Intelligent Machines

Technology-Rich Equipment, Tools, Robots and Vehicles Infiltrate the Construction Industry 

Just about any kid can identify a dozer or excavator—those enthralling machines that move huge piles of earth and smooth out terrain. Even more fascinating for little and big kids alike are remote-controlled toys and computers, and nowadays, the intrigue is evident on any modern construction jobsite. Construction equipment manufacturers are at the ready with a fleet of technology-rich machines that will revolutionize how contractors work. 

“Fifteen years ago, there was a much higher resistance to using new equipment technology,” says Alan Sharp, business area director of strategic software solutions in Trimble’s Westminster, Colo., office. “Operators used to think there was an art to driving a machine, but even the really skilled ones know they can do a better job faster using technology. And the newer generation is adapting to it very quickly.” 
Trimble
Large contractors aren’t the only ones taking advantage of intelligent machines; in fact, that market is pretty well saturated, as those firms have already witnessed the ROI and employ personnel who deal exclusively with technology acquisitions or upgrades. More small and medium-sized firms are being compelled to take a smarter approach to running heavy equipment. 

“It’s overwhelming to consider the shift in workflows and the way people do things, but they know it’s hard to be competitive without this technology,” says Matt Davis, sales manager for SITECH Rocky Mountain, a Trimble distribution partner servicing contractors in Colorado, New Mexico and El Paso, Texas. “The more they learn, the more they see the productivity gains—up to 60 percent for some customers using 3-D systems. It’s revolutionizing the way contractors bid jobs and perform with accuracy. There soon will be a day when you can’t be competitive without it.” 

WHAT’S IN DEMAND? 

Five years ago, Trimble primarily provided operational technology to run machines and connect them to the Internet. Now, the company is combining optical positioning and GPS technology with sensors to measure the pitch and roll of machines, inertia of movement and rotations on excavator arms to provide guidance to the operator on controlling elevation or how far something has been drilled. 

“It captures information on the machine while it’s working so you can provide feedback to the operator and the back office so they know what’s happening onsite,” Sharp says. “You can see how the operator is performing and how much work the machine is doing in real time. You can link that back to the project schedule so management knows where they are in relation to where they’re supposed to be. You can see budget rollups and schedule breaks more quickly so you can make critical decisions faster.” 

Komatsu introduced its first intelligent machine control dozer in 2013, with more than 1,000 intelligent dozers and excavators now logging millions of manhours across North America. The excavators with automation can go straight to grade with a minimal amount of fuss and decrease the odds of over-excavation. 
Komatsu
“The operator doesn’t need to leave four-tenths of material and then finish up the rest with a bulldozer. They can move material more efficiently, get more production out of the machines and get the job done quicker,” says Jason Anetsberger, Komatsu’s senior project manager for intelligent machine controls. 

Equipment operators with many years of seat time got a taste of what automation can do at a Komatsu training event recently held in Georgia. “They couldn’t believe how accurate and productive they could be in digging a ditch without stakes or a grade checker. They could put it on grade correctly the first time,” Anetsberger says. 

Participants also got to try Komatsu’s radio-controlled dozer, which automatically adjusts to certain loads, making it a good fit for rocky terrain or hazardous mining environments. “There was a little apprehension about removing the operator from the cab, but they could remotely operate it from 20 yards away,” says Sebastian Witkowski, Komatsu’s product marketing manager for intelligent machine controls. “Remote control technology has been around for a while, but it was hard not to lose productivity when you removed the operator from the cab. With radio control and intelligent controls, we don’t have that problem anymore.” 

GPS-automated grade control from TOPCON has been the biggest investment in equipment technology for The Redland Company, Inc., a sitework and infrastructure contractor operating in Florida and Georgia. The third-generation family-owned company started investing in the technology in 2004 after using TOPCON for its survey department, and it now relies on GPS grade control for most of its projects. 

“The technology has reduced field staking, increased productivity, expedited schedules, lowered costs and freed up survey crew resources for other tasks,” says James Easom, Redland’s vice president of preconstruction. “Most operators enjoy working with the GPS grade control. Once they are trained, it makes their job easier and faster.” 
Redland
SITECH sees a lot of interest in motor graders, excavators and paving equipment. Recently, this has expanded to drills, pile drivers and milling machines. Customers are finding they can finish complex projects in nearly half the time and greatly mitigate the risk of rework. 

“Safety is a benefit, too,” Davis says. “Everything is in the cab so you don’t need a grade checker down in the ditch. And you reduce the reliance on external surveying crews.” 

In the infrastructure sector, more than half of U.S. state departments of transportation require intelligent compaction, which allows for pass count mapping. The operator can see exactly what areas he or she has covered and how many times they have been rolled over. Before, the process involved a lot of guesswork and the job was monotonous, resulting in too many spots being over- or under-compacted. 

“With this technology, you set your tolerances and how many times you want to pass that spot and it will show up on the screen. The driver is basically painting: At first it will be red, then yellow, then green when you’ve done the optimal amount of passes,” Davis says. “You eliminate the risk of over- or under-compacting, saving money on fuel costs and increasing the overall quality of the surface.” 

In general, fuel costs are a major point of emphasis for fleet telematics. The Redland Company tracks jobsite fueling via unique equipment barcoding and electronic metering. The data is collected at the fuel truck and wirelessly transferred to the main office. “This has resulted in more accurate tracking and a reduction in manual paperwork and data re-entry,” Easom says. 

Machines have been equipped with telematics for awhile, with data as basic as idle times having a huge implication for the project and contractor. Moving forward, even more data is being pulled in to illustrate, for example, how often the operator is using automatic mode and getting the productivity bump the company invested in. 

“Most of our intelligent machines are equipped with cellular capabilities, so 3-D data can be pushed out to the machine based on a change order with an updated model,” Anetsberger says. 

Adds Sharp: “From low-level telematics to full-blown automatic controls, machines are giving owners the results they want to see. Today’s machines can’t run without a BIM model, so the BIM objects need to contain more data, such as targets we’re trying to achieve so we can tie schedule items together and shorten the time frames to provide progress updates. We can reduce the decision-making time for management by deploying this technology.” 

SUPPORT AND TRAINING
The benefits seem undeniable, but the technical and human aspects of upgrading equipment technology weigh heavy on construction firms. To start, mixed fleets are a fact of life; not every system works collaboratively with others and not every machine will be equipped with the same level of technology. 

“Customers that go all in with one manufacturer tend to get a better result, but it is possible to do it with a mixed fleet, just harder work,” Sharp says. “Subcontractors often chose a tool based on their ability to fit in with certain general contractors.”
With this challenge in mind, Trimble is providing input on how industry standards should evolve. The Redland Company concurs it would be beneficial for manufacturers to merge their different electronic reporting and interface modules into a common language that can be accessed remotely (e.g., maintenance alerts and key metrics such as fuel consumption).

“This would be useful to a company that needs to centrally manage, monitor and report on various brands of equipment,” Easom says. “It also would be necessary in situations where projects are remote or out of cell or Wi-Fi range to have the equipment store several weeks of data and then upload to a wireless data collector, such as a superintendent or foreman driving around the site.”

For machines within a fleet sporting different levels of technology—full 3-D control versus telematics versus manual—drones may be a way to fill in the blanks (e.g., scan where a roller has been or perform volume calculations and cut/fill mapping). In this case, the data would be collected weekly or monthly, with some manual input required, so it’s important for software to accept data that doesn’t come directly from the machine. 

It’s also crucial to ensure manufacturers and technology providers offer plenty of support once the sale is complete. For Komatsu, that means support personnel can remotely connect to machines in real time if the operator calls with an issue. “Our Technology Solutions Experts play a huge role; they are as much a differentiator as the product itself,” Anetsberger says. 

Davis also recommends contractors identify a technology champion on staff who is the go-to person for learning new systems and ensuring equipment is properly maintained. Firms don’t necessarily have to hire a new person to take on this role—often it can be someone from the surveying division—and it doesn’t have to encompass 100 percent of the person’s job responsibilities. 
SITECH
“Trying to jump into 3-D machine control without a solid plan for maintaining data is not advisable,” Davis says. “And you don’t have to hook up every machine right away. You could rent a system for a month, or test 2-D before moving to 3-D.” 

Training for 2-D systems is pretty standard and can be completed in a few hours. 3-D training is more involved because it involves digital modeling and setting up a base station 

“If you have bad data coming into the machines, they will use it, so the software is the crux of all this,” Davis says. “Therefore, it is imperative to ensure that digital models are accurate and designed by someone who understands the intricacies of machine control.” 

Some resistance from the older generation of operators is expected, though SITECH has found adding simple technical components—with the driver still in control of the machine—reveal efficiency benefits right away. “As they dip their toes in, they only want more and recognize all the gains to be had,” Davis says. 

And as operators continue to retire, intelligent machines represent a tangible way to attract high school graduates with a technical background into the construction industry. Sitting in the cab, all the controls and monitors are relatable to the smartphone and video game generation. As a result, firms can build operators’ proficiency a lot faster than in the past. 

LOOKING AHEAD 
The future promises more connectivity and integration. Historically, equipment technology was an after-market affair; now, that intelligence is being built in at the factory and will be available standard on a wider variety of machine classes and sizes. 

The next five to 10 years also will be about replacing isolated activities (e.g., one worker with a GPS rover or one machine with a positioning system) with a truly connected site featuring two-way data going back and forth between the field and the office in real time. With this type of workflow, someone in the office can know where the machine is, how many cubic yards of dirt were moved, how much is in stock piles, etc., at any given time, whereas in the past this data only may have been reviewed at the end of the day or week. In short, it will be a movement toward productivity monitoring and providing decision-making tools to management so they don’t have to work hard for the information they need. 

“One intelligent machine on a project doesn’t really help you. Companies will need to invest more heavily in this type of technology and the people to support it to make it really worthwhile,” Sharp says. “The real value will come in putting machines together in a choreographed workflow on a project and aggregating solutions for construction’s many linear processes. That’s where the next generation of savings will come from.” 


SQUEEZING SMART SOLUTIONS INTO POWER TOOLS
Today's tools have the basic components for high-level connectivity, including simple automation and internal monitoring. For example, the internal torque of a large combi-hammer can be monitored to steer the tool in a way that minimizes injuries. Or, the torque on a tool drilling through concrete can be managed so the speed adjusts as it hits different materials to reduce the risk of ruining the bit.

Additionally, the number of applications that can be powered by a cordless tool are on the upswing as the energy density of lithium ion batteries improves. For instance, smaller tools can become lighter while maintaining the same kind of power as a bigger tool so they can be used longer and more ergonomically. 

According to Eric Hollister, Hilti’s director of electric tools and accessories, BIM comes into play with the explosion of layout and measuring devices. Field workers can dump CAD drawings into intelligent layout tools, take precise digital measurements and relay them back to BIM models, as well as export them to email or other communications. 

“The tool has to be simple enough for someone on the jobsite to use and get the job laid out,” Hollister says. “You have to be able to reliably say you’ll translate layout points accurately to the jobsite.”

Baltimore-based Merritt Construction Services, whose commercial and institutional project portfolio exceeds 16 million square feet, bought handheld Leica lasers that allow field personnel to do point inspections, such as finding the building elevation in comparison to a road. “You get incredible accuracy,” says Munir Sadiq, Merritt’s director of virtual design and construction. “We like to use a lot of smart, consumer-driven solutions that you can run with tomorrow with minimal training.”

Adds Hollister: “We spend a lot of time trying to simplify complex devices. With BIM, the only way a lot of the processes work is if you can directly translate what’s in the model to the real world. Historically, that involved some complex surveying equipment. If we can deliver a tool the superintendent or project manager can use to find the right point—within a 16th of an inch—we’re helping them be more productive. By comparison, their trades were pulling a lot of string and tape, which takes a long time and has a lot of room for error.”

Long term, Hollister says the power tool industry is working toward true integration and automation, with remote possibilities coming into play. One example of automation could be monitored and confirmed location of fastening points, such as anchors and bolts.

“A BIM model can state exactly where a ladder has to be affixed. If you know what position your tool is in and what bit is in it, then I could conceivably verify whether that fastening point is in the right place,” Hollister says.

In other words, the operator could adjust the performance remotely. If it’s in the right place, go ahead and drill. If not, don’t allow it to function.

“Demolition robots already exist; once those get connected to tools, they could drill, cut or dig anywhere and you could ensure it’s being done in the right way,” Hollister says. “The big question is: How do we safely manage human robot interaction in an unstable construction site? We still haven’t gotten past those challenges. It will be awhile before technology, communication speed and safety regulations allow fully automated equipment to function with operators right next to it.


EXPLORING ROBOTICS IN THE MASONRY FIELD
The average age of a mason is 53 and the work is physically demanding, leaving the door open for innovative solutions to attract younger laborers and technicians. 

“Significant resources have been devoted to recruiting and retaining skilled workers for decades, but the problem is still there and growing,” says Gabriel Dadi, assistant professor of construction engineering and project management at the University of Kentucky. “Some builders are considering robotics and automation to help supplement the work their people can produce.” 

Dadi notes some practical technologies have been commercialized and marketed that are allowing robotics solutions to advance. Some enthusiasm is building around SAM100, a semi-automated mason developed by Construction Robotics. SAM works collaboratively with a mason to lay bricks three to five times faster while reducing lifting by 80 percent or more.

Potomac Valley Brick decided to put the robot to work last September on its new warehouse in Frederick, Md., after meeting with Construction Robotics on and off for a few years and seeing SAM on the job with Clark Construction Group at The Lab School in Washington, D.C. The masonry materials supplier hired Baltimore-based Merritt Construction Services to oversee the project, with R.W. Sheckles, Inc. serving as the masonry subcontractor.

The project team wanted to see whether working around the clock would allow SAM to perform the job at one time, so three shifts of masons were on tap, along with someone who had worked with SAM on the Clark project. 

“It took a little longer than we anticipated, but we got it done in 23 hours,” says Alan Richardson, president of Potomac Valley Brick. “It would have taken four days of conventional work to get it done.” 

Wall system plans were downloaded on the back end into Construction Robotics’ software program, which onsite personnel could confirm via tablet. Every brick was numbered in order to calculate SAM’s hourly rate; the viscosity of the mortar was monitored as well. 

“I foresee robotics slowly becoming more common In the next five to 10 years,” Richardson says. “Certain things need to improve for SAM to be on more jobs, such as working with different scaffolding systems and determining which projects have the right access and layout for SAM to be cost-effective. We also need to work with the architectural community to request they make slight design adjustments so automation can be a bigger part of projects. That’s where the next one to three years will take us.”


PUTTING TRUCKS AND VANS TO WORK

Commercial vehicles have always been high on technology, though usually hidden in features such as trailer sway control, anti-lock brakes, EcoDiesel engines and ergonomic design. These days, work trucks, vans and cars are less about getting from point A to point B and more about functioning as a mobile office. Wireless access, Bluetooth capabilities and backup cameras are becoming the norm so drivers can plug, play and drive with ease—and safely. 

“We put our effort into what matters most to our buyers: their total cost of ownership,” says David Elshoff, head of Ram Truck media relations for FCA US LLC, Auburn Hills, Mich. “We want to sell a truck that’s fuel-efficient and frugal on oil changes and has maximum run time. The second half of our effort is to make our trucks as easy to use as possible.”

To that end, FCA offers trucks equipped with one-button access to the factory to get answers about vehicle issues. Importantly in today’s mobile phone-dominated society, the system includes an emergency button with a direct connection to a 911 operator.

Safety is a main point of emphasis for vehicle manufacturers. GM has introduced some vehicles with forward collision alerts and lane departure warnings, which use camera-based technology to notify drivers of potential crash threats.

“Transportation will change more in the next five years than it has in the past 50,” says Bob Wheeler, communications manager for Detroit-based General Motors Fleet. “We are committed to finding new and innovative ways to improve performance for our small business customers. As we develop new technologies, the goal is to build features into our vehicles that target driver safety, owner productivity and vehicle efficiency.”

In April, GM launched a $10-per-month telematics solution, Commercial Link, which uses data provided by embedded OnStar software to give business owners a near real-time view of day-to-day vehicle performance. Access is gained via dashboards on a mobile app. 

Additionally, General Motors Fleet has partnered with Telogis to offer customers a telematics solution that lets fleet managers communicate with a “home base” using OnStar technology to transmit key metrics, such as vehicle location, speed and fuel consumption. Business owners can examine the data on demand.

Through the end of the year, members of Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC) can take advantage of a 30-day free trial for Telogis. For additional ABC member vehicle discounts with GM, Ford and FCA brands, visit abc.org/memberdiscounts.


Joanna Masterson is senior editor of Construction Executive. For more information, email masterson@abc.org or follow @ConstructionMag