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When it comes to the latest trends and innovation in construction, drones, big data, smart and connected jobsites, virtual reality and artificial intelligence get most of the headlines. These technologies appear to hold great promise to enhance and further enable the interface of man and machine to work faster, smarter, safer and more efficiently.

However, innovation in construction also is taking on new forms as it relates to efficiency and environmental sensibility in the design and operation of machines and equipment. For the last decade, machine design and manufacturing revolved substantially around achieving progressively more stringent emissions standards. Due to their unmatched combination of power, efficiency, performance, reliability and durability, diesel engines are the primary power source in the overwhelming majority of construction equipment.

POST-TIER 4 EQUIPMENT TRENDS

In 2014, the construction engine and equipment industry successfully met the EPA’s challenge to deliver engine technology that has dramatically lower emissions of nitrogen oxides and particulate matter.  This fourth generation of progressively lower-emitting diesel engine technology (i.e., Tier 4 Final) proved that the diesel engine was capable of achieving near-zero emissions of particulates and nitrogen oxide emissions to retain its position as the technology of choice for the construction sector.

Now that nearly four years have passed since this U.S. emissions milestone, a growing number of Tier 4 units are now on the jobsite. Initial skepticism and concerns about the cost of new technology coupled with economic doldrums slowed the uptake of Tier 4 machines, as some contractors deferred new equipment acquisition, stocked up on pre-Tier 4 machines, or turned to equipment rental or leasing strategies to help offset uncertainties in cost and performance. 

Now, with key economic indicators pointing upward and confidence in the new generation of diesel technology heightened, interest in new equipment is growing.What technologies and innovations will be up next to power the construction machines of the future?

1. Hybridization

Just like in passenger cars, the opportunity to incorporate hybrid motors and energy capture and storage technology is here for some construction equipment.  The idea is simple. A machine with repetitive tasks and movements, such as truck loading and materials handling, is perfectly suited for a hybrid powertrain that enables the machine to capture the energy from the cycle and apply that to the work.

This lessens the burden on the engine and in turn reduces fuel consumption, allowing for engine downsizing as well.  It is increasingly available on some machines, such as wheel loaders (Deere 944K) and excavators, and some manufacturers have further introduced adaptive systems that capture the stored energy at selected points in a variable cycle.

Manufacturers also have developed handy tools and calculators to help customers determine the ROI and other indicators.

2. Incorporating Electric Drive

When diesel engines are uncoupled from the mechanical drive and work movements of a machine, engines speeds, loads and fuel consumption can be optimized for a sweet spot of steady state operation that delivers maximum fuel efficiency and optimum performance. Instead of driving variable mechanical linkages, the engine acts as an electrical generator that drives more efficient electric motors to power the machine and its tools (Caterpillar D7E Medium Track Type Tractor). 

In these instances, fuel savings can be substantial (up to 30 percent) compared to conventional systems. 

A variation on electric drive being explored replaces all the traditional hydraulic drive components with direct drive electric motors, thereby eliminating the weight, maintenance and componentry of hydraulic fluid power systems and instead operating by wire.

3. Driveline Alternatives

Introducing continuously variable transmissions or transmissions split between mechanical and hydrostatic modes is a trend for some OEMs. This reflects innovation to integrate efficient technologies and components that diverge from a conventional setup, with power still supplied by a diesel engine.

4. Equipment Task Matching

The boom in compact construction equipment has opened up a whole range of new considerations and options to consider in specifying equipment for the job.  Done properly, use of these new compact and mid-range machines for the right tasks can save fuel and boost productivity over previous approaches. 

Gone should be the days where equipment selection is based on what’s on the site today versus the proper tool for the job. Tackling big jobs with undersized equipment can result in diminished productivity, higher fuel costs, and increased repairs, maintenance and downtime.

5. Utilization of Non-diesel Fuels

In a growing number of cities and counties, especially in California (which has subsidies in place), fleets have switched over their vehicles and some off-road equipment to utilize advanced renewable biofuels. These fuels, produced in a refinery from waste animal fats and other products, are considered to be drop-in replacements for diesel fuel, with enhanced properties that reduce emissions of smog-contributing compounds as well as greenhouse gas (CO2) emissions.

For public or private construction projects seeking lower carbon footprints and implementing sustainable practices, contractors could incorporate the use of renewable biodiesel fuels on the jobsite.

THE TECHNOLOGY OF CHOICE

As a result of these changes and other innovations, diesel engines continue to be the technology of choice for nearly all large and small construction equipment into the foreseeable future. Manufacturers are now in the second or third generations of their advanced emissions control strategies and systems. 

The Selective Catalytic Reduction systems that enable diesel engines to achieve the near-zero emissions EPA requirements have been downsized to smaller footprints, taking up less space on the machines, and improving their overall efficiency and performance. This is key as OEMs work to deliver fuel savings, performance and other benefits to their equipment customers.

As for the electrification of construction equipment, experience suggests new power technologies will be introduced when markets demand them. Construction machines have very different duty cycles and demands than small electric cars. Manufacturers continue to explore a range of fuels and technologies to best serve their customers. For example, JCB recently launched a fully electric mini excavator designed for small and enclosed work in homes, garages and other confined spaces. 

If and when the United States moves forward with a major infrastructure initiative, it will be a pivotal opportunity to accelerate the introduction of new and more efficient construction machines into the market. Contractors are likely to see fuel savings, greater productivity, higher performance and greener bragging rights to boot.

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