CONEXPO 2020 Recap: Here’s What You Missed

Millions flock to Las Vegas each year for the neon and the noise, but every three years, a massive crowd floods the desert for a very different reason: CONEXPO-CON/AGG

As we began our descent into McCarran International Airport, the gigantic cranes and heavy machinery that towered over the festival grounds quickly caught our eye—just a small window into the craziness that awaited us down below. 

CONEXPO is the largest construction conference in North America and represents one of the only opportunities to see and explore all the industry has to offer in one place. This is where contractors and service providers congregate to share ideas, learn, and source equipment and technology for their worksites. 

And even amidst the COVID-19 crisis, over 100,000 attendees and 2,000 exhibitors showed up to the convention center for the five-day conference circuit. The graphic below shows what the attendee distribution looked like this year. 

It would be impossible to relay all the amazing takeaways and observations we took back with us, but we’re going to take a stab at it anyway. Here’s an overview of Propeller’s CONEXPO experience (in case you missed it) and some general event highlights that we feel are worth passing on. 

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It’s time to embrace the glorious digitized future. 

For those of you that haven’t been, CONEXPO is chaotic, yet invigorating—you’re walking through a maze of booths scattered across several different halls, waiting for something to spark your interest (which doesn’t take long). 

Whenever we rounded a corner, there was a shiny, new Komatsu excavator, Trimble robot, or  friendly face waiting to strike up a conversation. 

komatsu excavator at conexpo

Each booth was its own tiny microcosm, draped in brand colors and fully-stocked with small giveaway items. And although each exhibitor came to broadcast its own unique sales pitch, they all seemed to agree on one thing: The time to embrace technology on the worksite is now. 

Over the four-day stretch, there were nearly 200 education sessions available to attendees, and the large majority of them discussed innovation as an investment, technological implementation, and ran through future predictions.

Even the presentations on operations and business health circled back to the importance of technological acceptance at one point or another. 

On Thursday afternoon,  Executive Consultant for Leath Group, LLC, Larry Kokkelenberg Ph.D., gave an in-depth overview of why construction businesses fail and the ways technology can prevent and fix those problems. According to him, these are the ten reasons: 

  1. Financial Reasons  
  2. You’re in it for the wrong reasons
  3. Poor leadership and management 
  4. Inefficient operations 
  5. Lack of organized marketing and sales 
  6. Growing too fast 
  7. Equipment costs 
  8. No emphasis on customer service 
  9. Hiring the wrong people 
  10. Lack of planning 

When he was explaining how hiring the wrong people compromises profitability, he took a second to touch on the labor shortage—the disproportionate number of unfilled jobs to young talent looking for work (7.6 million unfilled, 6.5 million individuals looks for a job)—and cited  technology as a way to combat the problem. 

Kokkelenberg suggested that people generally gravitate toward what’s familiar to them, and right now, digital tools are what’s familiar to the people entering the workforce. In other words, technology isn’t just a way to improve day-to-day efficiency and productivity, it’s a competitive advantage. 

What went on at the Propeller booth? 

There’s nothing more inspiring to us than talking to our customers. We’re on an ongoing mission to seek and destroy hard problems with simple solutions. The only way to get close to those problems is by having candid conversations with the great men and women that are out there, powering through them everyday. 

Propeller at conexpo 2020

A lot of man-power (sweat and some tears) went into our booth setup, but it was well worth it. Once those bright yellow topo walls went up, they brought in quite the crowd—7,569 visitors to be exact—and it was a wonderful ride. 

We had a healthy mix of existing customers, curious individuals passing by, prospects who made a point to stop in, dealers who wanted to see what was new, and partners looking to chat with us. The best part? We can confidently say that we learned something new from every person who came by. 

If you missed the show and still want to see what’s new, drop us a line! 

The shift from skepticism to support 

Back in 2017, at the last CONEXPO conference, we came with a much earlier iteration for the Propeller Platform and a significantly smaller team supporting us. 

The reaction back then was positive overall, but we were up against some skepticism around drone surveying and the 3D sitemaps we were generating from drone data. There was interest, but not total buy-in. 

This time around (just three years later), the tides have shifted from a place of disbelief to excitement. Our customers were excited by what we have to offer, and that got us excited (excited is an understatement, really). They were eager to talk through benefits they’ve seen from accurate, transparent data sharing and progress tracking. 

Of course the platform’s come a long way, but we also now have… 

  • An amazing customer success team that makes  24/7 support possible.  
  • Strategic partnerships (big shoutout to our partners, Trimble, DJI, and Komatsu). 
  • Propeller PPK (a complete workflow that combines AeroPoints, DJI’s Phantom 4 RTK, and the Propeller Platform)
  • Support for local coordinate systems
  • A global team of 100+ 
  • A cool product in beta phase called DirtMate (we’ll get to this in a second)

Our customers noticed and showed support for all these changes we’ve made, reaffirming that we’re on the right track. 

General consensus: keep it simple, keep it accurate 

Adopting new technology is never totally painless—there are very few digital tools you can successfully apply without context or training. The learning curve that comes with new tech is a major deterrent of adoption. 

To be fair, there are plenty of tools and software out there that are hard to use and without reason. Past experiences with difficult-to-understand technology often shape buying behavior. 

Many of the individuals that came by the Propeller booth shared negative experiences they’ve had with drones or with data capture, and explained how it brought them to the brink of abandoning their drone program altogether. 

When we asked what gave them the faith to try again with Propeller, they cited three main things: support, simplicity, and accuracy. 

Propeller PPK

Accuracy has always been our North Star, the guiding principle that keeps us grounded, and it was great to see that our commitment to accuracy is something that most construction operations share. It’s that commitment that pushed us to reach 1/10ft and continues to push us beyond that. 

Once you’ve achieved 3cm accuracy, you need the support and simple workflows to apply your data. From our conversations at CONEXPO, this is our strength—the synergy we’ve found between these three things. 

Propeller’s not just a tool for in-office personnel, it’s a tool for everyone on site, a way to get the right data, in front of the right people. 

What will we do with this feedback? We’ll continue to support our customers in their crusade for accurate data and empower them with the tools they need to manage their site. 

DirtMate makes its debut 

A few days out from CONEXPO, we decided to tell the whole world about a project we’ve been working on in secret—that project’s name is DirtMate. 

DirtMate uses small (but mighty) machine-mounted sensors to collect RTK GPS and IMU data that’s available for immediate access. That data then feeds right into the Propeller Platform to build updated surfaces. Basically, DirtMate is your worksite, live. 

Here’s a photo of DirtMate: 


And then, here’s a photo of our team holding one for scale: 

Propeller at conexpo 2020

While we were there, a video testimonial from Suez’s Hallam Road Landfill site played in the background—the story of how they became the first customer to use DirtMate for productivity tracking, up-to-date progress reports, and machine efficiency data. 

They’ve been a Propeller customer for over two years and are now using DirtMate on 20 machines. Despite being a waste management operation, civil work is always ongoing—whether it be bulking work ahead of new cell construction, building new leaching ponds, or final capping works. This is all on top of moving 550,000 tons of domestic, commercial, and industrial waste each year. 

There were a whole lot of DirtMate-specific learnings from ConExpo, delivered directly from the people who would be using it. 

All in all, DirtMate was well-received, and the feedback we collected gave us a good idea of what’s working, what customers loved, and where the product team should focus their efforts after returning home to Sydney.

We’re excited to see where the beta program takes us as a company and DirtMate as a product.

COVID-19 forces convention center doors to close a day early (but not all is lost!) 

The COVID-19 pandemic has quickly changed the way we live our lives, how we socialize, and the precautions we take to remain healthy. This Monday, all Propeller employees started working remotely, and much of the world has taken similar measures. 

As the situation worsened toward the tail-end of last week, CONEXPO coordinators were pressured to make the call—to let the conference go on through Saturday, as planned, or end early. They decided to conclude a day early. 

Of course, there were companies and individuals that made the executive decision not to attend or exhibit, but general attendance seems unaffected by the COVID-19 crisis. The halls were still bustling with people of all ages and backgrounds looking to dive into all the incredible and novel things the construction industry has to offer.

To mitigate the impact, we were all encouraged to stop shaking hands (which the majority of people adhered to) and every booth was stocked with hand sanitizer. People certainly got creative with alternatives to hand-shaking.

Image result for no offense just makes sense button

Fist bumps, bows, and elbows (shakes?) were just some of the ways everyone greeted each other. And there were buttons floating around to raise awareness around this change in cadence, inscribed with the phrase, “No offense, just makes sense”— a bit of levity amidst a very uneasy time. 

Overall, we consider CONEXPO a remarkable success. We came. We learned. We got to talk to some incredible human beings, and everyone we met was just as excited about the future of construction as we are. 

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