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.”