entirely

And now, we possess the technology required to take man out of the on-site equation entirely. Through a mix of remote and autonomous controls, we stand on the cusp of the greatest industrial revolution since, well, the last industrial revolution.

The technology exists; all that is lacking currently is the will. I liken it to the buffet at a wedding reception. No-one wants to be seen to be the first; but once someone makes a move, everyone will pile in. All it takes is a single client to possess the desire to take site safety to its ultimate conclusion, and the levels of employment within the demolition sector will begin its inexorable slide. That will, unquestionably, be a bitter pill to swallow when that day finally arrives. But if the only way to guarantee the safety of site workers is to remove those workers from the site, then that is a price that will one day be paid.

Think about all that for a second. Think about the fact that there will come a time when site paperwork, diesel tanks, hard hats and site boots will be as relevant to the demolition professional of the future as flint arrowheads and cave paintings are to us today. And, most importantly, think about this. The obsolescence of flint arrowheads took thousands of years. The death of the crawler crane and wrecking ball – certainly in the UK – happened over the course of about 20 years. The advent of the demolition robot took a decade or so. At that rate of change, a paper-free, diesel-free and human-free demolition site might be just a year or two away.

Are you ready for the revolution; or are you busily working on your latest cave painting?

Many of the subjects discussed in this article are explored – in greater depth – in the book Demolition 2051 by DemolitionNews editor, Mark Anthony. That book is available exclusively on Amazon. You can buy your copy below: