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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.”

deere-gcs900-dual-gps-dozer-005-hrLarge 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.

img_9724“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.”

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_img_2630“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.”


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