Fun in con­struc­tion ve­hi­cles

Popular Science - - CONTENTS - BY JOSH DEAN PHOTOGRAPHS BY GI­A­COMO FORTUNATO

In big-kid amuse­ment parks, you get to drive the heavy equipment you spent your child­hood dream­ing of.

Work­ing the con­trols of an ex­ca­va­tor is a lit­tle like fly­ing a he­li­copter in that it re­quires the use of both hands in­de­pen­dently, as well as your feet. I say that hav­ing never f lown a he­li­copter, and hav­ing been in an ex­ca­va­tor for all of five min­utes, but it is def­i­nitely more like fly­ing a he­li­copter than driv­ing a car. When do I get to crush some­thing?

These are the thoughts I’m hav­ing in the cli­mate-con­trolled cab of a 26-ton Ko­matsu PC210LC-10 idling in a north Texas pas­ture while Ja­son Nibbe speaks calmly into my head­set via two-way ra­dio. Prior to hand­ing me the keys to this bright yellow beast, Nibbe asked me and an­other client to watch a brief in­struc­tional video demon­strat­ing the ba­sics of op­er­at­ing this ex­ca­va­tor, as well as the bull­dozer and wheel loader that we would be driv­ing later. Nibbe says I am to ig­nore the two ped­als—each of which is paired to one of the ma­chine’s in­de­pen­dent steel treads—and fo­cus on my hands.

The joy­stick on the left con­trols the “stick” and “swing,” while the one on the right con­trols the “boom” and “bucket.” None of these are use­ful terms, of course; I’ve never heard them used in the con­text of a me­chan­i­cal arm so pow­er­ful that it could, says Gen­eral Man­ager David Beard­s­ley, “rip out

a road be­fore the cops even knew what you were do­ing.”

That arm is hy­drauli­cally pow­ered and has three parts that you can eas­ily equate to a hu­man limb. The boom is the part from shoul­der to el­bow, the stick is the fore­arm, and the bucket is your hand. (Swing refers to how you pivot the cab atop its tank­like treads so you can work in a 360-de­gree cir­cle around the ve­hi­cle with­out mov­ing the tracks.)

Be­fore this ex­ca­va­tor, the largest ma­chine I’d op­er­ated was a U-Haul box truck. I’ve never driven a Bob­cat, nor dug a hole with any­thing but a shovel. Yet shortly af­ter fir­ing up the PC210, I am con­fi­dently ma­neu­ver­ing its 28-foot-long arm, rip­ping up chunks of thick brown clay and, of course, spin­ning the ma­chine’s cab around and around at high speed un­til I’m so dizzy that the world goes white.

“Are you done yet?” Nibbe asks, as I move the left lever back to neu­tral, which stops the swing­ing of the cab. I pause to re­gain my senses, and then push the stick all the way to the right, caus­ing the cab to spin just as fast the other way.

This is ac­cept­able be­hav­ior at Ex­treme Sand­box, a com­pany founded five years ago pre­cisely so reg­u­lar peo­ple like me can pay to screw around on ma­chines that we’ve fan­ta­sized about since child­hood. It’s not a free-forall. In­struc­tors em­pha­size safety, and mostly the idea is to per­form a se­ries of in­creas­ingly dif­fi­cult jobs, but ex­ca­va­tor cabs will do in­fi­nite 360s—so fast!—and in­struc­tors un­der­stand that it’s some­thing we stu­dents just have to get out of our sys­tems. They all make the same Dad joke about “op­tional vomit in­surance” in the class­room ses­sions.

The 26-ton PC210 is your mid­dle-of-the-road ex­ca­va­tor. It’s nei­ther some wimpy starter ma­chine nor a full-on metal

di­nosaur; mostly you see this dig­ger on a nor­mal build­ing site. “It’s not so in­tim­i­dat­ing for a new op­er­a­tor,” Rich Smith, VP of Prod­ucts and Ser­vices for Ko­matsu, would tell me later. “It’s large enough to be im­pres­sive, but you don’t have to climb an 18-foot lad­der to get into the cab.”

Still, it’s big; and it’s sur­pris­ing how ef­fort­less ma­nip­u­lat­ing the mas­sive arm and claw feels. There is vir­tu­ally no feed­back; mov­ing the stick is no more phys­i­cal than play­ing an ar­cade game, thanks to a com­bi­na­tion of elec­tronic and hy­draulic con­trols. I ex­pected to some­how ex­pe­ri­ence the weight of lift­ing a bucket filled with 500 pounds of earth—to sense the strain—but I feel noth­ing; ditto when I push the claw into clay that’s nearly as firm as con­crete.

The con­trols are so re­spon­sive that you have to make small, smooth in­puts that aren’t im­me­di­ately log­i­cal to green­horns (es­pe­cially male ones), who tend to ap­ply too much force, which makes the en­tire ma­chine shud­der and jerk. In­struc­tors call this “stab­bing” the con­trols. Proper stick work, Nibbe says, should be del­i­cate, “like surgery.”

“OK, Josh,” he says, af­ter I’ve dug two holes, made a pile, and lifted the boom as high as pos­si­ble to rain a “Texas dirt shower” upon the land. “You’ve been in this ma­chine 10 min­utes, and you know as much about ex­ca­va­tion as I do.”

Nibbe is ex­ag­ger­at­ing. What he means is that any­one who pays at­ten­tion to the class­room in­struc­tions and then prac­tices a lit­tle can per­form ba­sic op­er­a­tions. I can move around, po­si­tion the arm, dig and dump dirt—but I do so slowly and awk­wardly. Ex­pe­ri­enced op­er­a­tors can do mul­ti­ple things at once—like dig while swing­ing the cab. They’re also much faster and smoother.

Slow or not, I’m hav­ing fun. And, ap­par­ently, I’m be­ing safe. If I had done some­thing stupid or dan­ger­ous, Nibbe would have hit the kill switch that ev­ery in­struc­tor car­ries.

“OK,” he says. “You wanna go pick up a car?”

THE HIS­TORY OF EX­TREME SAND­BOX IS SHORT and sen­si­ble. Back in 2009, when he was still a man­ager for Tar­get Cor­po­ra­tion, com­pany founder Randy Stenger drove by a con­struc­tion site with his 9-year-old son. The boy stared at the heavy equipment rolling around in the dirt and asked, “Wouldn’t it be fun to go drive those things?”

“Yes, it would,” Stenger an­swered, and the thought stuck. Later, over beers, he men­tioned it to his brother. They spent the next year turn­ing the idea into a busi­ness, and nearly an­other year look­ing for space. They fi­nally opened the first Ex­treme Sand­box, three rented ma­chines on a leased 10-acre lot out­side Min­neapo­lis, in April 2012.

At first, Stenger taught the ses­sions him­self, af­ter get­ting a crash course from his equipment dealer and prac­tic­ing for hours. Clients as­sumed he had a back­ground in con­struc­tion. “Ab­so­lutely not,” he’d tell them, with a smirk that he of­ten de­ploys. “Does that give you a feel­ing of con­fi­dence?”

The busi­ness took off. Stenger hired help—in­clud­ing Nibbe, a for­mer heavy-equipment op­er­a­tor—leased more ma­chines, and built a 6,400-square-foot fa­cil­ity to serve as of­fices, a class­room, and stor­age for the equipment. Ev­ery month was busier than the one be­fore.

This doesn’t sur­prise me. Who hasn’t felt the urge to hop the fence of a con­struc­tion site and hi­jack a crane? My 6-year-old son, Char­lie, loved ex­ca­va­tors even be­fore he could talk, and through­out his tod­dler years, he would search for them ob­ses­sively out of car win­dows, scream­ing “DIG­GER!” ev­ery time he saw one. His 2-year-old brother, Nicky, is par­tial to dump trucks and bull­doz­ers.

I’ve read them Good­night, Good­night, Con­struc­tion Site prob­a­bly 800 times, and I know I have com­pany. The au­thor, Sherri Duskey Rinker, used to watch her own son get too worked up read­ing about trucks at bed­time. She made up a calmer story about how dig­gers and dump trucks and cranes slow down and sleep af­ter dark. Her book earned the No. 1 slot on The New York Times Chil­dren’s Pic­ture Books Best Seller list, bought by mil­lions of par­ents like me.

If it seems like we’re hard­wired to love ma­chines, it’s be­cause we ac­tu­ally might be. “There is a deeply in­grained at­trac­tion to tools that ini­tially evolved long ago with an­thro­poid pri­mates for ob­ject ma­nip­u­la­tion, and which evolved more dra­mat­i­cally in our ho­minin line,” says Thomas Wynn, pro­fes­sor of an­thro­pol­ogy at the Uni­ver­sity of Colorado, and one of the world’s fore­most ex­perts on early tool use. “Hu­mans like to fid­dle with tools,” he says.

Rob Shu­maker, di­rec­tor of the In­di­anapo­lis Zoo and a spe­cial­ist in an­i­mal tool use, agrees. Us­ing im­ple­ments to dig, pound, and ham­mer, he says, “is univer­sal in great apes, which in­cludes hu­mans. Tool use is fun­da­men­tal. It’s at our core.” Ob­vi­ously, there’s a big dif­fer­ence be­tween a rock and an ex­ca­va­tor, Shu­maker says. “But I think our at­trac­tion to this stuff is al­most pri­mal.”

That’s the sense I got from Tony Roberts, a re­tired Navy chief who now teaches air­craft main­te­nance in Fort Worth and whose wife bought him an Ex­treme Sand­box ex­pe­ri­ence for Christ­mas. Roberts spends his days tear­ing apart air­planes. He flies them, from Cessna sin­gle-props to DC9s, for fun. But he was so ex­cited about the prospect of driv­ing bull­doz­ers around an old horse pas­ture that he’d barely slept the night be­fore and ar­rived an hour early. “I re­ally joined the Navy just to run equipment,” he ad­mits.

IN 2015, STENGER COLD-CALLED A PRO­DUCER from Shark Tank and got on the show. Both Mark Cuban and Kevin O’Leary im­me­di­ately em­braced the con­cept. They de­cided to go half­sies on a $150,000 in­vest­ment in ex­change for 15 per­cent of the com­pany.

Stenger isn’t even alone in this space. His pri­mary U.S. com­peti­tor, in fact, beat him to mar­ket by five years. That would be Las Ve­gas-based Dig This, founded by Ed Mumm, a fence con­trac­tor who drove an ex­ca­va­tor for the first time while build­ing his own home, and went nuts for it. “I re­al­ized that if I en­joyed it this much, what about all the other peo­ple who never get the chance?” he told me. Mumm looked around to see who else had the idea and saw only some failed one-offs and the U.K.-based Dig­ger­land.

Dig­ger­land had four lo­ca­tions around the U.K., but it was too fam­ily-fo­cused, in Mumm’s es­ti­ma­tion. It fea­tured mostly mini ma­chines and gim­micks—like ex­ca­va­tors

If it some­times seems like hu­man be­ings are bi­o­log­i­cally hard­wired to love this stuff, it’s be­cause we ac­tu­ally might be.

con­verted to rides for kids. He wanted big­ger equipment. Mumm opened first in Colorado, then moved to Las Ve­gas with a mar­ket­ing slo­gan he’s still very proud of: “There’s a new way to get dirty in Las Ve­gas... even your wife will like it.” One pleas­ant sur­prise: Al­most half of his clients have been fe­male. “I also didn’t ex­pect so many engi­neers,” Mumm says. “They’re just fas­ci­nated with this kind of stuff…. A lot of us never re­ally grow up, I guess.”

So far, Stenger and Mumm are friendly ri­vals, but that might change when the sec­ond Dig This lo­ca­tion opens in May—in the Dal­las-Fort Worth metropoli­tan area. Los An­ge­les will fol­low that. (Dig­ger­land now has a U.S. lo­ca­tion too, in Philadel­phia’s New Jersey sub­urbs.)

Be­ing in Ve­gas, Mumm at­tracts lots of bach­e­lor par­ties, as well as cor­po­rate groups in town for con­ven­tions. Groups are huge for Stenger as well, mak­ing up about half of his busi­ness. They fol­low a dif­fer­ent pro­gram than in­di­vid­ual clients, typ­i­cally do­ing some kind of team-build­ing ex­er­cise or com­pe­ti­tion af­ter the stan­dard in­struc­tion. In Texas, there’s an en­tire back pas­ture with boul­ders and dirt piles where in­struc­tors set up cour­ses. A team might have to build a “garage” out of dirt and rock, and move a wrecked car across the field and into it, us­ing “roads” that the in­struc­tors have de­stroyed. So be­fore a team can start build­ing any­thing, it might have to move boul­ders or fill holes. The point is to use all of the equipment.

“When we first started, HR peo­ple got ner­vous,” Stenger says. They pic­tured desk jock­eys drunk on diesel, un­leashed upon ex­pen­sive ma­chines—all on the com­pany’s dime. “I told them that this is safer than bowl­ing. We use very large equipment on a very solid base. It is vir­tu­ally im­pos­si­ble to flip one over. You couldn’t do it if you wanted to.”

THE NEW­EST MA­CHINE IN TEXAS IS A WHEEL loader—a ve­hi­cle with a huge bucket on the front to move dirt and other ma­te­rial around a job site. It works al­most like a car, with a steer­ing wheel, an ac­cel­er­a­tor, and a brake—plus a joy­stick on the right that con­trols the bucket. It re­placed a much smaller ma­chine, a skid steer loader that weighed only around 3 tons. Stenger made the swap af­ter rec­og­niz­ing some­thing coun­ter­in­tu­itive: Peo­ple are much more dan­ger­ous in a small, nim­ble ma­chine. “We had more close calls on the skid steers than any other ve­hi­cle.”

While the orig­i­nal con­cept of Ex­treme Sand­box was that it would be a “bucket-list” thing, some cus­tomers want to come back. One way to en­cour­age that is to in­tro­duce new toys such as the loader. Stenger’s got a firetruck in Min­nesota now, and has at times of­fered a road grader and a com­bine har­vester, thanks to a lo­cal farmer. Texas had a gi­ant, ar­tic­u­lated, off-road dump truck for a while. How about a crane? That’s the ma­chine my 2-year-old son screams at the most. “I would love it,” Stenger says. It’s one of the few pieces of heavy equipment that re­quires a li­cense, but he swears he’s “work­ing on it.” Lately, Stenger says, he’s been lust­ing af­ter those house-size dump trucks.

The thing that re­ally hooked O’Leary on Shark Tank was the prospect of crush­ing a car, which any cus­tomer can do for an ad­di­tional $500. Ex­treme Sand­box gets (mostly) in­tact cars from junk­yards and lets you go at them with an ex­ca­va­tor. Sadly, that wasn’t in my bud­get, but I do get to pick up a junker with the ex­ca­va­tor and move it to a new “park­ing” spot, as well as push around an old mini­van and an F150 with the wheel loader and bull­dozer, re­spec­tively.

Two cars flat­tened by a cor­po­rate group a few days ear­lier taunt me from the cock­pit of the bull­dozer, which rum­bles like a war ma­chine. I sup­press the urge to make a slow turn to­ward them. What I re­ally want, though, is to drive across the lot and straight through the side of the trailer that’s serv­ing as of­fice and class­room un­til Stenger can build a per­ma­nent struc­ture. That would be sat­is­fy­ing.

Stenger laughs when I men­tion this later, and says I’m not the first to sug­gest it. He’s thought about get­ting some old RVs for peo­ple to crush, but they’re filled with plas­tic and foam, and are, he says, “a night­mare to clean up.”

He’s got all sorts of ideas for the fu­ture. He’s even fan­ta­sized about how cool it would be to part­ner with de­mo­li­tion con­trac­tors—guys who get paid to tear down houses—and ar­range for his cus­tomers to do their work. “I have peo­ple who will pay to do it,” Stenger says.

I’d be down. I bet Matthew Frick—who came out to the Sand­box with his wife when I was there—would be too. To­ward the end of the day, I run into the two of them in the of­fice, al­ready plot­ting their re­turn. They both loved the ex­ca­va­tor, but it was the bull­dozer that stuck with Matthew. “Un­til you get in it and feel the torque and power at your fin­ger­tips, you don’t know,” he says. “I’m still com­ing off the power trip from that bull­dozer.”

Two cars f lat­tened by a cor­po­rate group a few days ago taunt me from the cock­pit of the bull­dozer, which rum­bles like a war ma­chine.

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