Advantages and Capabilities of Current Machine Control Technology

May 21, 2018

“The beauty of intelligent machine control is it makes inexperienced operators good, and good operators better,” points out Sebastian Witkowski, product marketing manager for intelligent machine control for Komatsu.

Industry experts agree: as a tool in the hands of all types of operators, technologically advanced machine control is providing greater efficiencies and safety measures with features that offer a more fast-paced return on investment (ROI).

As fleet manager of the Fred Smith Company in North Carolina, Harrison Smith will attest to that. The company, which provides services in heavy highway and commercial site development, runs a fleet of up to 300 construction machines and began using Topcon grade control 15 years ago.

About two years ago, the company started using integrated machine control with John Deere’s WorkSight. In terms of the ROI, Smith says it’s a “no-brainer.” That starts with its biggest benefit, operator safety, which keeps the operator in the cab instead of having to climb up on the machine’s blade with an antenna.

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Having experienced the evolution of machine control, Smith says he also appreciates that it’s coming factory-installed. To acquire his crews—a mix of age groups and experience levels—Smith credits the local John Deere representatives for “helping us walk through this new process.”

The training has been done onsite with a dozer on a project. “When an operator can train from somebody else who knows how to operate, training goes a long way,” he adds.

Skilled labor shortages in the construction industry point to the need for customizing skid-steer and compact track loaders to match operators’ preferences, notes Jason Archbold, Bobcat Company marketing manager.

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Improving compact loader control options is a common approach to increasing operator comfort and reducing fatigue, he adds. Traditionally, standard hand levers and foot pedals have been the preferred setup for skid-steer and compact track loader operators, he says.

Archbold points to US Census Bureau data indicating 42 as the median age of workers in the overall construction sector, which leads to increased demand for machines that are easier to operate. “At the same time, the aging construction workforce is coupled with young operators who prefer wrist and hand movements with joystick controls instead of the traditional loader mechanical systems,” he says.

When it comes to machine control, “we’re ultimately driven by what the contractor in the field demands of us,” says Witkowski.

CASE Construction Equipment has partnered with Leica Geosystems to offer on-machine and off-machine guidance systems for blade control and grade control. “The operator gets greater efficiency and accuracy out of their blade movements,” notes Brad Stemper, CASE’s solutions marketing manager.

The company’s most technologically advanced systems are fit-as-desired full two-dimensional (2D) and three-dimensional (3D) high-speed grade and dig systems that go on excavators, dozers, motor graders, and other machines.

The machine control system includes operating wizards, as well as a “snap on, snap off” connect panel enabling transfer from a docking station in the machine to the panel “so the security of the panel can be taken with them,” notes Stemper. “A variety of operators can use their own panels, arrive at the machine, dock it, and go to work with that machine without having to upload or transfer files to and from the machine, or worry about keeping that device on hand,” he adds.

Among the line of grade control systems for earthworks, paving, drilling, and piling offered by Trimble are:

  • Trimble GCS900 Grade Control System, with 2D or 3D grade control for dozers on bulk earthwork, grading, and fine-grading applications. GCS900 also can be installed on excavators, motor graders, scrapers, and wheel loaders. The GCS900 2D and 3D grade control systems can be installed on grading attachments for compact machines such as skid steers and compact track loaders. “This is especially beneficial on projects such as sidewalks, bicycle paths, parks, and other small sites that have complex topography,” notes Scott Crozier, director of marketing and product management for Trimble’s civil engineering and construction division.
  • Trimble DPS900 Machine Control System, designed to help increase the safety, accuracy, and efficiency of drilling and piling operations. “DPS900 is ideal for drilling in aggregate quarries, mining operations, foundations, oil, gas, and other exploration projects, and large construction cuts like roads and railways,” says Crozier. “It also can be configured for piling applications such as retaining walls, cofferdams, bridge or building structural foundations, and solar or wind farm installations. We also just released the DPS900 system for dynamic compaction applications such as airports, roads, and large structures.”
  • Trimble PCS900 Paving Control System, a 3D system designed to significantly improve both asphalt and concrete paving productivity and the ride-ability of road and airport surfaces by directly referencing off the road design. “Since PCS900 is a stringless system, it saves time and labor by eliminating the staking process,” says Crozier. “It also increases truck productivity by requiring less maneuvering around the stringline.” PCS900 also is available on milling machines and—depending on job specifications—can mill at a fixed or variable depth to cut the ideal depth and slope without stringlines or manual adjustments.
  • Trimble CCS900 Compaction Control System is designed as the first satellite-based positioning solution enabling contractors to compact surface material to a target density and check finished grade accuracy in the same process. The system relies on Trimble satellite-based positioning sensors and on-machine software, and is suited for soil and sub-surface material compaction for tandem rollers and single smooth drum and padfoot rollers.

Hyundai Construction Equipment Americas recently announced a “Trimble-ready” option for wheel loaders and excavators that enable contractors to order the machines with factory-installed Trimble machine control and positioning systems. For example, the R80CR-9A compact excavator equipped with a Trimble GCSFlex machine-control system is designed to meet the needs and budgets of owner-operators and small to mid-sized contractors.

A Hyundai R35Z-9A compact excavator paired with a Trimble GCS900 2D grade-control system uses an angle sensor, dual-axis sensor, and laser catcher to measure the relationship between the body, boom, stick, and bucket. The system guides the operator to the desired depth and slope and determines where the bucket teeth are and should be.

A Hyundai HX300L excavator can be paired with a dual GNSS GCS900 system—combining 3D machine positioning with bucket positioning—and a Trimble X2350 Loadrite onboard weighing system.

A Hyundai HL955 wheel loader can be paired with a dual GNSS GCS900 grade-control, machine-positioning system. “A current trend in which we expect to see continued development is integrated operations tracking,” notes Juston Thompson, product training manager, Hyundai Construction Equipment Americas.

To that point, Hyundai is providing an integrated load-weighing system that comes standard on all HL900 series wheel loaders. “Weight management is key to many operations, and is one of the reasons for including it as a standard feature on Hyundai loaders,” says Thompson. “This onboard weighing system is accurate to plus or minus 1%, and has automatic and manual settings for monitoring individual and cumulative bucket load weights.”

System measurements are displayed on the multifunction screen in the cab, providing load-weight monitoring reliable enough to support production management, he adds.

Hyundai’s Hi-Mate remote management system is designed to provide a real-time method of tracking performance and maintenance-related variables. It is provided free of charge for three years with all new Hyundai excavators and wheel loaders. The GPS-based software system allows equipment owners and service personnel to track and monitor Hyundai construction machines at any time and in any location, monitoring key machine components such as the engine, hydraulics, and electrical system.

The 3D-MCMAX system is Topcon’s next generation of dozer grading solutions. It is designed to provide high-accuracy elevation, slope, and blade rotation sensing in an integrated configuration for maximum speed, control, and grading performance.

Credit: Bobcat
A Bobcat E42 equipped with machine control

The system uses Topcon 3D-MC2 technology with dual IMU sensors and new algorithms to deliver an integrated solution locating the sensitive GNSS technology “safely inside the cab instead of out on the harsh environment of the blade,” points out Ron Oberlander, senior director, professional services, Topcon Positioning Group.

“It lets operators work confidently in rough or fine grade applications, slope conditions, and in restricted sight environments without the visual obstruction of masts or risks to hanging cables,” he adds.

John Deere WorkSight director Jena Holtberg-Benge says the company has “taken the approach over the last few years of being brand agnostic in that we realize that our contractors work with Trimble, Topcon, Leica, and others. We offer, from the factory, many different options to be Trimble-ready, Topcon-ready—an ‘all makes’-ready approach.”

Through its dealers, the company also offers the ability to purchase a 3D-MC2 Topcon aftermarket kit that goes on dozers.

John Deere recently launched SmartGrade crawler dozers with the integration of the machine control offering on the 700K, 750K, and 850K models, aimed at improving job site accuracy and work quality through the complete integration of the Topcon 3D-MC2 Grade Control System.

SmartGrade removes the need for daily installation of blade-mounted sensors and components, designed to reduce setup time. The elimination of external cables to the masts is designed to reduce breakage and vulnerability to damage and theft.

One key component of integrated machine control is Auto SmartGrade, designed to allow the operator to easily adjust the system when moving the machine from one soil type to another. Auto SmartGrade automatically lifts the blade over heavy loads before track slippage occurs, then returns the blade to grade. SmartGrade also limits the number of passes required, reducing the pace of wear on the undercarriage. With SmartGrade, machine dimensions are preloaded into the grade control monitor, reducing the time required to calibrate the dozer to about 30 minutes. Also, the system provides enhanced diagnostics through the John Deere JDLink telematics system.

“That enabled us not only to integrate the architecture and components associated with machine control, but also integrate it with the blade function and automate more of the functions associated with that and dialing it in with the material type, thereby automating the blade function,” notes,” says Holtberg-Benge, adding that makes it easier for an unskilled operator to operate the machine.

John Deere also has a machine control-ready excavator option designed to eliminate calibration challenges.

Komatsu’s machine control lineup ranges from its smallest dozer, the 105-hp D39i-24, to the 359-hp D155AXi-8 dozer, as well as a lineup of intelligent excavators, the smallest being the 158-hp PC210LCi-10 through the 359-hp PC490LCi-11 excavator. “Before the introduction of Komatsu’s machine control systems, there was a high learning curve for new operators being able to work efficiently and accurately,” notes Witkowski.

“It took a skilled operator to efficiently rough doze, get close to grade, and then finish grade. Even then, it wasn’t uncommon for a skilled operator to have to go back and adjust the working surface a tenth or two to arrive at finish grade, with the added challenge of having to read off of grade stakes.”

Komatsu’s intelligent machine control is designed to give operators grade position information in their cab at their fingertips, with accuracy known in real time with a multitude of job site functions.

Caterpillar has a “technology ladder” of grade technology offerings based on the customer’s job application, from 2D indicate-only grade control to automatic 3D, with the latest offering being Grade with Assist for the 323F, notes Scott Hagemann, market professional, machine control and guidance.

Most skid-steer and compact track loader manufacturers offer more than one style of control systems to meet the growing demand for operator preferences, Archbold says.

They include standard controls, Advanced Control System (ACS), and Selectable Joystick Controls (SJC). “With the press of a button inside the compact loader cab, the operator can switch from one style to another,” he adds.

Standard controls remain popular today among operators working in construction, says Archbold. “The mechanical control systems with multiple linkages are preferred by many older operators because they were trained with them and have used them throughout their careers,” he says. “With standard compact loader controls, each steering lever controls each drive side independently. Dual foot pedals control the skid-steer or compact track loader’s hydraulic lift and tilt functions. At the end of a long workday, the operator’s arms may be especially tired because of the movements associated with standard controls.”

The ACS is an option for fleet owners with some operators who prefer hand and foot controls and some who prefer only hand controls, says Archbold. “ACS provides two control systems in one compact loader to suit operator preferences. Operators can choose between controlling lift and tilt functions by hand or by foot,” he says. “They can use traditional hand and foot controls or press a button to switch to H-pattern hand controls. Both loader control styles provide sensitive, precise control of all loader functions.”

Archbold points out that the left and right steering levers have handles that pivot 15 degrees right and left for easy operation and less operator fatigue. “The left handle controls the lift arms. Operators move it left to raise the lift arms and right to lower. The right handle controls attachment tilt. Move it right to dump a bucket or tilt an attachment forward. Move it left to curl the attachment back,” he adds.

SJC is becoming increasingly popular with the addition of younger skid-steer and compact track loader operators, says Archbold. “The state-of-the-art electronic joysticks offer low-effort hand control of all machine workgroup functions,” he adds. “Operators can make more comfortable hand and wrist movements to perform routine loader functions. At the end of a long workday, operators are more likely to be less fatigued if they use joystick controls rather than standard controls.”

A dash-mounted rocker switch inside the cab is designed to allow operators to easily switch between ISO and H patterns. In the ISO pattern, the left joystick controls drive functions while the right joystick controls lift and tilt functions. In the H-pattern, forward and backward movement of the left joystick controls the loader’s left-side drive, while side-to-side movement controls lift. Forward and backward movement of the right joystick controls the loader’s right-side drive, while side-to-side movement controls tilt.

Joystick controls give skid-steer and compact track loader operators access to more functions that increase productivity and accuracy, says Archbold. “Equipping compact loaders with control options allows operators to choose their preferred style, which may increase their productivity and reduce their fatigue,” says Archbold.

Bobcat compact loaders equipped with SJC offer the following features:

  • Horsepower management: automatically adjusts the loader’s drive system for maximum pushing and digging power
  • Speed management: permits the skid-steer or compact track loader to be maneuvered at slower travel speeds for more precise attachment operation and less effort
  • Drive response: changes how more or less responsive the loader’s drive and steering systems are when the operator moves the joysticks
  • Hand engine speed control: allows the operator to set specific throttle positions with an accelerator foot pedal permitting the operator to increase engine speed on demand as needed
  • Fingertip functions: normal- and high-range travel speed, auxiliary hydraulic functions, optional horn and turn signals, speed management, and lift-arm float control

Depth guidance systems for compact excavators, grading systems for compact loaders, and continued refinements to the instrument panels are three technologies that have helped make these machines considerably more and productive, notes Archbold.

Additionally, the technologies monitor a variety of diagnostics and equipment functions as well as provide in-depth machine and operator performance metrics, he adds. “Manually checking the grade or dig depth with a tape measure or stick receiver can be time-consuming,” points out Archbold. “With the implementation of depth guidance systems, compact excavator operators can set a desired dig depth and work against that benchmark using multiple onboard sensors built into a forward-mount instrument panel inside the cab that can detect the exact position of the bucket’s teeth.”

Credit: Hyundai
A Hyundai Excavator using Trimble 3D Machine Positioning

The instrumentation panel continually references the current and desired depths, while audible and visual alerts indicate whether the operator is approaching the target at the target or beyond the target, he adds.

The base system is laser-compatible and is designed to be operated with a basic laser system, allowing the operator to benchmark a laser signal instead of the trench grade, Archbold notes, adding that the laser helps excavator operators to grade or slope with a beacon or grade at multiple onsite locations.

“Depth guidance systems can help prevent under-digging and over-digging, and minimize the cost and time associated with backfilling, compacting fill material, and manual labor to finalize depth or grade,” says Archbold. “The system is ideal for trenching utility lines, placing drainage ditches, digging basements, installing sewer lines and drain fields, and site preparation for footings or pads.”

Loader technologies include adding automatic grading solutions for more accurate results requiring less time and labor.

“Previously, loaders could be equipped with 2D grading systems that would allow operators to set the desired grade from inside the cab and work off a single plain—either flat, single, or dual slope,” says Archbold. “The 2D systems work well when job conditions and applications rarely change.

Recently, manufacturers made modifications to grading solutions, making them more robust, and leading to 3D grading solutions, Archbold points out. “The 3D grade control system has a variety of measurable benefits, including its ability to work off elevation coordinates set up around the job site, giving operators the ability to grade valleys, ditches, and contours,” he says. “In addition, the system can display point data, machine diagnostics, and job site progress live from the field to an office computer.

“This type of grade control system makes it easier for operators to complete construction applications—residential and commercial development, coastal engineering, road, and highway building, and land reclamation.”

That results in less rework, less staking and checking, lower operating costs, improved material usage, and faster job cycles, which can improve productivity and pave the way for a stronger bottom line, Archbold says.

In addition to depth and grade-control technologies, multiple functions and controls are integrated into excavator and loader instrument panels, enhancing a machine’s functionality to provide critical information to the operator, notes Archbold. “For example, instrument panels can track individual fuel usage, real-time fuel consumption, and idle time intervals in compact excavators and loaders,” he says “With this data, owners and operators can assess a particular type of job and more accurately estimate what aspect of a job requires more fuel.”

Machine diagnostic and management technologies can be integrated into some instrument panels to monitor engine coolant temperature, engine oil pressure, hydraulic oil temperature, and other essential machine functions, Archbold points out. “By having this onboard diagnostic tool, operators can potentially identify and solve problems while on the job site and help prevent issues before they occur,” he adds.

Keyless start systems that prevent unauthorized use and minimize theft risk are another benefit of advanced instrument panels, says Archbold. “Only operators with pre-assigned passwords can start and run the machine,” he says. “Passwords can easily be changed and multiple passwords can be assigned to other employees.”

Instrument panel attachment communication is another time-saving feature, says Archbold. An hour clock is displayed on the attachment screen and a special screen relays laser transmitter, receiver, and blade position information to the operator. The panel also monitors specific activities for certain attachments.

A growing number of businesses employ operators who speak different languages, Archbold points out, adding some manufacturers have equipped compact equipment with operator instructions in multiple languages with panel readouts of loader and excavator control systems accessed in English, Spanish, French, and a variety of other languages.

Language preference can be used throughout all panel communications including startup, machine and attachment operation, diagnostics, and troubleshooting. Some work environments call for operating skid-steer and compact track loaders remotely. Bobcat offers an optional radio remote control system designed to allow the operator to start the loader engine and operate the drive, lift, tilt, and auxiliary hydraulic functions using a radio remote control transmitter, free from dust and noise.

Archbold points out that the advantages of the radio remote control include:

  • Moving the remote control system from one loader to another
  • Starting the loader engine and operating the drive, lift, tilt and auxiliary hydraulic functions using the radio remote control transmitter
  • Transmitter guard bar, which provides protection against bumping or damaging controls
  • Emergency stop (E-Stop) buttons
  • System shut down if the operator trips and falls down

A remote control system is available for Bobcat skid-steer and compact track loaders with SJC as well as the A770 all-wheel steer loader. It is not approved for certain types of hazardous or explosive environments.

Volvo recently introduced Dig Assist on its excavators, designed to give operators a strong visual guidance system to help them more accurately and productively complete the job at hand.

Dig Assist is the latest in a suite of productivity-enhancing tools available on the Volvo Co-Pilot machine interface, joining Compact Assist with Density Direct available on compactors and Load Assist available on Volvo wheel loaders. Dig Assist allows operators to input job parameters, such as dig depth and slope, on an in-cab interface called Co-Pilot.

“That display system then provides a visual guide to the operator that allows them to track progress and make adjustments as needed,” says Matt McLean, product manager of Volvo Construction Equipment. “The interface is incredibly easy to work with, requiring only about 10 minutes of training.”

Telematics programs are providing another significant efficiency gain, notes McLean.

Credit: John Deere
A John Deere 750K with SmartGrade

Volvo recently launched ActiveCare Direct with 24/7 machine monitoring. The system provides weekly and monthly fleet reports directly from Volvo, including actionable insights regarding how to increase fuel efficiency and prolong machine life. If an issue is detected by the suite of sensors on the machine, fleet managers are notified to schedule maintenance

Those recommendations help owners take care of maintenance needs before they become more costly, provide insights that can influence operator training, create higher productivity and fuel efficiency, and reduce wear and tear, notes McLean. “The key element of ActiveCare Direct is that Volvo is helping identify the most impactful, simple changes a customer can make to increase their bottomline, condensing all the data collected by the machine’s sensors into information the owner can use.”

The strongest efficiency gains in machinery today are almost all driven by advancing technology in control systems and through telematics, notes McLean.

“Using intelligent machine control technology, we’re seeing up to a 6% reduction in construction time when compared to conventional construction methods,” says Witkowski. “That’s taking into consideration the time and money it takes to go out on a job site, set grade stakes, and having people onsite checking grade throughout the duration of the job. With intelligent machine control technology, the operators stay in the cab, and their accuracy is known in real time.”

With machine control technology, “contractors can finish faster with less rework, less staking less checking, lower costs, and improved material yields,” notes Crozier, adding that an example is how GCS900 with GradeMax Plus for dozers is designed to allow contractors to grade higher quality surfaces 35 to 40% faster in any material type.

“Motor graders using machine control can reach finished grade with fewer passes and place material faster with millimeter accuracy to keep costs to a minimum and realize better profits,” he explains.

By maintaining tight tolerances, machine control results in higher quality work, Crozier points out, adding that “because finished grade materials can be placed more accurately, with minimal rework, contractors can realize lower material costs.”

Additionally, compaction control systems help contractors roll a more efficient pattern to reach target passes and density faster, increasing productivity and saving fuel, Crozier adds.

Stemper points out that often, there is not just one operator in a machine, but various operators who might get into a machine, or there may be multiple machines on a specific job, so machine control allows those operators to have their plans integrated into the design of the display console. “When they get into a machine, they can easily dock into it,” he points out. “It’s the same docking station across all 2D and 3D machines, so it’s consistency and productivity. It also offers wireless connection to that machine so that the power transfer to the display and data backup to the machine itself can be handled wirelessly with no issues of failing wires or repeat connect and disconnect.”

The system is designed to support accuracy of the plans and support the operators running various machines to have a consistent plan so they can ensure the plans they’re working off of are all the same, Stemper notes.

Wireless data transmission through Leica’s telematics system is offered “so there’s that consistency of having that most up-to-date plan with any changes that occur and it allows each of the operators to have a specific mode of operation within that panel that they prefer.”

That’s in contrast to an operator getting into a machine where the control system is hardwired in “and then the operator has to manipulate the plan so they have the exact details they want to work off of instead of having whatever the last person set it up,” notes Stemper. “They can get in, operate using the same plan that they have been, receive updates to that plan as necessary, but also manage how they’d like to operate, which may be different from the previous operator.”

Hagemann says that significant improvements in machine control and guidance are giving contractors efficiency gains, as evidenced by the reference of cuts and fills throughout the whole job site being displayed in the cab, getting the material moved to the correct location the first time.

The Cat Grade Control system on track-type tractors, for example, uses auto carry for maintaining full blade loads of material to move the largest amount of material possible for the specific machine, he says. “Another example is the precise placement of the material,” says Hagemann, adding that saving material is a recognizable improvement due to grade technologies.

The SmartGrade’s “calibration wizard” is designed to drive efficiency, notes B. J. Bauman, instructor of John Deere WorkSight. Efficiencies are derived through Auto SmartGrade, which features different modes including activity type, material type, and load type.

“It helps the contractor decide what application he’s going to put that machine in,” says Bauman. “Coupled with Eco Mode with a 20% savings in fuel, it gets down to having an efficient pass, pass after pass.”

Machine control also improves safety on the job site. “We all know the hazards of mud, slippery surface, and having three points of contact,” says Bauman.

By removing the mast from the blade through the SmartGrade dozer, an operator does not have to climb out of the machine to get an antenna off of the top of the mast, he points out. The machine control features antennas on the front and the rear of the cab.

Along with safety is theft protection. Inside of the cab is a cover that goes over the top of the grade control monitor that locks it in.

Machine control technology helps keep workers out of the way of machines, notes Crozier. “In a mine or quarry, 3D piling systems can greatly increase safety by notifying operators of areas to avoid, reducing blind spots, and eliminating the need for people standing near the machine,” he says. “The same is true for earthworks and paving—by reducing the need for staking, stringlines, and surveying, you reduce the number of people that machine operators have to be mindful of on the job site.”

Volvo’s Dig Assist integrates safety features such as providing more accuracy for operators when completing tasks, thus necessitating fewer people on the job site checking work as it is being done, says McLean. Dig Assists’ Smart View option provides real-time video around the machine to help operators keep those on the job site safe, he adds.

Credit: Komatsu
A Komatsu D155AXi equipped with machine control

The machine control system provides customizable audio and visual alerts when safe height and depth operating limits are being exceeded.

Hagemann points out that in addition to keeping a grade checker out of harm’s way, other grade technology safety solutions include programmed avoidance zones in the 3D models to warn the operator, hydraulically stopping the machine before it gets in a predetermined area, having the GPS components off the blade, and not requiring the removal of them nightly.

Stemper points out one of the most dangerous jobs on a construction site is that of the grade stick manager who verifies that the excavator is digging the grade or walking out to see a particular cut is happening with a dozer or motor grader. “By removing those people from the job site, you’re removing that potential of having someone injured due to heavy operation on and around a job site,” he says, adding that the technology helps to ensure the job is being cut, dug, or leveled to the job plan.

The 3D-MCMAX mast is designed so that the operator’s view from the cab is not obstructed in any way. “There’s also the added bonus of a clean integration onto the equipment,” Oberlander adds. “Gone is the need for daily installation and removal of antenna, cables, and mast. With 3D-MCMAX, the operator just climbs on and gets to work. Downtime is minimized, too.”

For many contractors, safety and efficiency factors are the most significant drivers for investing in machine control. Grade technology touches many ROI opportunities: labor costs, machine cost, material cost, and job completion bonuses, notes Hagemann.

McLean concurs, adding that telematics help identify specific actions that can be taken to increase uptime, decrease servicing time, and better control costs on inputs such as fuel.

The 3D-MCMAX system enables operators to move material faster and more accurately than before with fewer passes, says Oberlander. “Not only does the job get finished more quickly, but fuel costs are minimized and the less experienced operators become more productive,”
he adds.

Trimble’s machine control solutions can often obtain an ROI on the first project through the derived efficiencies, says Crozier.

The ROI is the most significant factor of grade control, which includes the onboard “machine control,” and offboard “base station, rover, and data collector,” notes Bauman. “It’s a very large investment,” he points out. “Expert operators are not so readily available in the industry. SmartGrade is used as a training tool. An operator knows what normal is supposed to be like, when that engine is going to lug down, and it’s going to raise that blade based on the command or mode you set it at.

“It’s teaching that novice operator to become an expert operator. That’s bridging the gap and showing the contractors the return on investment. Not only does it have the features to make an expert operator better, but it offers a different approach to develop the workforce.”

While quantifying an ROI depends on a particular company, job, or how often job changes occur, the fact of not needing to have multiple people onsite to do a specific surveying or staking operation helps a company derive the ROI more quickly, notes Stemper.

A given road project of a few miles in length will have thousands of stakes that used to be driven into a road project to make sure they’re staying on grade and making the correct pass when running these long distances, says Stemper. “You remove that aspect of the job,” he adds. “You’re going to do a little bit of staking up front. It’s more about calibrating where your base stations go and some initial start points or transitioning from an existing job to a new job that qualifies that job in being able to start it accurately.

“Once that’s done, you’re eliminating that need for the cost of the stakes and the cost of two or three people on that job to come out and stake. You’re removing the need that if one of those stakes get bumped or nudged to have a person come out and re-stake it or have the grade checkers be onsite.”

In addition to removing those costs, another payoff comes in plan changes: if plans change to move a road half an inch or foot in one direction or another, “in the past, they’d have to pull up all of the stakes, re-run them, create new plans, and make sure every operator is up to date on what changed on the plan,” notes Stemper.

“Now, with wireless transmission of data plans or simple communication through USB thumb stick hard drives, you can easily connect those up, load the plan, and within seconds the operator is operating off of the correct plan,” he adds.

Stemper says the best ROI examples he’s heard relates to excavation work and simple 2D systems. “A simple 2D excavator system can really pay off quickly for people doing anything from excavating mass amounts of material to basement foundation experts or pipe laying operations for utilities,” he says.

“Running simple 2D systems is a relatively minimal cost when considering the cost of a 21-ton excavator,” adds Stemper. “There’s an initial investment between $10,000 and $15,000, and you’re able to eliminate the grade checker and validate how you’re cutting the grade every time you put that stick into the hole to try to remove more earth.”

Over-excavating can be one of the biggest costs on a job site, “so dig even a half a foot or a foot too deep, you’ve got to bring in fill, compact the fill, and go back and cut,” says Stemper. “You don’t compact to where you were, you compact to above that line, and you have to cut again back to where you need to be.

“Not only is the cost of doing those operations in the cost of eliminating that, but it’s also the time cost. If you over-excavate and need to refill and go back and re-excavate, you’re talking about a delay of a day or a week or more, depending on how much was done.”

That can be a significant change in the job time and timeline to complete, which can have significant costs for the contractor down the road if they don’t meet their deliverables on when the project should be done, Stemper adds.

Credit: Topcon
A Cat D6N using Topcon’s 3D-MCMAX

Any new technology requires training to leverage it to its maximum capabilities. While machine control technology is designed to be intuitive and easy to use, “many of the operators being asked to use it aren’t digital natives and are resistant to change,” notes Crozier, adding the key to success is a strong local dealer who can provide personal training and support
as needed.

“Trimble’s SITECH dealers will spend as much time as it takes to get new operators up to speed and they provide ongoing support and guidance to make sure everything is running smoothly,” says Crozier. “The feedback we receive is that once most operators get past the fear of the unknown, it’s easy—and even fun—to use and almost all operators say they would never go back.”

Challenges facing new operators can largely be narrowed down to their inexperience in operating machinery efficiently and being able to react properly on how the machine behaves in given applications, notes Witkowski. “New operators can be slow to respond to load and track slip and what ultimately suffers is efficiency and productivity,” he points out. “Komatsu’s intelligent machine control dozer technology automatically raises and lowers the blade to optimize blade load out in front of the dozer and minimizes track slip.

“As the intelligent machine control dozer works towards grade, it’ll optimally load the blade with enough material to maximize the traction so if the dozer senses any track slip, it will automatically raise that blade to lower the load to regain traction, ultimately maximizing efficiency and productivity.”

To support training efforts, Komatsu has certified technology-solutions experts on-staff trained to help provide support that is both machine-specific and job site-specific, says Witkowski.

Most contractors find machine control intuitive to use, he says. “It’s much easier to use and be productive from the get-go rather than jumping on a machine without this technology and having to deal with a steep learning curve and lack of experience,” he adds.

“We believe training on these solutions is critical,” says Oberlander. “This is why we have regular training courses for our users—both in person and online—to help them adopt this new technology.

“Our industry knows how to use the machines very efficiently without the addition of 3D machine control and when they are approached with a product as advanced as 3D-MCMAX, we want to make sure that the operators are comfortable with the benefits that the technology can provide,” he adds.

Topcon’s training programs are designed around the education of skilled operators on how to utilize the new technology. “Once we have the opportunity to work with them through the features and benefits of the system, they become much more engaged with the product, which makes it more efficient,” says Oberlander.

Credit: Trimble
Paving with Trimble’s PCS900 Paving Control System

Training has evolved to the point of in-system or in-machine experience, notes Stemper. “There would be a lot of discussion around what’s happening on the job or understanding grade stacks and so on, but now with these panels being very intuitive and the communication that they’re putting across and allowing the operators to customize what they want to follow, they’re able to follow what makes sense to them,” he says. “The learning curve has essentially been reduced for these machine control systems as we continue to advance.”

Stemper points out that there’s a fair amount of setup that needs to take place to ensure a machine’s correct operation. “Every machine needs to be calibrated to the site or every machine over time needs to be recalibrated as wear occurs on the cutting edge, bucket teeth, or bucket edge,” he says.

“Many manufacturers like CASE have tried to make things simpler and more intuitive for the operator to either go through these calibration efforts, go through the initial setup of the job, or follow through with customization to what they want to do on the job, and how they want to operate that machine.”

Doing so has decreased the learning curve to make more workers more effective with using machine control and blade guidance more quickly, Stemper adds. “The focus of training is coming down to what you can build into the system to make it more intuitive so that self-learning can occur and more of that practical application instead of going through a tremendous amount of training to make yourself familiar with how it works,” he says.

“Just like anything new, training is key, and different operators need different training tools,” says Hagemann. CAT uses a variety of training techniques, including traditional classroom and hands-on training as well as videos, quick reference cards, and help screens on the displays to assist the operator in using the grade technologies.

John Deere dealers are indicating that there is a quick turnaround in training, notes Bauman. “With Topcon, Trimble, Leica, and the integrated systems that are in the market today, when you spend a little bit of seat time, you’re going to become efficient in that machine,” he adds.

Training required for Dig Assist is minimized for novice and expert operators, says McLean, adding that such training takes 10 minutes prior to beginning work on simple projects such as trenches.

Setting up a project in Dig Assist requires a limited number of screen touches on the Volvo Co-Pilot HD tablet interface before beginning to dig. “One of the bigger training aspects regarding technology isn’t necessarily in the way they’re using the interfaces—those are actually being picked up very quickly,” notes McLean. “The challenge still lies more in overcoming some operators’ tendencies to operate machines as though they were still operating the machines they grew up on—the machines of yesteryear that had less sensitive hydraulics and required full throttle to get any job done.

“Now machines are being made to allow operators to gain more power at lower RPMs, and deliver far better fuel efficiency. It’s just a matter of ensuring operator training addresses all points of the machine, from work modes that affect fuel efficiency to display systems that can enhance accuracy and efficiency, among other factors.”

When it comes to telematics and training, “as an industry, we still have to work toward the ideal situation in which the telematics data is being gathered and fleet managers and owners are empowered to use it to make smarter decisions about utilization and acquisitions,” says McLean.

Yet in doing so, “we need to ensure we’re going a step further to take that data and create operator training programs from it to help empower operators to make positive changes inside the machine,” he adds.

That can be a bit touchy for operators who may feel like the data is being used in a “Big Brother” type of way, McLean notes. “Letting operators know that data is being used to benefit profitability and productivity, and framing the data and training as empowerment rather than trying to catch them doing something wrong is key to the success of using telematics data to help a company’s bottom line, he says.

Evolution of Machine Control
Going forward, the buzz term is “autonomous operation,” notes Stemper. “Everybody likes to talk about autonomous operation,” he adds. “In my mind, it continues to evolve into where you are not eliminating people from the operation. You are simply enhancing their ability to do work. Whether it’s greater feedback to the operator on what’s happening on or around the job site or greater awareness of what’s happening around that operator, it’s going to make the machine more efficient and proficient in its operations.”

Case in point: incorporating identification of underground utilities for the benefit of the operator. “You’re going to see a lot more technology built into the systems and into the machines to make them more proficient in their operation in continuing to enhance the operators’ ability to run that machine safely and accurately on that job site,” adds Stemper.

Oberlander notes that the success of the IMU sensors on 3D-MCMAX suggests the market will come to depend on this technology for more types of construction machine control.

Hagemann concurs that autonomy will continue to evolve, adding that contractors using Caterpillar equipment are asking for more integration of the grade technologies on all of the company’s machines.

Increased automation to improve current efficiency gains is something Witkowski sees coming down the road for machine control.

Looking ahead, “one of the biggest things we’re seeing is the adoption curve of grade control,” says Holtberg-Benge. “Grade guidance, in general, is accelerating quite a bit, largely due to the safety benefits as well as the return on investment.

“Another piece we tend to see, which is really accelerating the adoption of grade control, is the requirements when you go to bid a job, whether that’s a DOT job or otherwise. Many of the specs are requiring one-tenth of a foot accuracy or better and currently that is tough to achieve without grade control.”

Looking out five years, “with that ubiquity of grade control across machine forms—specifically excavators and dozers—I think you’re going to see a lot more of that in terms of the actual automation,” continues Holtberg-Benge.

The challenge being faced in the industry is that while there are “very low” unemployment levels unseen since before 2005, those being hired into the industry do not have the tenure and experience, she notes. “They’re coming from a lot of different industries,” points out Holtberg-Benge. “Taking somebody who has never operated a very expensive and complex piece of equipment like a dozer or a grader or an excavator and making them proficient and getting them to that one-tenth of a foot accuracy is going to require automation and it’s going to require training.”

Additionally, automation and functionality are “making it very easy for the operator to get that accuracy and the speed required to get the job done,” she adds.

Crozier believes the industry will continue to see advancements in satellite positioning technologies, including innovation that delivers greater accuracy and greater connectively on job sites. “I also expect to see more manufacturers offering automation solutions directly from the factory, as well as machine control solutions continuing to become less expensive and easier to use,” he says. “I believe all of this will make machine control—and all technology—more accessible to smaller contractors and will drive greater adoption across the industry.”

McLean points out that in Volvo’s newest line of excavators, the company was able to decrease the number of switches by 50% while increasing operator control through the programs available on Volvo Co-Pilot. “This trend will only continue to increase across the industry,” he says. “Operators will gain more control through operating interfaces while owners will gain more insight and informed decision-making through telematics.

“Obviously, autonomous machines have begun to be a stronger conversation point, as well. At CONEXPO, Volvo had its HX02, all-electric, autonomous hauler on display as well as a miniature working job site display of autonomous machines, giving booth visitors a look at how conceptual machines are starting to take shape for the job sites of the future.”