Technology: From Office to Job Site and Back

March 12, 2015

Rick Fines might report to Shippensburg, PA, for his job as product manager for motor graders with Volvo Construction Equipment. But he spends much of his time traveling throughout North America. And during these travels, he’s noticed that the most skilled operators of graders—those operators who rely solely on their skills to create perfectly-graded parking lots and roadways—are getting older.

A lot older.

“The really good grader operators out there are late in their careers,” says Fines. “They are in their mid-50s or mid-60s. They won’t be in this business for much longer. And that makes it more important for contractors to invest in machine-control technology for their graders. The younger, less experienced operators will need this technology to operate the machines efficiently. If contractors don’t equip their machines with it, they’ll be costing themselves a lot of money in lost productivity.”

Machine-control technology—everything from automatic blade control systems to GPS systems to 3D modeling software—greatly reduces the amount of skill that operators need to operate heavy construction equipment. And few construction vehicles require more skill to operate properly than do graders. And few machines when used inefficiently can slow down a construction job as quickly as can a poorly operated grader.

That’s why when Fines sees the older, most-experienced grader operators nearing their retirement days, he knows that contractors need to invest in machine-control technology now more than they ever have.

When contractors arm their graders with this tech, they’ll increase the odds that even newer operators will be able to run them correctly and efficiently, he says.

“Younger operators can pick up this tech very easily,” says Fines. “They grew up with this kind of technology. They like the joystick controls. It’s intuitive to them. When a company goes with an automatic blade control system, the younger operators will accept it and learn how to use it. And then they’ll be able to operate these graders even though they don’t have the experience and skills of the older operators.”

Those companies manufacturing and selling graders say that the demand for machines equipped with machine-control technology is increasing. And that’s good news, they say. The construction industry isn’t always known as a tech-friendly business. But those contractors who do invest in machine-control technology will gain an advantage over their competitors who don’t, say equipment manufacturers.

Automated controls greatly reduce the amount of grading errors that contractors make. And when contractors don’t make mistakes, they don’t have to fix them. This saves contracting companies a significant amount of money each year.

Credit: Bobcat

“It’s important to do the job right the first time,” says Fines. “With machine-control technology, grader operators can do their jobs more efficiently and accurately. There won’t be any redoing of jobs. This tech reduces mistakes, and helps save contractors money. In the long run, that’s good for the entire construction industry.”

Mike Ackerman, motor graders product marketing manager with John Deere Construction & Forestry, says that contractors who equip their graders with machine-control technology will see their investments pay off quickly.

That’s because even average operators will now be able operate a grader more accurately, as long as they use the machine-control technology properly.

“The level of accuracy from machine-control technology is difficult to replicate,” says Ackerman. “Though operators have performed manual grading for years, the efficiency was directly tied to the experience of the operators. Because there is a fine art to grading, some of the skills can take years to master.”

Making the Most of the Personnel

The truth is, an ever-smaller number of grader operators can without the help of machine-control technology produce the accuracy that project owners demand, Ackerman says.

“By using machine-control technology, operators at any level are able to increase the accuracy of the cut,” says Ackerman.

The key words there? “Any level.” Yes, even inexperienced operators can make an accurate cut today with the help of machine-control technology.

This doesn’t mean, though, that contractors can throw just anyone in the seat of a grader as long as it’s equipped with a grade-control system. Operators still need to have skills, and they need to be willing to learn how their grader’s new technology works.

Dann Rawls, marketing consultant with Caterpillar Inc., says that not even the best technology can turn a bad operator into a great one. Machine-control tech, though, can turn an average operator into a good one and a good one into a great one, Rawls says.

“This technology is not a cure-all, not at all,” says Rawls. “While it can take a good operator and make that operator great, it can also take a poor operator and make that operator even worse. The technology might make a poor operator more willing to take shortcuts. A poor operator might not take the time to learn how to properly use the system. In this case, the technology is not curing anything. It’s making it worse.”

But for the right operators? Those willing to learn how to master the technology? Grade-control systems and other tech can quickly turn these operators into masters of fine grading.

Dan Gillen, senior market professional with Caterpillar, says that machine-control technology can greatly simplify the life of a grader operator.

As Gillen says, operators working graders are often supervising a two- to three-person grading crew. Grader operators also guide other truck drivers on where to dump loads and on how far apart to space these loads. And while doing this, these operators are also responsible for running their own graders.

“The guy in the seat has a pretty intense day,” says Gillen. “They are doing a lot while trying to operate the machine and hit grade. If you can take that part out of it, if the job plans are all choreographed and synched, all the operator has to do is use the blade to find grade. That makes it easier for the guy in the seat. Of course, that operator still has to learn how to use the technology. But those who do can greatly reduce the stress of their days.”

Having more efficient operators can also save contractors money. With the right tech, contractors can eliminate the traditional crews of workers whose job-site functions consist of checking grading levels at pre-ordained checkpoints.

With grade-control technology, contractors can reassign those workers to tasks that actually increase the efficiency of a job site, an increased efficiency that will often lead to a boost in profitability.

With these benefits of machine-control technology, then, it’s little surprise that more contractors are willing to invest in it.

But it comes as little surprise, too, that some contractors are still hesitant.

“It can sometimes be difficult for the older, experienced contractors and operators,” says Ackerman. “On top of the transition, the introductory costs can be intimidating for a company looking to integrate machine-control.”

Increasing Acceptance

The key to convincing reluctant contractors? Manufacturers must point out the cost savings that contractors can enjoy when they rely on machine-control technology.

“The systems typically pay for themselves very quickly,” says Ackerman.

Fines says that contractors can save a dramatic amount of money each year in increased accuracy alone.

“There is a lot of time and money saved because construction workers don’t have to go out and stake the job when they’re relying on this technology,” says Fines. “It takes a tremendous amount of time to stake a job to different heights. Now the technology has advanced so that this work can be done electronically. The mapping of the job is so much quicker using electronics.”

Not only is mapping a quicker process today, it’s also a more accurate one. As Fines says, machine-control technology reduces the errors that grader operators make. When grading work is done correctly the first time, contracting companies don’t have to spend the time and money to redo a parking lot or roadway.

“It is expensive to come back and redo a job,” says Fines. “And not only does it cost money, it also costs time and labor. Anything that can help you do the work right the first time is a good investment.”

Machine-control tech also results in higher-quality grading work, Fines says. The importance of this can’t be ignored. Construction companies that turn in the best-quality work will receive bigger and more profitable jobs.

Positive word-of-mouth spreads quickly in the construction business. Those contractors who gain a reputation for completing their jobs quickly and accurately, thanks in part to their reliance on machine-control technology, will gain the positive reputation they need to survive in what is becoming an increasingly competitive industry.

“I think long-term any of the major highway work will be done by graders relying on machine-control technology,” says Fines. “Maybe the Starbucks parking lot will still be graded by eyesight and manually. But the more complicated jobs will all be done with this technology.”

Rawls with Caterpillar says that those contractors hesitant to embrace machine-control technology might soon find themselves left behind. He compares it to cell phones.

There was a time when cell phones were huge and bulky, and only a few early adopters lugged them around. Then flip phones became the rage because of their portability. Consumers suddenly realized that cell phones were the future, and they embraced them. And then when smartphones began trickling into the marketplace? It took even less time for consumers to embrace this technology.

Suddenly, consumers who never knew they needed to search the Web or send text messages to friends while commuting to work couldn’t live without smartphones.

The acceptance of machine-control technology is following a similar path, Rawls says. Contractors who never knew they needed this tech are gradually realizing that without it they might not be able to compete for the top construction jobs.

“The tech is here already. It is becoming embedded in more and more machines,” says Rawls. “Contractors are realizing that they have to embrace it. It is here to stay. It won’t be long before it is specced out so that you won’t be able to land a job until you have machine-control technology. It just results in a better product.”

The key to growing the machine-control technology market remains the same as it’s ever been: Proving to contractors that this technology, despite its high upfront costs, will save them money over the long-term.

Fortunately, these cost-savings are easy to explain. Gillen says that the first selling point he hammers home is the increased accuracy that machine-control tech brings to grading work. Grade-control systems allow operators to be more accurate and more consistent with their cuts.

Then there are the time savings. When contractors equip their graders with this technology, they can significantly reduce the amount of time it takes to complete grading work. As Gillen says, grader operators don’t need multiple passes to hit their final targets. This results in fewer overall passes during a project.

Machine-control tech can help contractors who are forced to work at night to complete time-sensitive projects, Gillen says. Visibility is often an issue in evening work. But when workers are operating a grader with grade-control tech, it’s not critical that they see the ground. Operators relying on manual control might struggle during night-time work to deliver accurate cuts.

Machine-control tech can even save contractors time and money when it comes to handling the raw materials for a job.

Before this tech, contractors, for instance, had to estimate the amount of base rock they’d need when tackling road projects. They’d haul in the rock and dump into a pile. Often, contractors found themselves with a big chunk of leftover rock in their pile when a project was over. They then had to haul that material off site, something that costs both time and money.

This doesn’t happen, though, on job sites that are relying on machine-control technology, Rawls says.

“When you use grade-control technology to hit your elevations accurately, you’ll bring in the right amount of material,” says Rawls. “That makes planning easier. It makes staging the job more efficient. When something is left over, you have to handle that same material again. When you touch material again you are being inefficient. You never want to touch materials twice.”

Ackerman with John Deere speaks to contractors regularly, and he’s heard stories about just how much money and time machine-control technology has saved them.

Ackerman recently spoke with a contractor whose company during a two-year period submitted two different bids for two different jobs to widen and update utilities on a road. Each time, the job consisted of widening the road to five lanes plus installing new sewer, water and gas. Both of the jobs were similar in terms of specs, length and quantities, Ackerman says. The company won both jobs.

For the first job, the contractor did not have machine-control technology installed on any of his company’s machines. Workers started the job on May 1 and worked until the Oct. 31 deadline to complete the project.

The following year, the company began work on the second project. This job was nearly identical to the first, only by now the contractor had installed machine-control technology on his company’s grader, dozer, and excavator. This time, workers completed the job, which they again started on May 1, by September 1.

“The only difference between the two jobs was the addition of machine-control,” says Ackerman. “The use of machine-control allows the operator to get to grade two to three times quicker. Because of the increased efficiency, these machines work one-half to one-third the amount of time as compared to those without machine-control.”

This, of course, leads to less fuel used, less wear on components and less time spent on a single project.

The Savings Can Multiply

Gillen has his own story that illustrates just how cost-effective contractors can be when they equip at least their graders with machine-control.

Gillen was recently in Abu Dhabi, the capital city of the United Arab Emirates. There, one of the largest contractors in the Middle East was working on an 80-kilometer four-lane highway that when complete would connect Abu Dhabi to the border of Saudi Arabia. Construction crews were tackling the grading work on this project the old-fashioned way, without machine-control technology.

Crew members planted a grade stake every 25 meters, by hand. This went on for 80 kilometers. Gillen timed the work. It took grader operators about 23 seconds to grade a 25-meter pass of road. The operator would then sit in his machine and wait for 30 seconds for the three members of the grade-check crew to check the grade between that station and the station 25 meters away. Once the crew members checked the grade, the grader operator would know whether he had to cut or fill.

“This means that 57% of that guy’s time was idle,” says Gillen. “Time is money. If they had a grade-control system they could have eliminated those three grade checkers. And they could have increased the production of that job site by 57%. Anyone would take that kind of productivity increase, I’d say. And they had this same scenario playing out for two dozen graders on the project. Grade-control technology would have brought them a tremendous benefit.”

A Slowly Growing Trend?

Ackerman says that stories such as his and Gillen’s can help persuade contractors that machine-control technology is a future in which they should invest.

Of course, both public and private entities might speed the adoption of machine-control technology on their own, Ackerman says. He says that he and his fellow John Deere officials are seeing a growing number of bid specs requiring that a certain level of machine-control technology be used on a job. Those contractors who can’t meet these levels? They can’t even bid on the projects.

And as contractors buy machine-control systems to win these jobs, they quickly realize just how much more efficient the technology makes them, Ackerman says.

“This is slowly forcing contractors to purchase the systems,” says Ackerman. “As these contractors begin using the systems and witnessing the benefits, they often go on to use the technology on other equipment. It is very rare for a contractor to sell the machine-control equipment after the first job is completed.”

So what is keeping even more contractors from turning to machine-control technology, especially when the benefits of this tech seem to be so compelling?

Ackerman says that some of the older, more experienced grader operators—those who have run machines for decades without the help of machine-control—almost always balk at giving up control to a computer.

The trick, then, is getting these operators to try a grader equipped with machine-control. Once they do, they usually realize the benefits of such machines, Ackerman says.

“We often see that once these operators run the systems, it is difficult for them to give up the system and go back to manually setting grade,” says Ackerman.

Gillen says that some contractors have worked with the same veteran grader operators for years. They trust these operators, and these operators have long demonstrated their ability to make grade without the use of machine-control tech. These contractors might be waiting until these operators retire before they make the investment in grade-control technology, Gillen says.

For most contractors, though, the biggest hurdle to embracing machine-control technology remains that initial upfront cost. And this isn’t a challenge that’s gotten easier. The national economy might slowly be on the mend. But that doesn’t mean that contractors aren’t still struggling with lower profits and higher costs.

“But I think that the industry has recognized just how important this technology is,” says Gillen. “Contractors clearly understand that there is time and money to be saved here. It’s really a matter of when more contractors get to that same point, not if they are going to get there. To be competitive moving forward from a bid perspective, contractors know that they have to move to this technology.”

Michael Salyers, product marketing manager at the Rolling Meadows, Ill.-based office of Komatsu, says that a growing number of contractors are seeking machine-control technology for their graders.

The reason? This tech can increase the efficiency of even the most skilled of grader operators.

“The operator of a motor grader has a unique skill set, a special talent,” says Salyers. “They have to operate all those controls while also taking control of the job site. It takes a very capable operator to do that. When you have machine-control technology added, that only enhances the skills of a talented operator.”

Salyers, too, has seen a growing number of states requiring that contractors tackling public projects invest in machine-control technology. Those contractors that resist won’t even be allowed to bid on these projects, and that’s something that can dramatically reduce contractors’ yearly profits.

There are many benefits to contractors who embrace this technology, Salyers says. It makes little financial sense for them to resist.

“The contractors are more efficient. They are more profitable and they enjoy higher margins,” says Salyers. “It is better for the contractors all around.”

Dan Rafter is a technical writer and frequent contributor.