Scratching the surface

19 March 2008

Topcon's machine control systems are capable of the millimetre accuracy required for paving work.

Topcon's machine control systems are capable of the millimetre accuracy required for paving work.

Machine control using surveying equipment such as lasers, total stations and GPS receivers has been around for several years. Such technology can provide huge savings in time and money, as well as better accuracy, particularly when used with dozers and graders on large earthmoving jobs.

More recent developments have seen such systems applied to excavators. In Topcon's case, the ability to control machines to tolerances of a few millimetres means its systems can also be used to control asphalt and concrete pavers.

But despite the benefits, Topcon believes the penetration of this technology into the construction industry is still low. Topcon Europe Positioning's sales & marketing director, Ewout Korpershoek told CE, “We're still just scratching the surface. We've seen tremendous growth over the last few years, but it's all relative. If you look at the opportunity we have, we're still just scratching the surface.”

Fitting machine control systems of course adds cost to any machine, but according to Mr Korpershoek it is also about proving the benefits of the technology. “The price for any product is relative to the return. In today's market, machine control is a 'concept' sell in most parts of Europe. We see that in the sales process – normally the first systems are a tough sell, but after the first system is installed it comes a little easier. But still there is a lot of education to be done in the market,” he said.

But according to Mr Korpershoek, contractors that have gone down the route of machine control have seen some substantial paybacks. “On a motor grader laying sub-base on a road job, we have customers that say the productivity is five times higher,” he said.

“Then there are cost savings and improved accuracy. There's no need for survey crews to set stakes, and you have consistent accuracy across the site. In the past stakes were put in the ground every 25 m, so every 25 m you had a reference, but in between was guess work. There are other benefits like less wear and tear on the machine.

“The payback depends on the machine and the application. Excavators are multi-purpose machines, and will only be used for fine grading some of the time, so the payback is different. But dozers and graders are pretty much used 100% of the time in grading,” added Mr Korpershoek.

A more subtle point is that contractors that adopt machine control systems inevitably have to change their approach to earthmoving projects, and this can take time. ”In order to efficiently use a machine control system, a customer will have to change his way of working to a certain extent. A construction project is a bit like a production line, and what we can do with automation is shorten that line, but it also means taking a different route.

“It depends on the type and size of the company. If they have their own survey staff who understand co-ordinates and data sets, it is relatively easy. Companies that don't have that knowledge in-house can take a little bit longer. Generally if the work is there and the machines are available, customers can be up and running in days.”

The Next Step

April's Bauma exhibition saw Topcon unveil a new concept for machine control in the form of its SiteLINK, a wireless communication system for mapping, data logging, tracking and reporting that can work with any make, model or type equipment, regardless of manufacturer and age.

The new technology uses mesh radio networks, which have the advantage that they allow communication without the need for a central control station or server. Explaining the system further, Mr Korpershoek said, “SiteLINK is basically the next step in integration of machine control – not just over one job site, but over unlimited jobsites.

“Communication is critical in machine control, and we have communication solutions available like mobile phone, GSM and the Internet, but they are not available everywhere. We have developed SiteLINK to get around that. It connects an unlimited number of people on site via wireless communication mesh radios, so instead of establishing one-to-one communication, we have a network, that sends information by the shortest route.

An example of how this could be applied is on a long road building project where data could be relayed from machine to machine over the course of a route that is tens (or even hundreds) of kilometres long. A project manager could then tap into that data from anywhere along the route, and be able to se the state, position and activity of every machine on the project

According to Mr Korpershoek, this could have massive implications for the industry. “A comparison we like to make is to look at personal computers. When PCs came in it was all stand-alone. It's been relatively recently – in the last 10 years or so – that we've been able to connect PCs together effectively, to allow things like e-mail and the Internet to really work. That's a phase that we're only just getting to in machine control, and that means there's still a tremendous potential there.”

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