Technology in Construction: Connecting the Office to the Field

Gx Bug Web
Gx Bug Web
Gx Bug Web
Gx Bug Web
Gx Bug Web

Trimble calls it the Connected Community (a derivative of its Trimble Connected Site). Topcon talks about starting simply, while Cat aims to take a lead with its dealer network. Leica says it’s taking it slow, “future proofing” what it will offer.

All of this is aimed at achieving what many are calling the “integrated job site,” an approach to real-time, two-way communication of data from field to office enabled by advances in communication technology. Primary goals are those of keeping everyone up to date on what’s happening on the job, including machine location, function, and productivity; assuring that design file changes get to the machines in a timely manner (and making sure all the relevant stakeholders know this has happened); catching problems before they become costly failures; and maximizing investment. All of this is enabled by ever more sophisticated software that allows for proactive decision-making and cost trend-setting, job after job after job. Trimble and Topcon and CAT previewed their can-do scenarios at this year’s ConExpo, although it’s clear from post-show interviews that what will happen on the ground is far from being nailed down. Leica insists it’s still fine-tuning.

Caterpillar is placing its bets on its dealers to make integrated job-site management an industry standard. Trimble is projecting a new resource, the GPS coordinator, even as Leica aims to minimize personnel required to make this work. Topcon is betting that a step-by-step approach, ranging from basic monitoring to something as elaborate as video streaming, will get contractors where they want to go.

“It’s getting the right information to the right people so they can make business decisions to most efficiently and effectively execute the job that needs to be done,” says Caterpillar Connected Worksite Marketing Rep Christi Wilson. “This means design files for machine control and guidance, along with health information from the machine that includes planned maintenance issues, machine location and utilization, and all of this being most expeditiously transferred off the machines instead of collected manually. It’s this kind of aggregate information that can help contractors make the kind of business decisions that keep things moving smoothly and optimizes productivity as well as addressing owning and operating costs.”

“Traditionally this has been an aftermarket business,” says David Pinaire, productivity solutions manager for Cat’s Connected Worksite Marketing and Product Support Division. “Our goal is to move it into the mainstream, supported by Caterpillar’s dealer network.”

What this boils down to, perhaps, is moving beyond selling iron to marketing “customer-specific solutions.”

“Currently,” says Pinaire, “Cat is the only OEM [original equipment manufacturer] with what we would call its own integrated, factory-designed-in solutions, which we feel provides optimum performance and reliability. It features what we call sensor-independent plug-and-play capability so we can scale up.”

AccuGrade is the umbrella of Caterpillar’s family of machine control and guidance technologies. Other members of the family include Cross Slope, Sonic, Sight Reference, lLsers, GPS, ATS, and Intelligent Compaction, all of which according to Pinaire, Cat has pulled together with a software module called AccuGrade Office. “We’ve been looking at this for some time, from a holistic point of view, examining the concerns our customers must address on a day-to-day basis. They need to increase their productivity and efficiency. They have a labor shortage issue and issues with employee satisfaction and retention. Also, safety issues and the need to be as versatile as they can with their equipment and increase quality assurance. We also hear a lot about improving and supporting sustainability.

“At Caterpillar, the idea is to complete our portfolio of prime product solutions with our complete Cat product line where it applies. And then within each product line have a portfolio of technology solutions that applies to the respective prime products. Our goal is to take a job from rough earthworks all the way through paving. Phase two of our strategy is a multigeneration plan to integrate the technology into the machines over time.

“We sometimes talk about the “˜bleeding edge’ of technology, meaning that some of the early adopters were willing to put up with all the problems with aftermarket systems to address an integrated solution because they were getting such improvements in productivity. We put this all together with what AccuGrade Office, which transfers the electronic design file into a format the machines can use. And one of the great productivity improvements we’ve achieved is the ability in a wireless domain to send that file out to the machine at the job site. A customer may want to move, say, a retention pond. With this wireless capability, he can go back into the office and redesign it and then electronically push the new design out to every machine on the job. And because they’re working with a digital design, they’re able to check for any design errors before they actually start work. With AccuGrade Office, they can check for the amount of earth that needs to be moved and plan their execution on the job site before they’ve even mobilized their machines.

“At our facility in Spain, Caterpillar did a production study where we built two identical roads side by side, one using conventional methods, and one using AccuGrade. With AccuGrade we achieved 100% improvement in productivity, we saved 43% in fuel, 11% in material, and our accuracy was 98% versus 65% using conventional methods, which means no machine control. With 65% accuracy, you would have to go back in and either cut or refill some areas, so you’re going to consume additional fuel.

ou’re going to use additional ground-engaging tool wear. You’re going to have undercarriage wear.”
Information is power, says Murray Lodge, vice president of construction sales for Topcon Positioning. Topcon recently introduced Topcon Tierra, which, combined with Topcon’s SiteLINK machine tracking capabilities, is targeted at the integrated job site. “But you have to be able to you get your hands around it and grasp it,” Lodge says. “For some contractors this can take time. So we’ve developed our system to be easy to expand.

“You have a computer and you have Internet access; you put a little tracking device on the machine, and you have an asset management system. Once a day it pings back and sends you its location. You can get further advanced by defining how many times and when you want that information. There are many different levels after that, which is what we’re providing in Topcon Tierra. Where this kind of system becomes valuable is when you start talking about sharing machine health information and, more importantly, alarms.”

Tierra is Web-based and allows a remote view of what’s happening in the field-from a project manager’s desk or an equipment manager’s hotel room. “All he has to do is log on and he can view his individual job sites, then zoom in on individual machines. If an operator is having problems with a machine, [the manager] can pull up an exact replica of the machine’s dashboard and see exactly what [the operator] is looking at in the cab. When you talk to customers about this, their eyes almost glaze over. They see the possibilities.

“But you can be overwhelmed pretty easily with this, and what we see is a lot of contractors starting small. Maybe a contractor is primarily interested in machine location, or how many hours each machine has run-and how many of these have been work time as opposed to idling. Maybe he’ll discover he doesn’t need to do maintenance every 1,000 hours as planned. And where before he was getting productivity just from knowing where the vehicles have been moving and how many hours they’ve been in operation, now he’s taking it to a higher level by tracking the amount of material moved and how productive a machine is with different types of material and how each operator functions in different parts of the job.

“Every morning he can come in and compare what he did yesterday with the day before. Maybe he’s right on schedule or even ahead of schedule. So he’ll pull a couple of machines off the job and put them on another job where he’s behind. This way he lowers his overhead, still gets the job done on time and makes more profit on the job-and he won’t have to rent a couple of machines to get the other job caught up.”

“We’ve always had site positioning,” says Paul Thomas, Southwest regional sales manager of machine control systems, for Trimble’s construction division. “We’ve always had grade control and fleet management, and we’ve always had office software. But we didn’t have a way, either through wireless communication or two-way data or intelligent data tracking, to bring all of these pillars together. Now with the Connected Community module, we do. Contractors have been asking for a seamless way to get updates to their machines in the field-to assure the file gets loaded immediately when a change is made, for example. They’ve been pushing us in this direction, based on the tools we’ve already given them.”

In the Connected Community, it’s the office software that becomes the channel for integration. Prior to that, says Thomas, “Trimble has always had these solutions, but we were manually doing things in the office and then taking it into the field. And we were collecting data off the machines, but we were bringing it back on a data card to the office to be processed. Now the technology has increased and gotten to a point where we can do these things and really enhance production and productivity and keep everybody that needs to know updated in real time just by adding modules to the existing software contractors already have.”

The way Trimble envisions it, the office software is the hub, and the machines and the rovers are the spokes in the hub. “We’re not tying machines together, but the office software is communicating with the individual machines. It can do machine analysis on individual machines, and if one machine is sitting idle for 15 minutes, you can ping it and find out why. If a machine is cutting [when it should be filling], the guy in the control center will see it. He immediately pings the operator with a text message or gets him on the phone. So instead of him being notified two hours later when all his material’s been moved and has to be re-moved, he got him within 10 or 15 minutes.”

At Cat, Wilson describes AccuGrade and Product Link as complementing each other toward achieving the goal of an integrated job site. “With Product Link, you can call up that snapshot in time and see, for example, what your load factors were, based on fuel consumption utilization. Then you can compare that with productivity information through AccuGrade or AccuGrade Office, from which you’re getting the volume of material that was moved or the amount of ground that was covered, and so on. What you’re doing is painting a picture, developing situational analysis that you can apply to your next job.

“The important thing is that this kind of product information can be used in a proactive or reactive mode. Everything is categorized by severity level, so the contractor knows what needs immediate attention and what he needs to be planning for, as well as status type information. Information is organized in an “˜exception dashboard,’ so contractors can get a quick look, as they log into the application, at what’s going on. Additionally, as they navigate through the application, they can go through different levels of summary into details. They can also configure a number of exceptional events, which will be immediately forwarded to an e-mail address or text-messaging device, so they can get those exception reports in the field.

“For example, we had one case where a series of fault codes received at an equipment manager’s cell phone indicated there was a serious failure on one of the machines. In fact it was a head on a machine dumping coolant into the engine oil. Because he received these messages immediately on his cell phone, the equipment manager was able to contact the operator and shut the machine down for repair. His comment to us was no doubt he saved the engine, but, because he was notified of the problem as it occurred, he also saved the expense of repairing the machine after failure as well as the lost production. Additionally, with hours reported, you can trend, which means identifying over-utilization or under-utilization of an asset. With location information you can identify what machines are on a site and where, as well as addressing any problems that have come up.

“We are shipping factory standard with Product Link now. It comes with a three-year subscription for the asset indicators, hours, and location. But what contractors really need to do is consult with their dealer. It’s the dealer’s business to keep those machines running and at optimum productivity and control those owning and operating costs. Certainly a customer knows that he needs to train his operators not to operate his machine in a harsh manner, but it’s the interpretation of the information the systems provide that really takes the solution full circle, so you’re not just getting information-you’re actually solving issues, making sound business decisions.”

“When a contractor takes delivery of a project,” says Thomas, “they have a final design or a final grade to achieve. The question is what’s the best means to get to that. Trimble’s Connected Community office software enables them to work in phases to ultimately get to that finished design in the shortest amount of passes, with the smallest amount of material being moved. Trimble has had this in mind for probably the last eight or 10 years with Total Solution. In fact it goes back to the old Spectrum Precision days, when we talked about “˜Concept to Completion.’ Now for the last three years we’ve been talking about the Connected Site and the ability to be proactive. Our goal is to optimize the entire process and eliminate steps within that process.”

Trimble’s goal is the efficient sharing of information to facilitate timely problem solving and rapid communication of. Everyone who needs to know can belong to the Connected Community via the Web page and is immediately notified of changes in job perimeters. Other elements in the Connected Jobsite include Trimble’s Connecting Site Positioning Systems, which allows for real time, two-way data flow between the office and GPS or total station positioning systems (enabling that all-important download of the latest design and work-order data); Connecting Grade Control Systems, which is the live link that enables contractors to rapidly send up-to-date design information to the cab, eliminating those time-consuming trips to the site and errors from incorrect or out-of-date site models, plus location and activity data for each machine and as-graded and compaction data from the machines (to monitor site production volumes and compaction performance); and Connecting Equipment and Mobile Assets, which combines GPS with wireless so contractors can connect to their assets using an Internet-enabled interface.

In Trimble’s vision, the Connected Community will require someone to keep all these balls up in the air, a position it’s calling a GPS coordinator. “Somebody who can handle all of this and make it work and get it up and running,” says Thomas. “Somebody who’s able to tie everything together, analyze data, and be proactive. As one contractor told me, he would like to visit every one of his jobs each day, but physically he can’t do that. Now he can via remotely seeing a snapshot or picture of it and then being able to extract reports of it. He’s not going to sit there and dissect and glance at computer screens all day long, but he knows when a critical situation is occurring-such as final grade-and he’s going to have that job up and be looking at what’s going on. On another job, he might have material coming in the first thing in the morning, so he wants to make sure that these four machines are engaged and up and going at this time. This is a way for him to see them and be in multiple places at one time.”

“Leica sees it more from a complete job-cycle perspective,” says Rick Calvrid, product line manager for machine control products. “And now we’ve got the tools to provide that big picture in a way that everybody can understand. At Leica, we see a big challenge in the construction industry as reacting to changes. Also tracking progress-being able to see what’s going on with the work. This means that giving the engineer and the office staff eyes into the field is a primary goal.

“Leica had a lot of presence in back-and-forth communication from mining even before we acquired Tritonics, which itself has literally decades of experience. Mines already had a lot of fixed communication infrastructure in place for voice communications, so it wasn’t that much of a stretch to add a computer onto a machine for tracking and send data back through an add-on to a voice radio. From the late 1990s and early 2000, we developed systems with our Dozer 2000 product that allowed us to send data back and forth through the same link used for RTK data. Once the spread spectrum technologies came out where there was no license required, you could set up multiple radios. The radios themselves handled a lot more of the routing, like cell phones do now. For about 10 years, cell phones have offered data services where it was analogous to the old dial-up modem. In the last five years or so, however, there’s been just an absolute explosion of wireless Internet technology.

“The traditional radio-based systems were more often like a hub-and-spoke wheel connected in a very specific way, but the newer systems are basically a web, and in a sense there’s no map. So the office may have the master computer and server, but you could also have essentially a clone of that on the job-site trailer. The thing that makes it the master computer is that it’s running the office software that’s receiving and sending data with all these machines.

“Ten years ago cell phones had black-and-white displays, more like calculators. Now the cell phone is more like a very tiny screen computer. You can scroll and pan and zoom the maps. So we’re excited about how this opens up so many more possibilities for the customer and for us.

“Our approach to this is a little bit different. Our goal is coming up with a well-designed system and keeping it focused, not only on generating realms of data, but also on solving problems. We may seem to be more cautious, but for us it is not so much start-and-go until you run into something-and then you’ve got the communications capability to sort it out. We see it more from this complete job-cycle perspective.

“Right now, Leica GradeSmart 3D presents the operator a very concise map type display so he can see where he is on the site. That gives him the basic piece. If we overlay on this the ability to get the data from the machine to the office and back, he might be working in an area and see that something doesn’t match what’s on the screen or the plan. Maybe it was mapped out improperly. With machine control and two-way communication, the operator’s got all the data and can talk to the engineer and explain that instead of cut, he needs three feet of fill. And the engineer can check and see where he’s at. He might even ask the operator to drive it so he can see the data coming back from the machine and confirm the difference. Then he can give the operator some guidance or send down a revised plan. If the system provided communication without display, the operator would know he had a problem but not what it was.

“If you’ve got a way to get the key data back from the machine, it can help foster a better relationship between the field and the office. I see this as enabling them to build relationships, even though the engineer could be working for different companies. That’s another thing we see a lot of-breaking down barriers. Just a few years ago, moving electronic data in any form was difficult. Everybody used a paper-based system for signing off plans, et cetera. And liability was an issue. In mining it was a slam-dunk because the engineer, earthworks contractor, everybody wore the same hat. In construction it’s almost always different. With these tools, with wireless conductivity, with the Internet-based protocol, we can address these issues.

“Our goal is to [revise] tools that were originally designed around having an engineer onsite. Like survey systems, which were traditionally very complicated, precise instruments. You had to have a very good education to know exactly how to use it correctly with a lot of experience to know what that data was telling you. Now we’re able to put enough horsepower and enough application software into those machines that it can take that data and put it in a much more human readable form.”

At Leica, says Calvird, the goal is payback without generating overhead, meaning his view doesn’t coincide with Trimble’s vision of a GPS coordinator. “That’s one of the lessons we earned from mining. When we brought some of those products into the mine, there was concern about adding another person to be the gatekeeper. On one hand and from a technical standpoint, that’s a low-risk way to go. But it also raises the ante on the payback because now you have to show that the whole system generates enough savings not only to pay for itself but for the added overhead. We work very hard to make the product one that can blend in with the existing office staff. The best case is that whenever these products are introduced, it’s something that will basically relieve the workload for somebody in the office. Or if there’s any additional workload, there’s not necessarily a head-count addition.”

So where do they stand now? Calvird reports that Leica’s Scandinavian customers are using a version of what it forecasts will be integral to the integrated job site. (According to Leica, 50% of all excavators in Sweden are equipped with 2D machine control and in Norway 60% are using 3D, a particular asset in Norway’s rocky soil.)

Rune Ugland of TT Anlegg, a highway and heavy contractor in Kristiansand, Norway, says he’s been waiting for years for Leica’s two-way communication, which he’s been experimenting with on his excavators and a dozer and plans to install on 20 machines.

“When we do a job over here, the first thing we do is clear the soil off the rocks and save it. Normally you would bring out the surveyor to do a standard GPS measurement with his pole. Instead, we use the machine and measure with the bucket. Then all of this data can be taken back on the modem to the office, where I can generate a new terrain model that can be sent back to drill the holes for the blasting.”

Ugland adds: “Before, I had to drive maybe one or two hours to the machines and copy the data from my computer over to the USB and then back to the office again. Now I save a lot of time because I can just sit in my office and send and receive data. And, of course, the machine operator doesn’t have to wait for the surveyor to copy new data into the memory stick. You basically get rid of the downtime because of wrongful data. I can see which projects he’s working on and which file he’s working on. So that means from the office I have an immediate check that the operator is actually working with the right data. Because our operators can measure where they put a pipeline, I can make as-built drawings. Because they can measure the terrain, we can make terrain models.”

Communication is by cell phone, and machine location is done in conjunction with Google Earth. “You double click on the machine, and it will automatically go to Google Earth and zoom in so you can see its location. This is also important for service technicians. A machine may be out in the Norwegian mountains, out in the woods, 40 or 50 kilometers away from the main road. With this, they can get the exact position and drive directly to the machine that needs servicing.”

So where are we? Topcon is just starting beta testing on Tierra with customers in Europe, the US, and Australia. Trimble is offering training, and the product is being used at beta sites. Cat is training its dealers. Still, it will take time to establish the integrated job site as Trimble envisions it-a connected community populated with internal members and components, including management, all the different projects, the departments, the sites, the field crews, perhaps supplemented with an external community of suppliers, subcontractors, engineers, clients, individual community members with different levels of access.

In the meantime, there are advantages. As one Cat user put it: “Take away my Web-based Product Link information, and I’d be like a helicopter pilot with a bag on his head.”