Excavators and Robotics

The trend of manufacturing easier-to-use heavy equipment is growing.

Credit: Komatsu

Editor’s Note: This article first appeared in the May 2016 issue of GX.

Many owners of grading and excavation contracting companies concur: finding enough skilled employees to execute jobs continues to be difficult.

The answer to that challenge may lie in more robotic-like machines. Machines that do more on their own—without human intervention—will require fewer employees. On the other hand, robotics may even attract people who like to work with electronics who hadn’t previously considered the construction field.

That lack of labor is driving adoption of technology, be it telematics or machine control, points out Jena Holtberg-Benge, director of John Deere WorkSight.

She references statistics from studies such as that done by the Associated General Contractors of America that concludes up to 86% of construction companies are struggling to find skilled operators.

“How do you then take an unskilled operator and put him in the cab of an excavator, or how do they increase the functions of an excavator and thereby have fewer of them but one really skilled operator?” points out Holtberg-Benge.

That is addressed through the adoption of machine controls as well as usage of telematics, she adds.

“If you think about fleet management, the fleet manager is looking at utilization across their fleet and addressing the number of assets they’ve got based on that utilization,” says Holtberg-Benge. “We’re seeing better usage of that data to be able to make those kind of decisions as a result of this lack of skilled labor.”

Indeed, machine control guidance will be the industry’s focus on next generation excavators, notes Sebastian Witkowski, product marketing manager with intelligent machine controls at Komatsu America Corp.

Komatsu has introduced the world’s first 3D GNSS machine control excavator, points out Witkowski, adding that the company’s machine control technology is fully scalable.

“We have made it easier to put grading systems on our excavators,” says Mark Wall, product marketing manager of excavators for John Deere. “We are mindful that we are open architecture, even on our graders and dozers. We like to play equally with all of the grade control companies, whether it be Topcon, Trimble, or Leica. There are building blocks which initially start with the grade reference systems and we’ll continue to build on that as we move forward.”

Credit: CASE CASE CX25OD hard at work

Credit: CASE
CASE CX25OD hard at work

In looking to improve next-generation equipment, John Deere’s product development process is influenced by input from a customer advocacy group, says Wall.

“We use these customers to help determine what they are looking for in that next series machine, whether it is better fuel economy, more productivity, or lower ownership and operation costs,” says Wall.

That feedback, which starts with a benchmarking, moves all the way into the point of production. “We’re in a portion of that now to have customers help us determine what that next series looks like relative to electronics, automation, and training,” he adds.

John Deere sometimes receives feedback on issues “we may not have thought about, but [are] important to the contractor,” points out Wall. For example, in the company’s current G Series, the reversing fan option came about from contractors’ requests.

“We had contractors then that had worked in some high-debris areas. They said one of the issues they get is in pulling that debris into the cooling systems and having to clean them,” says Wall. “From that, we designed our cooling systems so that we have a screen on the outside of the machine that collects a lot of big debris, and if it passes through that screen, it goes through the openings in the coolers. If it doesn’t, it will automatically reverse that fan every hour or you can automatically reverse it and it will clean that debris out of the system. The way we did it with a hydraulically-driven fan benefitted the contractors.”

Contractors welcomed the change on several levels. One was noise reduction, as the fan only runs as fast as it needs to, notes Wall. Fuel economy from not having to spin a large fan at rated engine speed became another benefit.

A third benefit was increased uptime. “Contractors tell us they don’t have to worry about trying to get in every interval and clean out the cooling cords,” points out Wall.

To stay competitive, contractors who use Doosan equipment indicate they desire a “durable and productive machine” that will have little downtime, notes Shane Reardon, excavator product specialist for Doosan.

Contractors also seek increased fuel efficiency, as well as operator comfort and visibility in the cab, which are areas of focus going forward, says Reardon.

Credit: Hyundai Hyundai all around view monitoring system

Credit: Hyundai
Hyundai all around view monitoring system

Grade control is a technology gaining momentum and may become standardized in the future, points out Reardon, adding that it’s gaining a lot of popularity in that it eliminates the need for employees on the ground holding grade sticks.

“The operator can sit in the cab and know where his grade is, allowing him to know how much to cut,” says Reardon. “He’s not over-digging and hauling excess material out, which may have to be hauled back in with fill. So they’re saving on materials as well.”

“Construction is a competitive business, and contractors are always looking for machines that produce more and do it more efficiently,” notes Corey Rogers, marketing manager with Hyundai Construction Equipment Americas.

The company is adding models and configurations to the Hyundai HX series it released last year.

Hyundai’s next-generation excavators are designed to meet Tier 4 final standards, provide 10% more fuel efficiency, and be 5% more productive, with increased breakout force and faster cycle times, says Rogers.

The company has put a focus on ease of operation and safety through such features as the all around view monitoring system (AAVM), which draws information from four cameras to create a 360-degree view to the work environment.

“This visual data is combined with our new IMOD dynamic object-detection system that helps operators take note of workers, equipment, or other objects in motion up to 16.5 feet away from the machine,” says Rogers. “This information is displayed on the large, automotive-quality touchscreen monitor that also provides access to other data and controls.”GX_bug_web

  • Peter Bel-Ford.

    An interesting article Carol, thank you. Unfortunately, I do find it strange in that the large number of excellent, experienced heavy equipment operators (I myself was one in my younger years) are unable to find work, union or right to work. It is not only a phenomenom in the USA/Canada, Europe/UK has similar problems. The training schools for operators has not worked well at all, most people I speak with in the Earthmoving and Pipeline construction industry’s do not relate well to this type of equipment operator.


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