The kinkiest scenes I saw last week in Las Vegas involved huge shiny trucks and the (mostly) men who love them.
ConExpo-ConAgg and IPPE 2011 is the largest construction industry trade show in North America. It is held once every three years with similar events held in off years in other countries. For 2011, this was THE construction event of the year. It ran for five days, March 22 through 26, at the Las Vegas Convention Center. It drew more than 117,000 attendees, with 24 percent coming from 150 countries outside the United States.
Insiders call it “equipment porn.” From portable rock crushing plants bigger than my house to tiny ball bearings, every piece is showcased, primped and pimped.
ConExpo, as it is known, filled the convention center and spilled over into its parking lots. According to a pressroom handout, more than 2,400 exhibitors spread their wares and services over more than 2.34 million net square feet of exhibit space. Having walked it for days, those figures seem low.
I walked through exhibits before the show opened and watched vendors with small brushes hide scratches on a contraption that creates firebreaks and logging roads by charging through forests to cut down large trees and then grind them into chips on the run. This machine faces a rumble-tumble off-road future, but last week it was a pampered beauty queen.
Treads that fit a fist on shoulder-high tires for an articulated dump truck were buffed with furniture polish. Finishes throughout the yellow spectrum were touched up and wiped down to gleaming perfection, windows made spotless and metal shined. I saw not a spot of grease on the acres of carpet where the hardware was shown.
The beauty and details were duly admired and vendors reported sales. The atmosphere was optimistic.
If it sounds like a lot of money is involved, you’re right. The boost in U.S. industrial activity has not been matched in construction, but there are bright spots. Exports of American-made construction machinery totaled $16.4 billion in 2010 for a gain of more than 28% over the previous year, according to the Association of Equipment Manufacturers. Meanwhile, private non-residential construction spending in January was $244.4 billion, the lowest amount in six years, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
I spent the week walking until my legs hurt and thinking of how I had never before had
appreciated the variety and value in construction equipment. From the window of my hotel overlooking the convention center, I counted 68 cranes on display in parking lots but I fear that is an undercount caused by the density of criss-cross arms. Each crane was different and each was specialized from servicing wind turbines to handling long reaches with enormous loads.
After I returned home, a family chore took me south on the New Jersey Turnpike. Between Exits 5 and 7 work is under way to add two lanes in both directions. As my husband maneuvered through lane shifts and avoided concrete barriers that replaced highway shoulders, I looked knowingly at the earthmoving equipment and cranes. I saw different forms, shades of yellow and not a single machine without severe damage to its paint job.
I spotted many now familiar brands, like CAT, Komatsu and Grove, and I appreciated the diversity as I can honestly say I have never done before.