For contractors such as Jason Sink of D&M Excavating outside of Dayton, OH, machine control technology has been a game-changer.
Sink was looking to improve his company’s excavation and grading productivity and machine utilization to reduce costs and complete jobs more quickly, especially after having been hired in 2017 to do 80 acres of site work for the first phase of construction of the Montgomery County Fairgrounds in Dayton.
Sink utilized the Trimble GCS900 Grade Control System based on previous experience using it on the company’s dozers for bulk earthworks to fine grading.
The system is designed to put the design surfaces, grades, and alignments inside the cab and uses construction technology to accurately position the blade in real time, guiding the dozer operator to cut directly to grade more efficiently.
The technology also eliminates the need to set stakes or to have a grade checker working continuously with the dozer operators to keep grading work on target.
D&M Excavation installed Trimble Earthworks on a John Deere 380 excavator for the project, teaming with its local SITECH of Ohio dealer on equipment setup and installation.
Trimble Earthworks is an integrated three-dimensional (3D) aftermarket grade control system with excavator automatics capabilities. The platform features customizable software, enabling the company’s experienced operator to cut everything directly to grade more quickly and then place gravel precisely across the fairground parking lots.
The benefits D&M Excavating have derived as a result of using the Trimble system include the ability to significantly cut dozer use, realize productivity gains during mass excavation and fine grading, offer the potential for large savings for pipework, and establish a competitive advantage.
Two dozers equipped with Trimble Earthworks
The fairground project also included a “ring road” around the perimeter of the fairgrounds and event center, requiring the team to build a large, open, V-shaped ditch to ensure proper site drainage. The 8,000 feet of ditches on each side of ring road spanned from 5–6 feet deep.
“The beauty of using Trimble Earthworks is that we didn’t have to tie up the dozer to follow along behind the excavator to correct the slope,” says Sink. “Without machine control technology, we’re basically paying to operate two machines. This technology frees up a dozer for something else, which is far more profitable and efficient.”
John Naughton, Trimble business area manager, says Trimble Earthworks was recently redesigned, from the sensors that provide accurate positioning through to how the operator interfaces with the system.
“The major differences are the fencing technology using IMUs and the IMU data to get finer control and faster update rates from those sensors,” says Naughton.
The advancements taking machine control from the use of a 3D system indicating where an operator is relative to grade to it now controlling the boom and bucket when the operator engages auto switch has reaped “huge increases in efficiency,” he adds.
CASE Construction Equipment has developed a universal machine control option for its production class M Series dozers—1150M, 1650M, and 2050M—that makes each machine factory compatible with all major suppliers of machine control technology, including Topcon, Trimble, and CASE precision partner Leica Geosystems within a single “universal machine control” option.
CASE universal machine control provides a universal harness for blade guidance systems, universal machine brackets and mounts, and universal jumpers in order to integrate any industry solution into each dozer.
It enables CASE dozers to be deployed from the dealer into any fleet-wide precision or machine control solution on a work site.
It also is designed to offer contractors the flexibility to prepare their dozer for retrofit of precision solutions without having to change mounting points or wiring harnesses on the dozer depending on the system provider of their choice, says Richie Snyder, solutions marketing manager, CASE Construction Equipment.
CASE also recently introduced the SiteControl CoPilot powered by Leica Geosystems, available factory-installed or as a retrofit on select CASE M Series dozers.
The CoPilot system bridges the gap between automatic and indicate-only systems and offers entry into 2D and 3D machine control technology. It is comprised of an inertial measurement unit, wiring harness and in-cab display.
The system enables operators to set a desired slope/grade reference and automatically holds that slope/grade without the need for lasers, masts, or GPS, regardless of underfoot conditions to achieve and maintain a smooth surface, slope, or grade throughout the work area.
Once the operator has set the slope/grade specifications, the system automatically adjusts blade position to produce a reliable and consistent quality surface, eliminating the need for additional passes and re-work, and reducing fuel and labor costs. An integrated in-cab display provides real-time data to the operator.
The system also can be used as a building block for Leica 2D and 3D system upgrades.
The SiteControl CoPilot system is available on 1150M, 1650M, and 2050M M-Series dozers.
Lonnie Fritz, Caterpillar market professional, construction industries, says among the numerous efficiency and productivity benefits of grade control is improved grade accuracy, allowing operators to achieve grade within tolerance in the least amount of time. That reduces the number of work hours required to set grade stakes and check grade for accuracy, he adds.
“Operators have grade information for the entire surface, not individual locations from grade stakes and grade checkers,” says Fritz. “This provides for increased quality of work in the least amount of time.”
Grade control technology prevents overcutting, thus reducing material overruns, he adds.
“Conversely, a surface may be built higher than proposed design grades, creating material overrun for that lift,” adds Fritz.
Stable Blade grade technology on motor graders reduces the bounce off the blade by automatically controlling the machine’s speed, leaving consistent grade behind. On dozers, Stable Blade grade technology allows the operator to achieve smooth grade through the reduction of abrupt vertical movements of the blade.
Another benefit: job site design revisions are expedited through changes executed digitally, says Fritz.
Being able to achieve finish grade in the fewest number of passes drives up efficiency from reductions in labor, fuel consumption, and machine wear, notes Fritz.
Completing tasks correctly the first time eliminates the need for crews to return to bring an area to grade, and the work shift is extended by empowering the operator with grade information during nighttime operations, says Fritz.
Operators derive safety and efficiency benefits by being more aware of the surroundings, allowing greater attention be paid to work activities, says Fritz.
With grade technology expediting project schedules by up to 50% of traditional time methods, it allows for better asset utilization and allocation, he adds.
Caterpillar studies show operator fatigue is significantly reduced resulting from a reduction of up to 80% of operator inputs using grade control technology, notes Fritz.
“Grade technology reduces unit cost, overall project cost, and time, increasing profitability and the opportunity to bid more work leading to company growth and expansion,” he says.
John Deere’s SmartGrade integrated solution provides significant customer productivity benefits by allowing the machine to automatically cut and maintain extremely accurate grade faster, without increasing operator workload, says Sean Mairet, grade control product marketing manager, John Deere WorkSight.
Utilizing integrated GPS technology, SmartGrade machines are designed to accurately control the blade cutting edge to a 3D design plan located on the display inside the operator station.
“With the operator in the cab now having the design plan and the precise machine information related to the plan, the need for vulnerable grade stakes is dramatically reduced, significantly increasing job site productivity,” says Mairet.
“Further increasing efficiency, the integration of the GPS components eliminates the time and energy spent for typical daily installation and removal of exposed mast-mounted receivers,” he adds.
SmartGrade solutions also remove the external cables that can be prone to damage.
Embedded productivity features, such as Auto SmartGrade on the crawler dozers and the automation suite on the SmartGrade motor grader, are designed to enhance productivity without increasing complexity, notes Mairet.
Auto Smart Grade for crawler dozers automatically adjusts the load on the blade, limiting track slip to maximize productivity with every pass.
The automation suite on the new SmartGrade motor grader includes Auto-Articulation, which combines front and rear steering. Blade Flip is used to automatically mirror the circle to a preset angle. Machine presets allow the operator to activate multiple machine functions, features, and positions with the press of a single button.
Komatsu’s full lineup of intelligent machine control dozers and excavators empower operators to dig straight to grade efficiently the first time, notes Sebastian Witkowski, product marketing manager, intelligent machine controls, Komatsu America Corp.
“With an integrated 3D GNSS system, real-time position information eliminates the guesswork out of grade confirmation,” he says. “Optimized blade and bucket loads maximize earth moved while reducing inefficient activity.”
With its machine control, Takeuchi continues to use only full pilot controls, says Lee Padgett, Takeuchi US product manager.
The Takeuchi Fleet Management system is a remote telematics system designed to connect users with their Takeuchi machines, enabling them to monitor machine vitals, location, and maintenance data.
“Having the machine’s vitals at their fingertips allows contractors to take a wide view of their entire fleet from a central location,” he adds. “Many times, a contractor can avoid costly repairs by proper machine maintenance before a problem arises.”
Murray Lodge, senior vice president and general manager of the Topcon Positioning Systems construction business unit, says, “The highly successful contractor has adopted precision measurement systems, GNSS machine control, and geospatial management and collaboration software to ensure seamless coordination among all involved in their projects, which have revolutionized grading, excavation, and paving.”
Technology can help with the labor shortfall and fill the skills gap of new employees, Lodge points out.
“Take a smart, inexperienced worker and place them in the cab of a dozer or motor grader governed by GPS machine control with a 3D site plan displayed and with proper training they will quickly become productive,” he says.
“Technology has not only proved to save time and improve accuracy, but its impact on productivity has been significant.”
Volvo offers Dig Assist for excavators, designed to be an intuitive machine control solution offered on the Co-Pilot touchscreen display that provides a real-time 3D view of the machine’s movements.
A Komatsu PC390LCi digs a trench.
“This allows the operator to use follow-the-line guidance for trenching, as well as check real-time progress against target grade and depth, ensuring the job is done right the first time,” says Matthew McLean, product manager, Volvo Construction Equipment.
In-Field Design functionality enables the operator to select from pre-built digging profiles or draw custom digging profiles to work against, he adds.
To reduce excessive engine idling, Volvo excavators’ Engine Auto Shut Down feature can be set to turn off the engine after a predetermined amount of time spent idling.
For wheel loaders, Volvo also offers a range of features that help with bucket control and repetitive actions.
The Return to Dig function is designed to make it easy for operators to return the bucket to a preset position with the push of a lever, helping to ease operation when running through repetitive actions such as digging into a pile.
“Another example is the Reverse-by-Braking (RBB) feature, which pairs with Optishift,” says McLean. “If an operator shifts from reverse to forward without applying the brakes, it puts stress on the torque converter to decelerate. RBB helps to avoid this problem by reducing the engine’s RPM and automatically applying the service brakes when the operator changes the direction of the machine.”
Optishift combines RBB with a lockup torque converter that eliminates power losses, reduces wear on the driveline, and increases fuel efficiency by about 15%, McLean adds.
“When loading the bucket with material, you always want to be in first gear as soon as the bucket penetrates the material,” he says. “For newer operators, it can be a challenge to have the coordination to know the optimal time to shift into first gear. Volvo’s automatic downshift will automatically shift the wheel loader into first gear when there is enough resistance.”
McLean says most experienced operators will manually select so they can have the optimal amount of torque while loading.
Volvo also offers Load Assist for wheel loaders, an onboard weighing solution with real-time display on the touchscreen Co-Pilot interface. It provides real-time payload information, accurate to within plus or minus 1%, and shows progress toward completion of loading the truck.
“This helps ensure loads are accurate the first time, thereby reducing the need for reloading and reweighing trucks,” says McLean.
While technology advancements continue to improve efficiency and productivity on the job site for operators of all skills levels, the operator still plays the key role in ensuring a job is completed accurately and efficiently, Mairet points out.
Snyder concurs. “It still requires operator input and the inherent knowledge that operator has of the job site,” he says.
Machine control and guidance/grade technology empower operators with the design of the project, notes Fritz.
“They no longer must rely solely on grade checkers and plan sets to provide them the information they need to cut grade, construct a fill, or to spread and finish grade material,” he adds.
Volvo’s Dig Assist helps by providing real-time feedback to the operator while they are digging, says McLean.
“The screen is always showing how close the bucket is to the target, but Dig Assist doesn’t expect the operator to watch the screen continuously,” he adds. “There’s also a large hot-cold indicator available, so the operator only has to be aware of changing colors out of the corner of their eyes. When the indicator goes green, they’re on grade.”
“Traditionally, before the introduction of machine control, there was a high learning curve for new operators to able to work efficiently and accurately,” notes Witkowski.
“It took a skilled operator to efficiently rough cut, get close to grade, and then finish grade. It wasn’t uncommon for skilled operators to have to go back and adjust the working surface a tenth or two to get to finish grade.”
With Komatsu’s intelligent Machine Control, operators have grade and position information in the cab at their fingertips, offering them real-time accuracy information.
“This empowers operators to not only improve productivity when finishing grading but in rough cutting and hogging applications as well,” adds Witkowski. “This becomes a significant advantage for operators to be able to take full buckets and blades with the confidence of knowing that the equipment will not dig past grade.”
While learning curves for machine control vary with the user, with a quick overview of the intuitive interface and integrated controls, operators can engage configured machines and job sites very quickly, says Mairet, adding that more advanced tasks and users will generally require training by an experienced industry professional.
John Deere offers a course in grade control for customers interested in learning more about the foundational grade control technologies and how they integrate with John Deere machines.
“If a person knows how to add a phone number to their cell phone, they have enough skill to program a sloped ditch profile into Dig Assist,” says McLean. “The basic, two-dimensional functions are very intuitive and easy to use. The more advanced features like Dig Assist In-Field Design require a few more minutes of training, but after a couple of hours in the machine, operators usually understand it well. The In-Field Design system enables the operator to create digging profiles right there in the cab and measure the job as they are excavating.”
Contractors should start with a system that best fits their operation and build up from there, says Snyder.
Many of the more basic 1D and 2D systems CASE offers will help most operators improve their basic operations and can be used as the building blocks for more comprehensive 3D systems they may want to deploy in the future, Snyder says.
The importance of the role of the local dealer in partnership with the OEM in deploying systems is key in assisting contractors in shortening the learning curve, he adds.
“Novice operators have mastered the basics of grade technology in as little as 30 minutes,” Fritz says of Caterpillar machine control.
“Ease of Use technology features, integration, intuitive controls, assist features such as Cat Grade with Assist, and advanced displays have created a solution to drive efficient application of grade technology,” he says.
Trimble’s user interface is built on an Android platform, familiar to those using the smart devices and designed to be more intuitive, Naughton says.
SITECH distributors note that typical training times have gone from about six hours down to one or two, with another short visit to reiterate some learnings, says Naughton.
Industry experts agree that machine control technology can help inexperienced operators be more confident and good operators even better.
Challenges facing new operators can largely be attributed to inexperience, Witkowski says, adding that knowing and feeling how equipment reacts to different loads and applications often takes years of experience.
As machine control automates many tasks, that allows operators to focus on advanced operations and more challenging tasks, says Mairet.
Trimble’s studies comparing 3D auto and 3D indicate on an excavator show a “huge advantage over somebody who is not using machine control technology or machine guidance,” says Naughton.
Inexperienced operators show 30% time gains in a grading application with a 75 to 80% accuracy increase. Experienced operators were 40% faster, with a nearly 75% accuracy increase.
Snyder points out that finding skilled labor is tough and finding workers who can operate many of the fine grading machines such as dozers and motor graders from “look and feel alone” is even more difficult as those who can do so are retiring.“Machine control helps accelerate younger operators into that more specialized role and helps close that experience gap with the older ones,” he says. “The inherent ability to operate a machine is still required, but machine control can elevate that operator from good to great.