Comment – What would Fred say…?

On Thursday night last week, we hosted the first-ever Demolition Technology 2020 virtual event. It was watched live by thousands of people from literally across the globe, and it has even watched thousands of times more by those that – for one reason or another – couldn’t take part in the live event. The event has – thankfully – been greeted with universal raise and so we’re already planning a follow-up event for 2021.

But one of the first questions we received wen the show was over was “what would Fred Dibnah make of all that technology?”. It’s a good question. Fred Dibnah was old school; so old school, in fact, that he perfected his demolition methodology before the school was even built. Sadly, Fred passed away in 2004. But things like drone surveys, remotely controlled machines, wearable technology and virtual reality would likely have boggled his mind. In truth, they boggle mine.

I consider myself to be reasonably tech savvy for a man of advancing years. I use computers and mobile devices without an operator’s manual. I taught myself to LiveStream, and I monitor my health and heart rate with a wearable device. But even as we were pulling together the content for the Demolition Technology 2020 event, I found myself doubly overwhelmed: overwhelmed at man’s ingenuity and his constant quest for innovation; and overwhelmed at the seismic shift that this new technology could bring to this industry of ours. And that, right there, is the biggest single barrier to the next technological revolution in the demolition sector.

Until now, technological change within the demolition business has been one of innovation. Manual demolition gave way to machines – crawler cranes, wrecking balls and Drotts. They were slowly replaced by hydraulic excavators that slowly adapted from the diggers of old to the tool carriers of today. Those excavators grew taller to give us the high reach machines of today. It has even an evolutionary process that has taken place over a century.

The next incarnation of the demolition industry promises to switch in less than a decade. Although the Demolition Technology 2020 event was unquestionably forward-thinking, almost none of it was fictional. Virtually every single piece of new technology exists right now and, if the will exists, it could be deployed on a demolition site today.

So why isn’t it? We know that this technology has the potential to make the industry more efficient, more productive and significantly safer. It could finally bring to reality the long-held dream of removing man from the demolition work face once and for all.

There are several obstacles to the widespread adoption of such new-fangled systems and solutions.

The first is what I like to call the wedding buffet conundrum. You have sat through a wedding ceremony that seemed to last for days. You have endured hour after wretched hour of photographs and speeches. You’re hungry and there is a series of buffet tables creaking under the weight of delicious-looking food. But no-one wants to be the first to dive in and indulge.
He same thing applies with the wider adoption of new technology. The industry is stood by, fully aware of the existence of much of this technology and its potential benefits. But each company wants someone else to be the first to take the plunge. And only when they’re sure the water is lovely and that it’s not infested with sharks will they take the leap themselves.
But perhaps the greatest hurdle facing those technologists that are waiting in the wings is not technophobia nor is it an unwillingness to be the industry guinea pig. The biggest obstacle is that insidious and pernicious phrase: “We’ve always done it that way”.

That is not the demolition way. If it was, men would still be going to work with sledgehammers wearing cloth caps and tweed jackets instead of hard hats and high vis’ PPE. Men would still be dying in their droves. And industrial chimneys would still be felled by setting fire to cobbled together wooden props and hoping for the best.

The industry has come a long way from the Dibnah days. The time to take that next technological step is now. So who will be the first at the buffet?