Construction technology: Machine control
By Mike Hayes08 February 2017
The advances in machine control technology – using satellite systems to assist operators with the precision of the job, and giving contractors the data needed to control a busy construction site – are set to continue at a rapid pace over the next few years.
Research and Markets has created a report on the machine control system market that shows a global forecast for 2022, with expectations of a market value of $8.16 billion – growing at a compound annual growth rate of 13.9% between 2016 and 2022.
This market is big business for manufacturers of surveying and geographical measurement tools, including Japan-based Topcon, Switzerland-based Leica Geosystems and US-based Trimble. Each company has invested heavily in machine control technology aimed at the construction market, forging deals with major contractors.
Talking about the benefits of this tech is Scott Crozier, director of marketing and product management for Trimble’s civil engineering and construction division. He said, “Machine control makes a world of difference. Contractors can finish jobs faster with less rework, less staking and less checking, while lowering costs, improving material yields and increasing safety.”
Trimble says that its GCS900 grade control system allows contractors to grade higher quality surfaces 35% to 40% faster in any material type. This system can also be installed on many skid steer loader’s grading attachments from a variety of manufacturers, which allows small contractors to work faster and more effectively on complex projects that benefit from digital designs and 3D machine control.
Crozier added, “By maintaining tight tolerances, machine control results in higher quality work. And, because finished grade materials can be placed more accurately, with minimal rework, contractors can realise lower material costs.”
Speed is of high importance for manufacturer Topcon, saying that its machine control technology gives ‘unparalleled speed and productivity gains’. Its 3D-MCMAX, released in early 2016, uses two inertial measurement units (IMUs) that are said to process information up to 100 times a second – 10 times faster than a traditional GNSS control.
Ryosuke Kondo at Topcon said, “The unique design eliminates the need for expensive components on the blade – a location susceptible to damage. Importantly, the integrated design removes the need for expensive components to be installed, and removed, each workday to protect the contractor’s investment from theft. No longer will operators have to climb out on the dozer blade, which can be unsafe, to set up the mast.”
The 3D-MCMAX is said to maximise speed, control and overall grading performance.
Construction equipment manufacturer John Deere, based in the US, has the SmartGrade crawler dozer in 700K, 750K and 850K specifications. Each model comes with a Topcon 3D-MC2 grade control system.
John Deere says that the combination of Topcon technology and its track load sensing system offers an easy setup, and a productive grading machine intended for road building, site development and residential building customers.
A key feature of the machine control system is that the operator can easily adjust the system when moving the machine from one soil type to another, unlike an after-market system, which often requires the GPS manager to make a trip to the machine to recalibrate it.
Leica Geosystems has created a range of machine control tech that helps contractors take a more general view of their site operations. The latest products include the MCH1000 and the iCON telematics series.
Nick Guadagnoli, program manager on machine control solutions at Leica Geosystems, said, “We focus on making operators more productive, increasing their efficiency, decreasing the learning curve for newer or less experienced operators, and streamlining the tasks contractors must accomplish throughout the entire project’s life cycle.”
By connecting machines to the iCON telematics cloud based services, the company says it can reduce, or eliminate, the time data managers used to spend driving around from machine to machine to update them with the latest design files. Now, the data manager can update multiple machines at the same time.
Guadagnoli added, “Our earth moving machine control solutions are designed to help contractors achieve the desired grade more efficiently by requiring fewer passes to get there. This directly impacts the contractor’s productivity as less passes results in less wear and tear on the machine, less fuel used to achieve grade, less dependency on third party engineering firms for setting grade stakes, and less strain on operators as they spend less time manually chasing the last centimetre hit grade.”
Leica’s MCH100 allows users to monitor machines of any type with a simple installation and no need for calibration or extensive setup. The MCH100 is said to withstand long hours of operation in rugged conditions.
Any product that saves you time, will inevitably save you money. Machine control technology comes at an initial expense to the contractor, but manufacturers explain that this cost will be recouped in savings very quickly.
International construction equipment manufacturer Caterpillar has Cat grade with assist for excavators, which has automated boom and bucket movement that allows operators to follow grades and slopes only operating the stick of the machine. Its slope assist for dozers is a mastless system maintaining both cross fall and main fall.
Kjeld Jespersen, construction digital and technology manager (Europe, Africa, Middle East) at Caterpillar, said, “There are many benefits using machine control equipment, including increased productivity (doing the job faster with lower fuel consumption), improved grading accuracy (leading to material savings), and improved payload accuracy (leading to improved hauling operations).”
Caterpillar also offer Cat payload for excavators and wheel loaders, said by the manufacturer to allow customers to do detailed cycle segmentation. This determines and follows crucial KPIs such as time per cycle, fuel per cycle and fuel per payload.
According to Trimble, most of its customers see time and cost savings in the 20 to 25% range once they start using machine control, and in most cases the equipment pays for itself within the first year of use – often within the first project.
“Machine operators can work faster and with less rework, and stakes can be eliminated, which improves accuracy and maximises cycle times to reduce fuel and operator costs,” said Jespersen. “Material arriving at or leaving the site can be monitored and every truck can be loaded to maximum payload and accurately record load counts, all of which helps cut costs and improve profitability.”
Cost savings with Leica are said by the manufacturer to be in the range of 30%, due to efficiency gains after using machine control technology. Leica says that this varies depending on the scale and scope of the project and other variables introduced such as just-in-time project design, labour market conditions, and proximity of the project to material supply sites.
The manufacturer’s iCON iGG4 for graders lets operators boost their productivity – and cost savings – by using the latest GNSS technology. A dual antenna calculates the blade positions precisely.
Guadagnoli said, “Users can crab walk their graders while working on slopes, cutting ditches or spreading material with the blade rotated and raked – all without sacrificing any accuracy or reducing speed.”
For rollers, the company has the iCON roller machine control system with customisable 3D, or top view, of the machine on site. This model makes the compaction work easier, says Leica, at a lower cost, helping to achieve higher compaction quality with lower risks of any kind of deformations or cracks.
One of the big issues that contractors face is a lack of skilled operators, something that machine control technology can help with. The technology makes the equipment operator’s job easier, meaning lesser-skilled workers can be used on certain parts of the construction site.
This then raises the question of whether we need highly-skilled staff on the jobsite at all?
“As the next generation of machine operators continues to becomes less specialised and there are fewer 20-year operators, modern contractors are seeing the necessity of using machine control systems,” said Ryosuke Kondo at Topcon. “However, these contractors and owners who have adopted machine control are finding that even their seasoned operators can double their productivity by using blade automation.”
Trimble says that machine control is a way for operators who do not have years of experience, to operate machinery efficiently and accurately – freeing up the skilled workers for larger, more complex jobs.
Another staffing problem for contractors is retaining operators for long periods of time. Operators tend to move around from contractor to contractor, because they need to go where the work is. This leaves contractors with an influx of new operators who need to be able to easily, and quickly, get to grips with the site equipment, and to efficiently do the work assigned to them.
Nick Guadagnoli at Leica said, “The solutions we design for contractors focus on this issue, by offering contractors solutions that are extremely easy to use – operators become proficient within a short period of time.”
Leica’s machine control division offers regular training at their academy in Odense, Denmark, for distribution and end users.
He added, “Our solutions also help operators to avoid rework by always providing them the relevant cut/fill information, according to the theoretical design they are constructing and based on where their machine is working within the project.”
The next step for machine control technology is making it more user-friendly and on par with today’s electronic devices. Bigger, touchscreen displays, for example. Trimble wants to expand the tools available to technology managers as well as an easier upgrade path for those interested in moving from 2D to 3D. This path, it says, will improve adoption of machine control technology across the industry.
For Caterpillar, the ‘next big thing’ is looking at how the customer runs its entire business - with the data available, the company can help customers manage their operations better, bid more accurately on jobs and better manage unexpected events.