Remote idea

By |  February 1, 2014

Luck Stone takes an improbable concept and successfully applies remote control technology to a wheel loader.

Aggregate producers don’t necessarily have to pump millions of dollars into research and development to cultivate a business-changing innovation. Sometimes, getting feedback from the men and women who power the business is a simpler alternative – and the more cost-effective route to take.

Travis Chewning, the director of innovation at Luck Stone, has found this approach to be particularly effective. Asking for employee feedback was specifically useful for Luck Stone in the recent development of a remote control wheel loader.

About eight months before Luck Stone debuted this technology, a team within the company was working to develop ways to increase the company’s reserves. According to Luck Stone, it isn’t uncommon for the company to leave stone reserves behind in order to keep loader operators safe.

Considering this factor, one employee posed a question that probably sounded silly when it was suggested yet ultimately changed how the company loads material. The question was this: What if Luck Stone removed the operator from the cab of the loader?

“Regional operations manager John Thompson threw out the idea, and then there was a wide range of responses,” Chewning says. “There’s the ‘you can’t do that.’ There’s the ‘well, if you could do that, you couldn’t feel the hydraulics; you couldn’t feel the bucket; you’re going to damage the loader; MSHA wouldn’t let you do it.’”

Quest for answers
Luck Stone turned those challenges into questions, and it embarked on a search for answers.

“From an innovation standpoint we have a three-stage process,” Chewning says. “We take things from an opportunity phase, which is fairly wide open. Once we ID a project, we call that our realization phase. Ultimately, if we take it all the way to implementation, we put that into our implementation stage.”

Luck Stone, which celebrated its 90th year in business last year, leaned on Thompson to find potential vendors. The company interviewed a handful of them, and it ultimately chose Anchises Equipment, a Canadian company, as its partner.

According to Luck Stone, Anchises has more than 20 years of experience with remote control technology in mines. The Anchises team was quick to develop an approach that integrated technology into one of Luck Stone’s 988G wheel loaders from Caterpillar.

Technical advisor Clark Church and Randy Grimes, a mechanic at Luck Stone’s Bull Run Plant in Chantilly, Va., teamed with Anchises experts to install the loader’s electronics and hydraulics. The loader was ready to be tested within a few days.

“I think everybody is excited about something new and something that can be a game changer,” says Bob Grauer, Luck Stone president. “If you spent 20 years in a wheel loader, the first time you tried to use a joystick instead of a wheel it felt funny.”

Operators had that same strange feeling when they stepped out of the cab for the first time and operated the wheel loader remotely, Grauer says. Operators have found advantages to using a remote control a couple hundred feet away from the loader, though.

“As the operators have gotten used to running the equipment, they’ve learned things that we would have never imagined,” Chewning says. “At first, we were concerned with how we would do this because half of our [operators] have been using joysticks for some amount of time. All of a sudden, they’re making new observations, such as if you’re about to run over a rock because you can see the tires.”

Grauer adds that Luck Stone’s operators typically pick up the skill of operating the loader remotely in just a couple of hours. Two employees are currently trained to operate the robotic 988G, which can be run remotely or traditionally in other applications with an operator in the cab.

“People laugh at me about my analogies, but the first time I hit a tennis ball with one of those Wii devices it was pretty clunky,” Grauer says. “Now, I can get it over the net.”

Quantifying savings
According to Grauer, Luck Stone still believes the best pit operation is one that’s led by employees. The remote control 988G is still in its early stages at Luck Stone, but Chewning says the expenditure, which was less than $100,000, was justifiable because the company has already experienced savings of sorts.

“To give you an example, in one scenario we did a special shot for a future plant installation,” he says. “We planned to rent an excavator, which was going to cost us a fair amount of money to rent. Instead we are able to use this remote loader.”

Now, Luck Stone estimates it will be able to extract an additional 1 million tons – or more – from mines.

“It’s hard to say situationally, but think about the footprint of a quarry,” Grauer says. “Everybody else is benching down and ramping down the same way. At some point, you get down to that final 1 to 2 million [tons], and floor space is a challenge.”

Fortunately for Luck Stone, floor space will no longer be an issue. The safety of its employees shouldn’t be an issue in such scenarios, either.

“Safety certainly was part of the equation,” Grauer says. “As we look at any operating model, you’re thinking of three big things: safety, customer service and economic efficiency.”

Now, Luck Stone’s goal is to determine how it can leverage the technology across the company to safely increase the company’s stone reserves.

“The most important thing for us is the people throughout the business and really creating and fostering the culture here,” Chewning says. “We’ve got a system that can take ideas throughout the business and actually make them real.”

 Part of a bigger picture
Luck Stone’s remote control wheel loader is one of a few innovations and initiatives on which the company has recently embarked. In another move, Luck Stone harnessed geographic information systems (GIS) technology to improve efficiency for daily load management with its subcontractor haulers.

The company leveraged the expertise of its internal technology pros to design an app that can track vehicle locations, give directions for deliveries and place stone orders, among other features. Luck Stone distributed iPads with its Hauler App to about 250 haulers in Virginia and North Carolina.

“We’re really excited we’ve been able to successfully perform the first paperless transactions with stone deliveries,” says Travis Chewning, director of innovation at Luck Stone. “[Paperless transactions] are not common, and our customers are screaming for it. We’re working hard to create a culture where we’re in spirit with our customers and we’re looking to understand what their needs are.”

In addition, Luck Stone, unveiled a new logo and brand identity over the summer that’s visible on vehicles and signage at the company’s 23 plant locations in Virginia and North Carolina.

“Our new logo aligns better with the iconic cloverleaf in the Luck Companies brand and also includes the dynamic corporate tagline, “Igniting Human Potential,” which infuses the brand with lots of energy and a message that everyone can aspire to personal excellence and help others do the same,” says Sally Eddowes, Luck Stone’s director of marketing, in a press release.

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About the Author:

Kevin Yanik is editor-in-chief of Pit & Quarry. He can be reached at 216-706-3724 or

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