Old Technology Takes on New Hues

With New England construction booming, life-sized toys put a gleam in big kids' eyes, too

IT'S a great place for guys with big shoulders and pickup trucks - or for parents and children who love Tonka trucks.

As it opened its doors during a coast-hugging January snowstorm, the Massachusetts Construction Expo had a certain sunniness, even beyond the grins of five-year-olds allowed to climb into the cabs of front-end loaders with giant tires and scoops, and back hoes that look like half a yellow steel preying mantis. Attitudes here reflect the optimism of people whose industry is again catching an economic wave.

``Business is good,'' says Paul Casey, vice-president of the Casey and Dupuis Equipment Corporation of Watertown, Mass., standing in front of a giant, British-built JCB back hoe. ``We probably deserve it after the last few years, and the contractors deserve it, too - the ones who survived.''

John Kurmaskie, whose Key Productions Company of Hartford, Conn., stages this event, says the ``MassCon'' expo disappeared for a couple of years after starting up in the mid-1980s. The recession of the late '80s and early '90s did it in, along with a lack of construction activity. Now the Boston area is a ``hot spot for construction,'' he says, and the expo is starting to draw the kind of participation it saw in its earlier years. Similar shows are being held in many parts of the country, Mr. Kurmaskie says, in anticipation of the spring construction season.

Heavy equipment dominates the vast, one-story expanse at the Bayside Expo Center. It's not exactly cutting-edge technology. The industry's most popular items, the oddly graceful long-armed excavators, have dominated construction sites for some 30 years since they eclipsed old-fashioned track-loaders that plunged into the earth with a string of buckets.

But it's possible to put eye-catching new twists on an old standby. The booth of the C.N. Wood Company of Burlington, Mass., is a magnet with its lavender-and-pink Komatsu excavator.

A special paint job just for the show? No, says C.N. Wood's Allen Austin, it's just a Japanese product aimed at the European market - where design elements like pastel paint and a rounded, sliding door for the operator might turn a sale, even if the price is well over $100,000. It's hard to imagine gritty American hard-hats preferring this color scheme over the traditional yellow of Caterpillars or the green of John Deeres. Anyway, who'd want to get the thing dirty?

While the people manning the booths talk mostly in broad New England accents, the equipment they're hawking is decidedly international. Even the classic American products, like John Deere, have lots of parts from overseas. The excavating, dirt-moving, machines here come from Britain, Sweden, and especially Japan.

``Basically they all come from one country, and it's not this one,'' Tim Mahoney comments as he points out some features on a Hitachi excavator sold by his company, Goodall & Sons Tractor of Westboro, Mass.

Why the Japanese dominance? Mr. Mahoney shrugs a bit and states the obvious: ``They gave customers what they're looking for - efficiency, speed, and comfort.''

Overshadowed by the life-sized ``Tonkas'' are a range of building products designed to catch a contractor's eye: portable screening plants used to grind rock into different grades of gravel simultaneously, plastic decking and fencing systems, and kits for assessing the air quality in sewers and tunnels.

Jed Milardo, a manufacturer's representative from Hampstead, N.H., sings the praises of Vylon Slipline plastic water pipe, which he hopes will replace miles of brick and concrete conduits crumbling beneath old cities like Boston.

JIM ARRIGO, with Silpro Masonry Systems of Ayer, Mass., flicks on a video to show how his company's ``self-leveling'' cement-based mix can be finished to a surface ``smooth as this,'' he says, rubbing the top of the TV.

High tech is here, too. Laser-beam surveying devices help landfill operators attain the grade they need as bulldozers shift dirt and refuse. Software packages quickly give contractors topographical plans for building sites - work that used to take hours when done by hand at a drafting table.

But, without question, it's the lower-tech, higher-profile stuff that draws a crowd here.

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