When you make your living in a field overflowing with competitors, as a contractor, you have a few choices: give up, cut costs, find a competitive edge, or be the first person in a world of restricted dimensions to look deeper and discover something new.
The people who look deeper are the inventors and innovators of our world. And as they bring their new concepts to life, they simultaneously create a cosy little niche for themselves, free from overly competitive markets and price-driven quoting.
While doing the rounds at the 2017 Diesel Dirt and Turf expo, we found one such innovative company. Their product is so unique they don’t have a single competitor as yet. And it has the power to save both money and lives. Suitably impressed, we sat down with Geoff Jackson, Product Development Manager for the machine, to hear its story.
ShoulderMaster: the evolution
The machine in question is called the ShoulderMaster and was designed and brought to market by Stabilcorp. As road contractors, the NSW-based company had been maintaining and looking after roads for nearly 30 years. While the whole Stabilcorp crew loved what they were doing, there was a growing feeling that it was time for a change.
“We were looking to get away from the price-driven aspect of tendering. So, Craig, one of the owners, with his experience and knowledge, came up with an idea that would allow us to specialise in road shoulder paving.”
The traditional methods of achieving that aspect of road construction are time and labour-intensive. Roads have to be completely closed, large equipment used, and many days taken to finish a section of road shoulder. This results in a lot of disruption and associated costs. Certain they could come up with a better way of doing things, Stabilcorp prototyped a product that would one day be the ShoulderMaster.
“It took a lot of trial-and-error but we eventually perfected the design and produced our first official ShoulderMaster unit.”
So what is this “ShoulderMaster”?
At the Diesel Dirt and Turf expo, Stabilcorp had two models on display. The original SM1500 and a brand new gravel-only model launched at DDT.
“The SM1500 will lay asphalt, road base or gravel. So it’s a multipurpose machine. The SM Gravel, as you might have guessed, is purely dedicated to laying gravel.”
The machines are actually attachments that can be connected to a road contractor’s skid steer.
“The skid steer is a standard piece of equipment most road contractors have in their arsenal—very versatile and useful—to which you can attach many implements. What we’ve done is create an attachment dedicated to paving that can do it in an offset manner. This means it’s paving on a road shoulder and it can be done in a very effective way. Over conventional methods we can do it at a third the cost and a third the time.”
What makes the ShoulderMaster so special?
More than just attaching to the skid steer, the machine comes with a process which assists in improving productivity (and would make Henry Ford proud).
“We first run a profiler up the edge of the road to remove the damaged shoulder. This gives a precise trench in which to lay gravel or asphalt. An asphalt truck, and then the ShoulderMaster, come in after the profiler in a conveyor like method.”
The machines run in a train, the tipper truck backs up to the attachment and tips continuously into the ShoulderMaster’s large hopper. As this happens, there’s a conveyor mechanism which feeds through a mouth into the screed area, where the asphalt is actually laid. As the material comes out of the tipper, the bobcat moves forward, pushing both up the road. Outside the work zone, there’s an operator who stands with a remote control to monitor and adjust the width, height and angle to match the camber of the road.
What’s great about ShoulderMaster’s creators is they are contractors themselves. In fact, this is the core of Stabilcorp’s business and still their predominant focus. So they know what they’re talking about.
“We like to say it’s made for road contractors, by road contractors. We know what they need because it’s what we’re looking for too. And our attachments are designed with that in mind. It’s been designed—over-engineered really—to be highly durable, reliable and robust. We as contractors expect our equipment to have a long and productive life. That’s how the product’s been designed from day one.”
There’s no planned obsolescence, and if you’re the cynical type, you can put this down to the fact that Stabilcorp made the machine for themselves to help their business stand out from the market. The fact that they’re now sharing it with other road contractors seems, on the surface, counter-intuitive. But there’s a reason they’re so prepared to give away their competitive edge. It saves lives.
How can road shoulders save lives?
In its 57 years of existence, the Australian Road Research Bureau (ARRB) has conducted an impressive collection of studies into road design. Over the years they’ve addressed and inspired change to many facets of road safety including car design, drink driving and mobile phones behind the wheel. What they had researched but not fully addressed, is what we can do about the surface the car hits when it slips, for whatever reason, off the road.
“In Australia, a lot of secondary roads in particular are poorly designed. There’s no safety margin and the shoulders on the edges are broken away, there’s a large drop off. So if you’ve got a situation where there’s a car and truck coming towards each other, there’s no margin for error.”
The ARRB found that by adding a metre in width to those kind of roads, they can reduce the accident rate by 35%. Recent research from Western Australia—where the government has been investing in this area—found, on roads where they widened the shoulder, fatalities dropped by 25%. A massive impact.
How does the ShoulderMaster save money?
Compared to standalone shoulder paving units, which range from $250,000 to $400,000 to buy, the ShoulderMaster comes in at $99,700. The gravel model is even more cost-effective at $89,500. And they attach to a machine contractors already have, giving better utilisation to their existing assets.
Massive reduction in operating costs
In a conventional method of road shoulder repair, the road would be completely closed and detours put in place. Even for just a kilometer of road repair, it may remain closed for up to five days, depending on the area.
“With our method, only half the road is closed at a time, with traffic control there. So the road is always passable. This is safer and more convenient for drivers as they don’t have to go down detours. It’s just easier for everyone.”
Then for the same job that would see the road closed for four to five days using traditional methods, a crew using the ShoulderMaster attachment and technique can pack up at the end of the first day and go home with the job complete. And full traffic can resume that evening.
Escape from the cycle of price-cutting
When contractors start price-cutting and under-quoting to get jobs, they are in danger of sending their whole industry into a dark loop with bad consequences for everyone involved. This practice puts contractors at risk of not getting the value they deserve for their work, and clients at risk of ending up with a shoddy job full of cut corners.
Specialising with a machine like the ShoulderMaster, allows you to stand out by add value to the work you’re doing, rather than cutting costs.
“We used to build roads but now focus in the niche area of repair and stabilisation; strengthening the base of roads that are failing, heavy patching, shoulder widening and repair. That’s our speciality so we’re very good at it.”
This new niche keeps Stabilcorp free from the ravages of excessive competition. And having a smaller area of focus allows them to truly excel in their field, creating better results for their clients and making everyone a winner.
For everyday Aussies, it means safer roads and less strain on taxpayer money.
The future of the ShoulderMaster
Growth has been exponential which is exciting but challenging for the company. After launching the ShoulderMaster at Conexpo in Vegas this year, Geoff has been overwhelmed with the response from the US.
“We just went to test the market but the response was so strong we had to move on it.”
The requests keep rolling in with inquiries coming from as far as South America, Taiwan, South Africa and Yugoslavia.
“It’s been encouraging. So we’ve accelerated our offshore program and are moving towards launching a presence in New Zealand and the United States in August or September this year. We’re even looking at manufacturing onshore in the US.”
Research, development and new inventions on the horizon
Geoff is perhaps most excited about a new venture they’ve undertaken with the mechanical engineering department of the University of Newcastle.
“They’re doing baseline studies and looking at ways we can further improve and optimise the materials going into it and the way it lays the material for even better performance. So we’re going to continue innovating. And we’ve got ideas for other products for the road repair and maintenance niche. We’ll be releasing these over time.”
If you have any questions that weren’t quite covered, hit us up in the comments section below. Or check out the ShoulderMaster website where you can find specs, sale and hire information, and contact details.