Graders Move Into the Mainstream

Sept. 8, 2016

Traditionally, motor graders have been used for finish grading, leaving the preliminary rough grading to scrapers, bulldozers, and other heavy equipment. As a precise fine-grading tool, it’s designed for specific tasks. Commonly used for construction and maintenance of gravel and dirt roads, as well as preparation of the base of paved roads, graders have also prepared building foundations and drainage ditches, making them popular with government agencies and contractors.

Today, technology that enables precision grade control and stakeless construction is pushing the motor grader into other applications and other duties, including golf courses, medians, parking lots, and landscaping. It’s grading that used to be done by a bulldozer, and because the motor grader is being used earlier on the job and doing bulk earth work, it’s helping contractors get to grade faster. “We use them for every application under the sun,” says Luke Kurth, marketing manager for motor graders at John Deere. “Big stores, business development maintain haul roads and county roads . . . you can bypass the crawler because the grader can do multiple things at one site. You can even put a snow plow on to keep the roads clear in the winter.”

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Nothing Runs Like a . . . Motor Grader
No longer are graders good only on flat surfaces. With GPS technology, they can handle complex slopes. “Now motor graders integrate into grade control and make the whole solution,” says Kurth. “They’re accurate, but also put power to the ground. They have a robust system.”

Deere’s most recent grader introduction is the G series, a Tier 4 Final version with “a lot of improvements,” says Kurth as he lists model numbers: 670, 770, 870—tandem four-wheel-drive, and 672, 772, 872.

Graders have grown 40% in power and weight, he continues. “They can move more dirt, do bigger jobs, move more materials faster, and grade in a few passes,” adds Kurth. “They can do heavy lifting and finesse.” Improved shifting, front-wheel-drive, and the auto diff lock that “puts power to the ground” enable the motor grader to do more.

They can also do it faster. “Speed to grade” is a popular term in the industry. With the motor grader’s newfound versatility, Kurth says operators can “get to finish grade faster.”

First, there’s less downtime to get to grade because the control system on the machine is “bolt-and-go.” It’s easy to put a system on, he indicates. Deere’s open architecture means it works with any system, such as Topcon Positioning Systems Inc., Trimble Navigation, and Leica Geosystems.

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“They all provide high accuracy,” says Kurth.

Then there’s fingertip control. “All you have to do is maintain steer,” he explains. “The system does the rest.” If you’re struggling to maintain or feel the slope, just click the percentage of road grade and the machine maintains the slope for you. “It removes the need for a feel of the slope.”

That allows an operator to get to the final product quickly—even a less experienced operator. “Automatic cross-slope control—that’s where the market is,” states Kurth. “More integrated grade control is the most important innovation.”

With emissions, costs are up, so manufacturers have to deliver more, he believes. “You pay more, but you get more. Maybe you get by with one less machine on the job because the motor grader is more versatile.”

The Cat’s Out of the Bag
Motor graders still serve many traditional needs, but customers are demanding more out of them. “Many governmental agencies are operating on skinny budgets and, therefore, need a motor grader that can serve a multitude of application needs such as road reclamation, compaction, plowing, snow removal, mowing, brush removal, and much more,” says Wade Porter, motor grader product application specialist, Americas North Region, Caterpillar Global Construction & Infrastructure, Caterpillar Inc.

Porter says motor graders are using technology on these jobs more than ever before—particularly laser, GPS, and UTS systems. “Our customers are seeing tremendous gains in efficiency by moving material one time, accurately versus the old manual ways that increased time and costs.”

Contouring of golf courses, landscaping, and super highways are all made possible with a motor grader because of advances in technology, including sophisticated three-dimensional (3D) complex design.

Caterpillar’s full line of Tier 4 Final motor graders includes its most recent models: 12M3, 12M3 AWD, 140M3, 140M3 AWD, 160M3, 160M3 AWD, 16M3, and 18M3. Important features include revolutionary electro-hydraulic joystick controls for both machine and blade control, reducing upper body movement by as much as 78% and muscle fatigue by as much as 50%, Porter says.

Other features include an angled cab for maximum visibility to the moldboard and surrounding areas so the operator has an unobstructed view, and patented drawbar, circle, and moldboard adjustment capability that allows for easy servicing back to “factory tightness” and lowers maintenance costs by as much as 77% compared with previous models.

The Building Construction Products compact line allows Caterpillar to serve smaller parks and recreation applications with a multitude of landscaping attachments with grade technology.

Caterpillar’s Advanced Productivity Electronic Control Strategy transmission provides event-based shifting to match gear and directional shifting to the dynamic changes in operational characteristics, prolonging life while increasing performance with maximum power-to-ground delivery and comfort by smoothing out shifts. “Caterpillar’s latest generation of motor graders are the most productive machines per size class we have ever produced,” notes Porter.

Credit: Cat
A Caterpillar 16M3 motor grader coming …

An increase in weight and power accompanied the emissions changes; emissions certification technology increases rear axle weight, which must be countered by additional front axle weight to maintain proper weight balance. That, in turn, requires additional horsepower to maintain performance on grade. Engine technology and tuning has allowed Caterpillar to decrease fuel burn and improve fuel efficiency, lowering the costs of ownership and operation.

Machine control features like their patented auto articulation, which automatically articulates the rear frame while steering the front tires to increase machine maneuverability, improve efficiency. Cat’s patented stable grade is the first-of-its-kind ride control feature; it automatically regulates the throttle to prevent machine bounce and prevent road surface damage.

Credit: Cat
… and going

Patented advanced control joysticks provide fully integrated control of blade technologies to increase operator efficiency, productivity, and comfort. Cat GRADE Cross Slope provides easy 2D control of one corner of the moldboard to help dial in consistent and accurate slopes and patented Cat GRADE Cross Slope software allows operators to save up to nine commonly used slope targets to increase machine and operator efficiency to the highest levels in Cat’s history.

Making the CASE for Efficiency
Efficiency is the name of the game; uptime, ease of maintenance, and productivity are paramount. Easy serviceability is built into all of CASE’s machines, says John Bauer, brand marketing manager for CASE Construction Equipment. “The B-Series motor graders provide access to daily maintenance checkpoints with an easy-to-operate, flip-up hood and ground-level access to fill-ports, grease zerks, and other checkpoints,” he says.

CASE Construction Equipment offers five motor graders ranging in operating weight from 31,812 to 41,248 pounds: the 845B, 865B, 865B AWD, 885B, and 885B AWD. They’re all equipped with features designed for improved productivity on the job site, such as a high-carbon steel, multi-radius, involute moldboard, which is designed to cut, mix, and roll material for a finer mix, resulting in a higher-quality surface.

“The design also requires less horsepower than competing designs, so it is more fuel efficient,” adds Bauer.

In order to meet a variety of onsite demands, the moldboard is designed to pitch, tilt, and move laterally, and can be expanded up to 16 feet with optional extensions. A stout A-frame drawbar provides superior stability, due to its heavy-duty boxed frame design. Its wide stance supports the industry’s largest circle, which has been engineered for greater efficiency, requiring less power during operation. This high-strength design provides maximum durability and increased component life.

Another unique element
of CASE’s motor grader design is the external circle teeth pattern. This self-cleaning, large-tooth design provides more contact area to deliver greater leverage when turning the blade under load. With other designs, if the blade hits an obstacle, the circle is pushed towards the drive gear, which can cause binding. This external design pulls the circle away from the drive gear when hitting an obstacle, so there’s no need for slip clutches or shear pins.

CASE B-Series motor graders also feature an industry-exclusive front articulation design, which offers a tight, 23-foot, 9-inch turning radius for quick and accurate machine positioning. With front articulation, the operator maintains the center position while the gooseneck is articulated, allowing for greater visibility to the moldboard, circle, saddle, and tires during operation.

A strategic partnership with Leica Geosystems allows CASE to provide one-dimensional (1D), two-dimensional (2D), and three-dimensional (3D) machine control technologies—both factory-installed and aftermarket. “One of the biggest steps a contractor can take to improve motor grader performance is through machine control technology,” believes Bauer.

Machine control continues to evolve and offer new ways for contractors to operate more efficiently, and it helps contractors plan for the right materials and the right equipment to do the job. It also offers very specific benefits to motor graders—reduced rework through the ability to reach final grade in fewer passes, reduced maintenance and wear and tear, greater productivity, greater accuracy, improved planning, simplified training, and reduced cost and effort associated with re-staking job sites.

Credit: Level Best
Level Best technology on a compact track loader

Finding skilled operators in the construction industry remains a challenge, Bauer continues, and motor graders are among the most difficult types of machines to train new operators. Machine control technology can significantly shorten the learning curve and allows less-experienced operators to achieve grade quality similar to those with more field experience.

While all machines continue to evolve in terms of controls, ergonomics, and fuel efficiency, Bauer says the most important advancements in motor grader design and performance are data related. “Telematics systems can make motor grader maintenance and management less costly and more intuitive through the ability to easily monitor machine usage rates and performance in real time. It also allows fleet managers and equipment owners to stay on top of scheduled maintenance, as well as to keep a close eye on idle times and productivity.”

In Control
New technology can sometimes be intimidating, especially when there are costs involved. Manufacturers recognize this and are making it easier for contractors to implement these technologies.

Some offer telematics hardware standard from the factory. CASE includes a subscription as standard through ProCare, their maintenance and machine support program that comes standard with all B-Series motor graders. Cat works closely with Trimble to provide a technology-from-factory option.

Trimble is compatible with any brand, type, or size of machine, says Jeff Drake, business area manager for earthmoving machine control and guidance systems. They can improve productivity 30–50%, in part due to the reduction of stakes. “If you’re grading correctly the first time, it eliminates rework.”

There are other efficiencies. “If you’re doing road building, the contractor has paper plans. They may change, but does everyone get the design updates? This keeps the plans updated with remote connectivity from the office to the machine wirelessly. You can transmit changes in an instant. That saves cost, time, and fuel.”

According to Drake, there are two categories of machine control technology. At a lower cost is 2D machine control that offers a operator guidance to a pre-defined elevation or grade. For a little more money, a 3D GNS-based system provides more accuracy that is laser-augmented with GPS. “It’s a robotic solution for finish grading.”

A land surveying instrument, it’s good along an alignment, he continues. “It can grade to a design elevation, both vertical and horizontal; that’s what earthmoving is all about. You just indicate the amount of cut or fill needed, based on 3D design data. The software converts paper plans to digital; it shows the elevation, creates a 3D terrain model and loads it in the cab’s computer.”

Real-time positioning sensors mounted on the blade mean no more watching stakes because the operator knows where the blade edge is. Because the system interfaces with the hydraulics, the blade will automatically move to the desired position; the driver doesn’t have to do it manually. “When the operator doesn’t have to rely on stakes, it saves time and labor,” points out Drake.

It also makes a less-experienced operator as efficient as a skilled operator, he adds. “It takes a lot of skill to operate a motor grader, and there’s a shortage of experienced operators,” explains Drake.

One day of training, which includes configuring, is included with purchase. Drake thinks that’s enough. “It’s easy to understand and use.”

Credit: Trimble
A John Deere motor grader equipped with Trimble GPS technology

A Twist on Transmissions: Torque
Although ease of use is important in enabling an operator to complete a job, reliability remains one of the motor grader’s key assets. Recently, there’s been demand for graders for special applications, such as golf courses and athletic fields, but roadway development and municipalities still depend heavily on them because, unlike tracked machines, graders can travel on roads, points out Joe Sollitt, product marketing manager, motor graders for Komatsu America Corp.

“Sales features that OEMs will typically promote include joystick or fingertip controls, cab designs that provide unobstructed views of the moldboard, and auto shift and anti-stall functionality of the transmission,” he says.

But Komatsu’s GD655-6 features a standard, dual-mode transmission that sets it apart from the competition. Other motor graders feature eight-speed, direct-drive transmissions. The GD655-6 is equipped with a torque converter and a lock-up clutch. With the flip of a dash-mounted switch, it can function as a conventional direct-drive or a torque-converter-type transmission with auto shift.

“There are many advantages to the torque converter,” insists Sollitt. Its torque multiplication characteristics transfer high tractive effort to the ground.

Its ability to slip simplifies operation, because it minimizes necessity to use the inching pedal. “This machine shifts like butter, as the torque converter acts like a viscous damper and eliminates the ‘lurch’ typically experienced with direct-drive transmissions,” he says. The slipping characteristic also allows for low-speed creeping.

The torque converter is integral to Komatsu’s anti-stall functionality. Other motor graders equipped with anti-stall functionality will automatically kick the transmission into neutral prior to engine stall. The operator must then adjust the moldboard and shift the grader into an appropriate gear. The GD655-6 opens the lock-up clutch and transfers power through the torque converter to prevent engine stall.

This means the grader never stops grading and no input is required from the operator. “It is more productive and easier to operate,” says Sollitt.

Out-of-the-Box Thinking
In the past 20 years, we have seen several significant moves in the market, says Jack Herr, marketing manager, ATI Corporation.

First, machine control technology advancements have made machines smoother, faster, more accurate, and easier to use. Proportional hydraulic valves and laser receiver advancements combine to grade with tolerances much tighter than just 15 years ago. Finished surfaces are now able to achieve tolerances as tight as 1/10 of an inch. “Our customers are routinely grading with faster ground speeds and greater accuracy, which deliver superior productivity while reducing material overages to lower costs,” says Herr. “Many machine control panels are now using LCD screens to provide operators a visual picture of what is happening at the blade, making the technology easier for the operator to understand.”

Second, Herr continues, 3D grading has moved from larger machines to compact equipment. Level Best grading boxes are now routinely equipped with 3D grading capabilities that utilize GPS and Robotic Total Stations to place material precisely in the X-, Y-, and Z-axis. While expensive at the initial purchase, this technology produces cost-effective results for the contractor.

Third, the loader, machine control technology, and hydraulic valves are now communicating with each other. “CAN communication between the machine, the machine control technology, and the valve on the Level Best grade box is better integrated, which opens the door for greater advances in production and integration with the loader’s in-cab controls,” explains Herr. This integration makes the operator more comfortable and more productive.

The Level Best grading box attachment for skid steer and compact track loaders is a hybrid grader design. The box section captures and holds material in order to place it to grade. The box does not angle from side to side like a traditional grader, which allows the Level Best grading box to be a more compact and stronger attachment. “The Level Best box blade is also different from a traditional grader in that it can grade material in both forward and reverse directions,” adds Herr. This bi-directional grading takes advantage of the maneuverability and nimble nature of CTLs and skid steer loaders, making the Level Best grading box “a very valuable and precise grading tool for contractors.”

Level Best grading products are unique because they have been intentionally designed for use with machine control in fine grading applications. Their boxes can be equipped with many types of machine control such as laser receivers, GPS controls, laser-augmented GPS controls, sonic skis, or robotic total stations.

Level Best has moved into more markets than the concrete industry where it began. “Since compact equipment softly travels over sensitive surfaces and is easy to transport, there are a lot of new applications found for Level Best grading products,” says Herr. “We are finding many new applications like athletic field maintenance and construction, agriculture, general excavation, golf course renovation and construction, maintenance of equestrian arenas, and grading tennis courts.”

Motor graders are a “big thing,” concludes Deere’s Kurth. “The industry is evolving and they’re the full package solution that provides good resale without a big investment.”

However, there’s still room for improvement. Accuracy is the key to their success, but Kurth believes the technology can still improve. “They’ll continue to speed the grading, increasing from one mph, to three mph. That’s what everyone is going after.”

But, he cautions, the machine must be well balanced: power, speed, accuracy, traction. In addition, there will continue to be a focus on increasing uptime and decreasing maintenance.

Whether or not their role expands, motor graders are entrenched in the grading industry. “Motor graders start with the county, but they get a second life with a contractor,” says Trimble’s Drake, adding that the average contractor pays for the system on the first project.