Can you dig it?

Unearthing the evolution of power shovel technology

Every summer, gearheads gather to strut their classic cars. Show-goers marvel at rumble seats, whitewall tires, and gratuitous fins. Wouldn’t it be cool if there was a club for enthusiasts of vintage construction vehicles, too?

There is: the Historical Construction Equipment Association (HCEA). Mechanics, retired operators, and history buffs restore and maintain old machinery once used to scoop and move the earth for foundations, tunnels, roads, and farms. Check out the video below. The New England chapter holds their annual show this weekend. If you go, you’ll see vintage bulldozers, dump trucks, tractors, and clam shell excavators in action.

100_ton_steam_shovel,_circa_1919For some reason—maybe all those childhood readings of Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel—we’re particularly taken with the antique cable excavators. First patented by William Otis (cousin of elevator safety brake inventor Elisha Otis), the steam shovel was crucial to some of America’s great builds, from iconic Manhattan skyscrapers like the Chrysler and Empire State buildings to enormous engineering projects like the Panama Canal.

2006131175834_Erie_B2To dig dirt at the turn of the century, a steam shovel operator pulled levers to yank on steel cables that would work a bucket at the end of a dipper stick attached by winch to a boom. When the bucket was full, the shovel would swivel around on a turntable and the bucket’s “tongue” would loosen, dumping the dirt into a waiting truck.

Diesel power made the steam model obsolete, and diesel shovels in turn were supplanted by the widespread adoption of hydraulics in the 1960s. Fortunately for posterity, folks from the HCEA have made an avocation out of salvaging, fixing, and exhibiting these and other fun-but-outmoded construction vehicles. The group also has chapters in New Jersey, Florida, and Southern California. Here’s some footage of restored steam shovels and other vintage vehicles at work:

The new wave

While we have a soft spot for that old-school equipment, our minds are blown by the latest advances in digger technology. At this year’s CONEXPO-CON/AGG & IFPE show—a conclave of researchers, engineers and construction industry game-changers—all eyes were on the large-scale 3D-printed steel excavator.

An innovative team made up of industry, academic and government partners collaborated to create the first fully functional excavator using 3D-printed components. This impressive development, called Project AME (for “additive manufactured excavator”), represents a potential leap forward for the industry.

Project AME diagramThe machine’s cab, boom, and heat exchanger were 3D-printed. Using low-cost steel, the seven-foot-long, 400-pound boom was printed in a mere five days, while the carbon fiber cab was created in just five hours, with no loss to aesthetics or function.

The crowd at this year’s CONEXPO-CON/AGG and IFPE had the opportunity to watch this excavator do its thing. Additive manufacturing—the process of manufacturing layer by layer from 3D model data—allows engineers to print products on demand, virtually eliminating the need for mass storage and lowering transportation costs. The futuristic excavator has the potential to reduce material expenses and maintenance duties, while simultaneously cutting fuel emissions. ForConstructionPros reported on the process:

Project AME was in good company at the convention. Cat COMMAND made a strong showing with hands-on demonstrations of a remote-control digger. Cat developed this technology in 2016 with the introduction of RemoteTask, a remote control system exclusive to Cat Skid Steers and limited to a 1,000 foot wireless radius. Since then, substantial progress has been made.

With Cat COMMAND, technicians can remotely operate machinery from significantly farther distances, bolstering both safety and productivity while maintaining high standards of efficiency and accuracy. A well-designed Cat COMMAND station seats the operator comfortably and provides integrative, wireless control of the machinery’s systems, further reducing on-site dangers such as prolonged exposure to noise, dust and vibrations. The system exhibited at CONEXPO allowed an operator to work from—dig this—1,400 miles away:

The convention is only held every three years. Who knows what we’ll see at CONEXPO-CON/AGG 2020? A giant 3D-printed, remotely operated, drone digger that flies in to scoop from above, and also delivers your coffee without spilling a drop? We’ll just have to wait and see.

This post was a collaboration between Suffolk’s Insurance Coordinator Lindsay Davis and Content Writer Patrick Kennedy. If you have questions, Lindsay can be reached at and Patrick can be reached at You can also connect with Patrick on LinkedIn here or follow him on Twitter at @PK_Build_Smart. Video editing by Suffolk Intern Simone McLaren. Audio track: Bennie Moten’s Kansas City Orchestra, “Kater Street Rag.” 

The Space Needle, the Jetsons, and what today’s futurists see for tomorrow

It looks like a flying saucer, perched atop spindly, upward-swooping legs. It’s as if a UFO and its exhaust trail were frozen mid-takeoff. Like something out of a sci-fi movie. And that’s the point.

In case you missed it, the Seattle Space Needle recently turned 55—old enough to get the senior discount at Old Country Buffet. Much like the Eiffel Tower in Paris, the Space Needle was built for a World’s Fair; attracted its share of criticism; and is now a landmark that defines its city’s skyline. And while this Space Age artifact may seem a tad dated now, its influence has rippled across the decades and perhaps—if a company called Arconic fulfills its vision—will continue to alter skylines in 2062.

Speedy in Seattle

The Space Needle was conceived as the centerpiece of Seattle’s Century 21 World’s Fair, a showcase of tomorrow’s technology. It was vintage midcentury: can-do optimism, tinged with Cold War urgency. The Soviet Union had shocked Americans when it sent the first satellite into orbit in 1957, kicking off the international space race. But in the JFK era, with federal dollars flowing to scientific research, and finned automobiles speeding down superhighways, anything seemed possible.

Rising 605 feet high—then the tallest structure west of the Mississippi—the Needle was built in just 400 days, at a cost of $4.5 million. The foundation, which was 30 feet deep and 120 feet across, took 467 cement trucks about twelve hours to fill. It was the longest continuous concrete pour attempted in the West at that time.


Work on the Space Needle’s immense foundation. (Photo courtesy of the Museum of History & Industry)


The Needle’s top house under construction. (Photo courtesy of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer)

Including 250 tons of rebar, the foundation weighs 5,850 tons; the Needle structure itself weighs 3,700 tons. This means its center of gravity is just five feet above the earth’s surface. The Needle is fastened to the foundation with 72 thirty-foot bolts.

Not only can the Needle survive earthquakes (e.g., one in 2001 that measured 6.8 on the Richter scale), but it was designed to withstand winds of up to 200 miles per hour—double the code requirements in 1962.

But what struck most was the daring design of the tower and its bulbous top house. The spacecraft look was deliberate. Initially, the building was painted with colors “Astronaut White,” “Orbital Olive,” “Re-entry Red,” and “Galaxy Gold.” As the building seemed to reach for the stars, it signaled a nation’s upward progress.

Construction was completed in December 1961. The Needle’s signature rotating restaurant held an opening gala on March 24, 1962. The Century 21 World’s Fair officially opened on April 21.

Seattle_Space_Needle_CropUnlike other architectural relics of the period—e.g., unloved Brutalist exemplars such as Boston’s City Hall and the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California—the Space Needle appears on T-shirts and postcards, earned official Seattle landmark status at age 37 (in 1999), and remains one of the city’s most popular tourist destinations. While many Sixties buildings raised eyebrows, the Needle prompts smiles as well. It may be that, along with its aspirational spirit, the tower’s very cartoonishness is what makes it so endearing—and enduring.

The Jetsons connection

That drawn quality quickly translated into actual cartoon form when The Jetsons debuted on TV in September 1962. The series imagined a family in 2062. The Jetsons and their contemporaries drove flying cars, employed robot maids—and lived in high-rises that looked a lot like the Space Needle. In case you were deprived of re-runs as a child, here’s the program’s opening:

The resemblance of the Jetsons’ home to the Space Needle was no accident, animator Iwao Takamoto told the New York Times in 2005. The “skypad” on stilts took direct inspiration from the Seattle tower.

Art imitates life, and vice versa. A new engineering company called Arconic—spun off the aluminum giant Alcoa—has taken inspiration from The Jetsons to reimagine the world of 2062. Arconic’s updated Jetsons drive flying cars and live in skypads that make use of technologies currently in development or, in some cases, available already. The company hired filmmaker Justin Lin (Star Trek Beyond) to illustrate their vision with this video:

Arconic’s futurists predict that three-mile-high skyscrapers will be built using 3D printing. The technology will allow for more organic, nature-inspired shapes. “I think you will see less of the square, boxy shape of current skyscrapers,” Arconic’s Don Larsen says in another promo video.

Arconic skyscraper

Furthermore, Arconic hopes those skyscrapers will employ their products such as Bloomframe. This is a motorized window that transforms into a balcony in less than 60 seconds.

hofmandujardinwelcomebloomframe03tileMoreover, those windows would clean themselves—and the environment—if coated with EcoClean, an Arconic product already on the market. This titanium dioxide coating absorbs light and water vapor, activating free radicals (the atom-sized variety), which suck up and eliminate dirt as well as pollutants in the air around a building.

Will Arconic’s vision come to pass by 2062? Nobody can answer that. But the company is making a big bet on it, investing millions in advanced materials and technologies. At a time when much of the talk nationally is about fear of the future and a return to the past, Arconic’s embrace of a bright tomorrow is refreshing. So it’s no surprise we can trace the roots of this campaign to the audacious tower that rose over Seattle to celebrate and imagine the 21st century, back in 1962.

This post was written by Suffolk Construction’s Content Writer Patrick L. Kennedy. If you have questions, Patrick can be reached at You can connect with him on LinkedIn here or follow him on Twitter at @PK_Build_Smart.

3D-printed buildings: Is the future already here?

“Soon, we will be able to construct an entire building … with a printer.”

That was the headline for our blog story posted back in March 2015. It is now August 2016 and “soon” has arrived. A company called WinSun, which was featured in our previous 3D printing blog post, recently took another bold step forward in the “3D printed building movement.” The company announced — through its partnership with the country of Dubai, which is aiming to be the world leader in 3D printing — that it has built the world’s first fully-functional 3D-printed office building, dubbed the “Office of the Future.”

At more than 2,600 square feet, a building of this size would typically take five to eight months to build using traditional construction means, methods and materials. However, C|NET Magazine reported that it took a mere 17 days to print the building components layer by layer using a cement mixture. The 3D printer used for printing the building components was a massive machine, the size of a warehouse that stood 20 feet high, 120 feet long and 40 feet wide. It also took only two days to assemble those building components, with just a fraction of the manpower that would be required to construct a similar building this size.  In all, “Office of the Future,” which was designed by HKS Architects, cost only $140,000 to build, saving approximately 50 percent of the normal labor cost.

Saif Abdullah Al-Aleeli, CEO for the Dubai Future Foundation, which is the organization that occupies the new building and is charged with the creation of other futuristic structures for Dubai, believes that “20 years down the road entire cities will be 3D printed.” So what do you think? Is the future of 3D-printed buildings really here?  We’d be interested to hear your thoughts…comment below!

This post was written by Suffolk Construction’s Marketing Intern Simone McLaren. Connect with her on LinkedIn here.

Soon, we will be able to construct an entire high rise building … with a printer.

Those of us who have worked in the construction industry for years have used printers to produce project plans, contracts, proposals and other important documents that are critical to the construction management process. But who would have thought that we would someday be using printers to actually construct the buildings themselves! This might sound like science fiction or fantasy but it’s becoming a reality with the use of 3D Printing technology, a state-of-the-art innovation that could completely transform the building construction industry as we know it and redefine the way we think about design, manufacturing and construction. Continue Reading ›