The Upscale and Downscale of Machine Control

June 1, 2011

What’s driving this whole movement to GPS and the digital job site is the contractor’s need to control costs. You can make fewer passes to get to grade. If you can get to grade in three or four passes instead of seven or eight, you’ll spend less money to do the job. Management can control costs better. Additional benefits include less fuel burned, lowered gaseous emissions, and less wear and tear on machines, which extends their lives.

That being said, technology is advancing rapidly. “We are going to go to the complete digital job site,” says Tony Vanneman, construction products marketing manager for Topcon Positioning Systems (TPS). “You are going to see [a GPS] system incorporated into everything on the job site. And the machines will all be interconnected.

“The machines will be interconnected to the job site trailer and to the company’s headquarters so that you will be able to get real-time, all-the-time data about how each individual machine is doing,” Vanneman says. “Each job site is doing that so that it will give the construction owners unprecedented control that they have not had before.”

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(This article primarily concerns machine control; a related article in this issue covers telematics, the communication systems from machine to office.)

“I know several contractors that have machine controls on everything,” Vanneman says. “They have it on excavators, scrapers, dozers, motor graders and asphalt pavers.”

In the future, GPSs for construction machinery will become standard equipment, just as they have for many models of passenger cars, Vanneman predicts. “The industry is headed toward 100% integration of GPS into construction machines,” he says. “That is where the construction industry is heading.”

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Caterpillar is already integrating machine control into its machines—and is simplifying the systems. “As an OEM we can offer something from the factory that is integrated to the point where we can offer features and benefits that you otherwise would not see,” says Caterpillar’s Kristian Stoeckel, a marketing consultant for connected worksite products and services.

“We can eliminate some redundant components, if they are already on the machine, and bring systems to the customer at an even lower cost,” says Stoeckel. “So that is where we are focusing.”

And Trimble is offering a simpler entry-level guidance system for excavators: the GCSFlex Grade Control System. The GCSFlex even offers a “system in a case” that can be mounted onto excavators by the end user.

Both Leica Geosystems and Topcon are touting the speed of their automated machine-control systems. By automatically adjusting the blade control at ever-higher speeds, a bulldozer can work more quickly and get the job done faster.

Speedy Motor Graders
Topcon says it greatly increased the speeds at which bulldozers could operate effectively and efficiently with the introduction of 3D-MC2 technology in 2008. At CONEXPO 2011, Topcon introduced 3DMC2 for motor graders. Topcon says the patented technology allows a grader to operate at speeds “well above those achieved on any other 3D machine, with tighter tolerance.”

“The current best average results for finishing work with a grader is from 40,000 to 160,000 square feet per work day,” says Ray O’Connor, chief executive officer of Topcon Positioning Systems. “With 3D-MC2 on a grader with consistent material conditions, it is possible to finish up to 750,000 square feet a day—or more. In fact, in a recent test, a grader equipped with 3D-MC2 finished more than 1 million square feet in a day.”

Adding 3D-MC2 to a grader, O’Connor says, allows the control system to immediately sense any changes in cutting-edge position and make corrections at up to 100 times per second, providing stability and smoothness when finish grading. The 3D-MC2 technology works in synergy with Topcon’s existing slope sensor “to maintain the industry’s best slope accuracy from flat grades to steep slope applications,” O’Connor says. “With the increase in correction speed, operators can breeze through transitions without having to slow down to allow the machine to keep up.”

Topcon’s 3D-MC2 technology provides pitch compensation so that the operator is free to roll the blade to adjust the cutting edge based on material conditions. In addition, 3D-MC2 has built-in tilt compensation. “Whether you need to roll the blade forward to have a high spot or backward to carry a windrow, the system automatically adjusts for the change in blade position to maintain the correct grade,” says O’Connor.

“Best of all,” O’Connor says, “Topcon’s 3D-MC2 system is compatible with all of our existing sensor technology. No matter if you want to run single or twin antenna GPS, Millimeter GPS, or a robotic solution—all work with the 3D-MC2 hardware. You can even have the technology work in a 2D application with sonic and lasers when GPS is not available.”

Real-Time Profiler
Last January, Topcon introduced its RTP-300 Real Time Profiler, which mounts on the back of a pickup truck and can create an exact model of the existing surface. The RTP 300’s data collection system includes a Topcon GNSS dual-constellation satellite receiver system, three laser profilers, wheel encoder technology, and a comprehensive computer data collection system.

The system uses three lasers to profile the existing road. That laser data, combined with the GNSS data, can be used to accurately determine the various degrees of roughness or smoothness of a road surface. The collected data file can then be used in Topcon’s SiteMaster design software or any standard CAD software made for design applications.

The RTP-300 technology provides the ability to use the corrected design data on a paver, profiler, or any machine-control system to provide exact road data at every step of a construction project. You can easily install the system, scan surfaces, and process the data for instant reporting, surface verification, and rideability indices.

Lower-Cost Systems
At CONEXPO 2011, Caterpillar introduced machine-control systems for four earthmoving machines: excavators and motor graders, which are analogous to each other, and tractors and scrapers, which are analogous.

For excavators and motor graders, “Let’s stay with entry-level offerings, so we’ll just do depth and slope on the excavator—indicate only—or just cross-slope on a motor grader,” says Cat’s Stoeckel. “Some people want to get in at a low entry price and roll with the technology as their projects increase, or their needs become evident, or they are just more familiar with the systems.”

At the entry level, these Caterpillar Grade Control systems for excavators and motor graders are not GPSs. With the motor grader, you set the cross-slope at a given angle or percent grade. “We don’t need an additional display,” says Stoeckel. “There is no data there, no site plan, but you set the slope on, say, 2.5% on a county road, and you’re off and running.”

Later, if the end user wants to upgrade the system to the GPS level, Cat’s Accugrade System will add onto the Cat Grade Control Motor Grader.

For excavators, again you do not need an additional display to get Cat Grade Control. “You are going to have your depth and slope information right on that same display that you get on every machine,” says Stoeckel. “And the front linkage sensors are not your exterior-mounted, welded-on harnesses hanging everywhere. Everything is contained and integrated. It gives you your 3D X,Y, and Z coordinates but not with reference to a site design model. The X, Y, and Z coordinates are based on a reference point. You put the corner of your bucket on a known point and with reference to that, you get your location of the bucket tip.

“You do not need to spend $60,000 for a system to just dig a trench,” says Stoeckel. “There are applications, such as trenching or just digging a basement, where you don’t need a $60,000 system. You don’t need 3D design plans, and instead of buying a $60,000 system you are buying a $5,000 or $6,000 or $7,000 system.”

Off the Blade
For dozers, Caterpillar is taking everything off the blade and putting one GPS antenna receiver on top of the cab. “And we are getting automatic blade positioning to the blade tips with the use of position-sensing cylinders,” says Stoeckel. “So we are getting everything out of harm’s way. It is a lesser-cost system because we only use one GPS antenna instead of two. We are also adding the ability to coordinate auto-carry with this system, which is the first of its kind.”

Auto-carry uses ground velocity to make sure that the load is proper on the dozer. If you dig in and spin your tracks, auto-carry will sense that and lift the blade a bit to lessen the load. Cat is offering this on the D8 and the D9T.

For scrapers, Caterpillar moved the GPS antenna receiver from its up-front position by the bowl to a place back above the rear axle—up by the engine compartment. “Our system is automatic, so it will keep you from digging below any design plane,” says Stoeckel.

For scrapers, Cat also added “sequence assist” and “load assist.” With sequence assist, an operator need only to push one button for dig, carry, spread, and return—and all those things happen automatically. Load assist is analogous to auto-carry for a dozer, because it senses the speed of the machine in the cut. If the wheels are spinning, it lifts the bowl and enables the scraper to pull through.

New from Trimble
Last March, Trimble introduced a more affordable grade control solution for excavators—the Trimble GCSFlex Grade Control System. The GCSFlex is designed to offer small to midsize contractors a reliable, flexible, and affordable option to leverage machine-control technology and make contractors more competitive.

The new Trimble GCSFlex system for excavators is designed to meet the needs and budgets of owner operators and small to midsize earthmoving contractors. Trimble says the system is easy to install, easy to learn, and easy to use. The system has several sensor options that allow the contractor to easily use the system for a variety of tasks. You can start with the low-cost “system in a case” solution and add additional sensors for increased capabilities as your needs change. Installation can be done by the contractor and typically takes less than a couple of hours. No welding or drilling is needed.

At CONEXPO 2011, Trimble released its GCS900 Grade Control System, version 12.0, which allows more configuration options for contractors involved in earthmoving and excavation. With several new hardware options and features, version 12.0 is easier to operate and integrate across the Trimble Connected Site portfolio. Plus, flexible configurations and improved job-site connectivity allow contractors to streamline workflows and meet tighter schedules.

New hardware options and benefits in Trimble GCS900 version 12.0 include:

  • The new CB460 control box greatly enhances the operator experience on all GCS900-equipped machine types with more power, more memory, and a large 7-inch screen display of 3D profile information, grade guidance, and warnings.
  • Using the new Trimble SNM940 Connected Site Gateway communications device, version 12.0 fully integrates Connected Site grade control systems with Vision Link advanced telematics and asset tracking from Trimble. By connecting people with construction data in real time, the SNM940 allows contractors to make better-informed decisions, optimize asset productivity, and reduce operational costs.
  • The new Trimble HS410 Heading Sensor offers additional flexibility to the excavator operator running Trimble GCS900 in 2D mode for applications such as trenching, digging footers and basements, building roads, and site prep. Now the operator can save time and excavate in a wider directional area outside of the bench orientation without stopping to re-bench the laser.
  • The new Trimble MS972 GNSS Smart Antenna offers a cost-effective solution for compaction contractors who need a highly accurate GNSS receiver for mapping pass counts. It offers the same reliability that operators expect from Trimble on-machine GNSS receivers—at a price point that is easier to deploy across the compactor machine fleet.
  • New functionality in the GCS900 on-machine software allows data to be wirelessly transferred between the machine and the office in real time. Design updates can be sent to the machine and as-builts, system diagnostics and production data can be sent to the office, without any delay in machine operation.

New From Bobcat
Last January, Bobcat announced that its BLR2 laser receiver, in conjunction with a deluxe instrument panel, is available on the 600, 700, and 800 platform M-Series compact track loaders. As loaders have increased in power and tractive effort over the past several years, Bobcat expanded the laser-operated attachment line from 84-inch grader and box blades to new 96- and 108-inch graders designed specifically for use with the new larger track loaders. Bobcat says contractors in the concrete market will benefit from the seamless connection between the BLR2 laser receiver and the deluxe instrument panel on Bobcat’s new loaders.

Laser control on Bobcat attachments can be completely automatic or by indication (where the operator looks at arrows to determine whether the blade needs to move up or down). Before the introduction of the new deluxe instrument panel, operators needed to look at indication arrows on the laser receiver to tell whether the blade was above, below, or on grade. With the new in-cab panel, the operator is given a number telling him to the tenth of an inch how much material needs to be removed or added to make the grade. The panel also allows the operator to make changes to the grade from inside the cab. The grade can be moved up or down, in 0.1-inch increments, a total of 2 inches up or down. Operators previously needed to exit the cab to raise or lower the receivers or the laser tripod.

Leica Geosystems Presents SP Technology
Leica Geosystems recently released new machine-control technology for bulldozers. SP technology provides improved hydraulic control that allows faster grading with outstanding smoothness and precision at high speeds. Bulldozers can now take on even more fine grading jobs, completing work with less heavy equipment on site and helping contractors to finish their projects ahead of schedule and under budget.

By using inertial guidance with the most responsive hydraulic control on the market, Leica’s GPS performance is significantly enhanced. Machines equipped with SP technology reduce the need for rework and increase machine uptime during poor GPS/GLONASS coverage or temporary interruptions of correction signals. This allows for consistent and precise grading even under the most difficult conditions.

SP technology is an available upgrade or option to the Leica PowerGrade platform. Along with the unique PowerSnap concept, which allows easy and quick exchange of machine control panels, customers have unrivaled flexibility and speed. Contractors can simply upgrade from the 2D panel to a 3D panel as the job demands or easily move panels between sites rather than losing time and money transporting machines. The cable-free snap-on/snap-off system is easy and convenient for operators, helping them work more efficiently, and now with SP technology this work is faster than ever before starting with the very first inch.

Excavator Guidance
Leica recently released its next-generation 3D guidance system for excavating construction machines: Leica PowerDigger 3D. Leica PowerDigger 3D expands on the unique PowerSnap concept, which provides total flexibility and interchangeability of machine control products and of machines such as excavators, dozers, and graders.

Thanks to PowerSnap, machine guidance systems are no longer restricted to just one machine. PowerSnap allows users to swap panels between laser, slope, and 3D machine control completely seamlessly as the job demands. PowerSnap also provides a cable-free system: data communication via infrared and induction for power supply offer contractors high reliability and system uptime. Leica Geosystems provides machine control solutions for excavators, dozers, and graders that can now use the XC16 control panel with the corresponding 2D or 3D software.

PowerSnap also lets new customers manage their investment path as they move into machine control by offering complete backwards compatibility and affordable upgrade paths from traditional laser/slope control—all the way to 3D. Additionally, the easy removal of panels helps deter theft and vandalism—an ideal solution for rental machine fleets.

Leica PowerDigger 3D software offers direct support for popular 3D design models (CAD)—meaning no interpretation of drawings and no need for stakeout. With full 3D visualization, operators know exactly where the bucket of the excavator is and where it needs to be positioned. The system supports full GNSS (GPS & GLONASS) coverage as standard, which provides maximum coverage and uptime on most job sites. Due to its high-performance graphic display, the system is intuitive to use, allowing operators to quickly gain confidence with the system.

2D and 3D “Out of the Box”
Leica PowerDigger 3D provides a fully functional 2D system at no extra cost. The system can be easily upgraded and is fully scalable from basic 2D to full 3D capability in the same control panel—one option does not exclude the other—and, if GNSS coverage is lost, digger operators can continue in “2D mode” with full functionality.

For 3D solutions, Leica Geosystems offers a simple upgrade path: Contractors who are not sure whether they want to make the whole investment today can simply buy a 3D-ready panel and upgrade later to suit their needs. For those who need 3D capabilities only for a short period of time, Leica Geosystems or an authorized dealer can rent Leica GNSS sensors, Leica Total Stations, and 3D software.

New Leica Software
Leica Geosystems recently released its new Leica Construction Office (LCO) software. The new software enables users to verify design data before taking it to the field, eliminating costly rework due to unverified data being loaded directly to the machines.

LCO gives contractors the ability to edit and modify designs, develop stakeout point files, calculate volumes, and handle terrain models and advanced reporting functions essential for contractors. LCO can import and export data formats that have become industry standards as well as many data formats that are used only in specific regions.

The Leica-Gomaco Connection
Leica Geosystems recently announced that it has entered into a definitive OEM value-added reseller agreement with Gomaco Corp., a leader in concrete construction equipment. Over the last 12 years, the successful relationship between Leica Geosystems and Gomaco Corp. has brought the industry a successful stringless concrete paving solution. This new business relationship will enable further collaboration between these two companies. And concrete-paving contractors will benefit from technological innovations that are likely to take stringless paving technology to the next level.

Hemisphere GPS says its GPS technology can be coupled with other sensors to provide machine guidance and control solutions with the company’s Celestia Connecting Technology. Celestia is an advanced software platform patented by Hemisphere GPS that can be applied to a full range of machine-control applications. Operational on a range of hardware platforms, Celestia’s modular open systems architecture is not only a versatile, but a flexible solution that accommodates input from multiple sensors. The technology interfaces seamlessly into a range of vehicle steering and control systems, providing good reliability and accuracy in the machine control market.

  • Hemisphere says its machine guidance and control technologies are ideal for the following:
  • Positioning and control of buckets, drills, blades, and other machinery
  • Automated steering in straight lines or patterns
  • Flow control of materials
  • Precision navigation, guidance, and mapping
  • Detailed reporting of work completed and machine operational parameters

Creating the 3D Terrain Model
Carlson Software has three packages that aid in creating a digital terrain model (DTM). That is the model—the project design model—that machine-control systems compare to the location of the blade in order to determine whether the blade should go up, down, or stay in the same place.

Carlson’s most powerful suite for creating DTMs is Carlson Take-Off, which also provides estimation tools in addition to take-off and 3D data prep or 3D digital terrain modeling.

“We also have a package called Carlson Construction,” says Randy Noland, vice president of business development and marketing. “It sells for about half the price of Carlson Take-Off. If someone does not need to do estimation, then Carlson Construction is a very powerful package at a lower price point. It simply takes your data and gives you the tools to make a 3D digital terrain model.”

Carlson Civil Suite, the third program, provides the tools to design an earthmoving project in 3D. “We offer an estimation model-building package, with a data prep model-building only, or we provide the civil tools for the engineering firm to be able to provide this data all ready in the proper format for a 3D model,” says Noland.

Work Flow Highway
“The digital work flow highway is a reality; it just has some bumps in it,” says Noland. “There are long curvy two-lane roads around the country when there could be a straight four-lane highway, once everybody gets together on it.”

Noland says he could create a workflow where he designed the project in a digital world with existing software—in 3D. “I could output that site in 3D to machine control files for multiple machines and to all of the surveyors who are gathering more data and who are “as-building” that data,” says Noland. “And all that data can travel bidirectionally and compatibly. That is achievable.

“And not only that, but I can also remotely access multiple machines, monitor their work and their progress, and even update a change order with a new surface file or a new road alignment. So these things exist, and they are possible.

“What would straighten that road out and make it more efficient would be for positioning industry players to collaborate and come up with a standard that we could all work on,” says Noland. “It would be a data standard that all of these processes could report to and read from so that you are guaranteed compatibility.”

That common data standard tends not to happen, Noland says, because some companies have fewer resources to work on software than hardware. And, companies may not want their software to be open to all hardware users, because they want you to buy their hardware. “That is their business,” says Noland.

“As the market grows and the adoption grows to a particular percentage, then the market wills the freedom to choose and you have to conform and create the standards,” says Noland. “It is just good for everybody.”