The Machine Control Bump

Making road building more efficient and cost-effective with machine control technology

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Credit: Trimble
Trimble Machine Control guides a Roadtec paver.
Advanced precision construction technologies continue to proliferate in today’s market because they provide greater predictability and control over job costs. They also improve productivity and reduce the amount of re-work needed on a job site. Use of intelligent equipment through machine control can also reduce wear and tear on components and ground-engaging tools and attachments, help lower maintenance costs and fuel consumption, as well as extend the life of the machine.

Thus, some equipment manufacturers are partnering with technology companies to offer machine control options installed direct from the factory. For example, some manufacturers have a Topcon option from the factory, says Bill Painter, senior manager of OEM paving products, Topcon. Another option is an aftermarket plug-and-play system, but he says the trend is factory built-in. “It’s the wave of the future.”

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Actually, it’s the wave of the present. Many new machines already come “right from the factory with integrated systems that make it easy for business owners to start using advanced technologies,” says Max Winemiller, director of product management, road building and site prep division, CASE Construction Equipment. “Specifying machine control options direct from the factory not only saves time and money in the long run by eliminating the future downtime for installation, it also means it’s easier and more affordable than ever for business owners to get started.”

Winemiller says CASE recently developed a universal machine control option for its production class M Series dozers. This universal system option makes each machine factory-compatible with all major suppliers of precision construction technology for the life of the machine, with no need for the wiring harness or mounting points to be changed or altered if a different precision supplier is used during the second or third life of the machine.

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Technological Evolution
Automated machine control has been around 15–20 years, estimates Kevin Garcia, business area manager for technology for paving and specialty construction at Trimble. But technology never stands still.

Garcia cites breakthroughs such as Trimble’s first commercial automatic excavator system, released in the summer of 2017 as part of a platform change. It holds the tooth or the digging edge to grade, thereby increasing productivity by 30% or more.

The Android-based touchscreen system is faster, he says. In addition, more horsepower results in less time on the machine, along with less wear and tear. By improving productivity and helping operators finish faster, it accelerates jobs on a critical path. Contractors can then bid more work, Garcia notes, due to having more available hours with the tractor.

In addition to the three-dimensional graphic rendering allowing for design changes, it’s capable of remote checking via new sensors that account for slope. That increases accuracy when using automatic blade control, producing a well-prepared surface at profile. “It tells where to place the IMU for the best performance…the best accuracy with fewer passes.”

Trimble Earthworks expanded to dozers and motor graders in 2018. Garcia says other equipment will transition soon. Although the technology is brand agnostic, it is model-specific, so it takes time to roll out in each category, due to different geometry. Meanwhile, Trimble GCS900, their legacy product, is still available.

Credit: Trimble
Trimble Earthworks in charge of an excavator

“The world of construction has changed from blueprints and stakes,” says Painter. “Dirt guys work off 3D [three-dimensional] models now. Site prep and concrete guys can’t use string line; they should use 3D models. The whole job site is done with a 3D model—using either a robotic total station or GPS.”

He goes on to say that 3D modeling has changed the industry, and while payback is difficult to calculate because every job is different, general statistics confirm that the grading industry sees a 50% increase in productivity and the paving industry experiences a 30% increase in productivity when using it. “Some [systems] pay for the system within months,” concludes Painter.

String is like training wheels, he opines. Contractors may be nervous about using it at first, but they learn to love it. They still check grade, he hastens to add. They just do it differently now. Previously, they would set a second string side-to-side. Now, they go behind the paver with grade-checking devices. These data collectors are faster and simpler.

Using 3D modeling systems to pour concrete will not necessarily result in a smoother road than when using a string, Painter admits. “String gave us rideability.” The main focus of these systems is time savings. “The crew went in two to three days before the pavers with string. Now they don’t have to. That’s a huge cost saving…and time savings.”

Eliminating string means the machine is productive sooner and crews are able to hit their deadlines. “They can start a job in the morning and go to the next job sooner,” confirms Painter, “without worrying about string being set up.” In addition, if truck traffic doesn’t have to go around the string, it saves even more time because the haul road can be more direct—and the risk of laborers knocking down the string is eliminated.

Another time-saving aspect of these systems like SiteLink is that it allows the estimator in the office to send changes to the machine’s control box so there’s no need to re-survey for changes or lost stakes. Everyone is on the same page, Painter points out. With electronic updates and job changes, there are no outdated blueprints in the wrong hands.

Topcon works with every major equipment manufacturer and engineer. “All our equipment is the same for all manufacturers,” confirms Painter. Furthermore, the systems can be removed from a motor grader, dozer, or excavator and put on a concrete machine or dirt trimmer. Moving them around–Ωsharing them amongst machinery—can save money.

Two choices are available from Topcon: a GPS control application and the LPS robotic station application. Both offer similar benefits, such as savings of time, material, labor, fuel costs, and wear and tear. “On dirt, you’ll make fewer passes,” says Painter. “In a motor grader, you’ll spend half the time.”

The decision about which application to choose and where to use it begins with the location. Are there open areas without obstruction? Topcon’s LPS, a land position robotic total station, incorporates a tripod on the ground, not a satellite. Although buildings and weather don’t affect it, a line of sight is crucial. “If something blocks it, it shuts down,” explains Painter.

Topcon’s 3D millimeter GPS features sensor communication with a GPS base station or network. Their patented millimeter laser spreads a 33-inch wall of light, as opposed to the thin beam of light some other systems provide. More light permits more range. Operators can control the machine to perform contour and grade changes with a motor grader, concrete paver, or curb machine.

Triple D…a.k.a. 3D
Milling first and then paving produces smoother roads. Smoother roads are safer. Milling is one of the 3D applications Trimble software is used for. With 3D milling, longitudinal waves are removed. “It’s easier to pave a smoother road,” says Garcia, using the PTS 900 paving system or a 3D paver.

When it comes to asphalt paving, the more you lay, the more asphalt you compact. Trimble’s Earthworks and intelligent compaction help operators compact consistently and place material evenly. The trick is to design after data collection, Garcia explains, modeling with software after a survey to ensure proper drainage and structural integrity and to retain the original material. Using the international roughness index, he says they find high spots to be targeted by a diamond grinder. “GPS tells you where you are with high accuracy. Site control and modeling are for good execution.”

Because it is difficult to tell where the paver has been after the first pass on asphalt, intelligent compaction helps reduce the number of unnecessary passes. It also monitors temperature using infrared sensors. “If it’s too hot, there’s no compaction,” says Garcia. “If it’s too cold, it will be brittle.” In addition, it measures the stiffness of the material. That’s important because too many passes can damage the road. In fact, he says many DOTs are requiring it.

Paving relies on total station. “GPS is good for fine grading, but vertical accuracy is not good enough,” indicates Garcia. “Contractors must manage yields.” For example, the specifications cannot be off at an airport or other sites where accuracy is critical. Plus, he adds, on jobs specifying a minimum thickness, “you don’t want to pave extra to hit the margins; that gets expensive in wasted material.”

Many jobs have tight tolerances. Airport projects typically have strict penalties of as much as $250,000 per day for being late. Eliminating a string line saves time—and costs in material savings. Both add to the return on investment.

Credit: Komatsu
John Deere’s 672GP SmartGrade motor grader

Mastless Grade Control
The precision and speed delivered by grade control systems translates into higher efficiencies and improved productivity. Integrated grade control has enabled operators to grade more accurately, reducing the number of passes needed to achieve final grade.

Sean Mairet, grade control product marketing manager for John Deere WorkSight, says John Deere is leading the way with innovative advanced technology for heavy construction equipment by offering the first integrated 3D mastless grade control motor grader. John Deere’s highly advanced integrated grade control system SmartGrade was co-developed through a strategic alliance with Topcon.

The John Deere SmartGrade motor grader provides the precision and speed of GNSS grade control with the flexibility to run where traditional masted systems cannot. It delivers integrated three-dimensional grade control with no external masts or cables, reducing costs and risk of theft or damage. Additionally, with no masts or cables to worry about, Mairet says that machines can now be utilized earlier in the site development process, maximizing machine utilization and job site efficiency.

Both John Deere’s SmartGrade dozers and motor graders offer integrated 3D grade control without external masts or cables, thus reducing the risk of theft or damage and improving productivity.

Intelligent machine control GNSS-integrated dozers are becoming the most utilized pieces of equipment in road construction preparation—sometimes even taking the place of motor graders, says Sebastian Witkowski, product marketing manager, Intelligent Machine Controls, Komatsu American Corp. The key to a successful road project is a well-constructed subgrade. Komatsu’s dozers allow operators to get to grade the first time, whether performing subgrade construction or finish grading.

While Komatsu’s fully automated finish-grade dozers improve operator efficiency, the company continues to improve product performance. Developments in automation logic and the utilization of GPS continue to be a focus, Witkowski says. But even now, customers benefit from a significant ROI. “Intelligent Machine Control dozers alone can offer up to 8% more efficient dozing operation when compared [with] comparable aftermarket machine control systems in start-to-finish grading tests,” he says.

Credit: John Deere
John Deere’s 672GP SmartGrade motor grader

Advanced Technology
While new machine advancements continue to progress in the construction industry, Mairet believes that technology advancement is “clearly at the forefront of the industry right now.” He says that productivity and uptime requirements are driving the integration of many new technological advances into construction equipment and worksite operations. Advancements in technology such as grade control, telematics, and Unmanned Aerial Vehicles are helping lead to new levels of productivity, uptime, and efficiency throughout the construction industry.

“Advanced telematics is the branch of information technology that provides long-distance transmission of machine information,” says Mairet. John Deere’s telematics system, JDLink, integrates this cutting-edge telematics technology into machines to provide information and insights to boost the productivity, efficiency, and security of many operations. It allows users to remotely track and create reports for data such as location, fuel consumption, and machine performance. It also provides machine diagnostic alerts that help users prevent downtime, theft, and misuse.

Deere introduced a suite of advanced automated features when launching the SmartGrade motor grader, including blade flip, auto-articulation, and machine presets to improve productivity. The 950K PAT recently joined Deere’s SmartGrade crawler dozer line. North America’s largest dozer features a power angle tilt blade and integrated blade control, providing increased flexibility for a variety of applications.

With an ever-increasing demand for skilled operators, Mairet says grade control systems like SmartGrade can provide the ability to automate some of the most difficult tasks on the job, enabling even less-experienced operators to improve their productivity and deliver accurate finish surfaces. For more experienced operators, grade control systems reduce the workload and allow them to focus on more advanced operations and challenging tasks.

John Deere’s focus on improving productivity has led to many automated machine features, such as EH Controls and Cross-Slope Control on motor graders, that make challenging operations more manageable. Similarly, Deere offers other automated features that are available across its range of product lines and are designed to help operators of all skill levels be more productive.

Boosting Productivity
In order to become more productive, operators must be able to master new technology. Winemiller says machine guidance and control technologies are becoming easier to operate and integrate across fleets of all sizes. “With that comes the possibilities for greater productivity and increased ROI.”

He explains that there are several key considerations for contractors when it comes to determining the right machine control solution for their business. Business owners need to consider the site’s current conditions, the required accuracy of the finish work, and any potential application issues such as complex slopes. They also need to assess their budgets and take their existing fleet size into consideration. “Business owners should also consider their future growth plans when determining the level of investment available for precision construction solutions.”

In the simplest terms, one-dimensional systems are designed to regulate single-plane grade and slope, Winemiller explains. Two-dimensional systems regulate grade and slope with many variations needed on the work site. “The most advanced and capable of the available systems are the 3D systems [that] regulate grade and slope, dependent on the positioning of the machine across the entire work site, based on GNSS machine position, laser-guided sensors or total stations, and changing map/worksite topography.”

Advanced precision construction technologies can help contractors maximize machine utilization and ROI. They can also help minimize training time, as less experienced operators are able to get better results. Winemiller says, “While some still think of it as a technology that’s only suitable for large bulldozers and motor graders, many are starting to see it for what it is: a truly transformative technology for machines of all sizes that can help contractors, fleet managers, and business owners get onto their next job site with greater efficiency and profitability than ever before.”

Credit: Komatsu
Komatsu’s D61PXi dozer with grade control

Moving Forward
As he examines the path heading toward the future, Trimble’s Garcia considers it important for contractors to understand and use metadata on other projects. Doing so will allow them to better manage crews and conduct competitive bidding. He believes that reviewing smoothness data, as-built specs, and other information will improve productivity. “They need to analyze this information for automation.”

Going forward, he sees machine control’s “huge potential” to move away from paper plans. The benefits are manyfold. When design changes can be made in the database and pushed to all machines, it decreases inaccuracies and saves time.

Even more, time could possibly be saved by the use of autonomous machines. “It could free up people,” muses Garcia. Like driverless cars, it could incorporate Artificial Intelligence to predict actions. However, for now, he says it might be “better for remote areas like mines.”

Technology from other industries continues to infiltrate the world of road construction. “Advancements in UAVs, such as the Kespry Aerial Intelligence System, [are] yet another example of how technology is transforming the construction industry,” argues Mairet. Originally viewed as primarily recreational, drones are now used for industrial work. In keeping with this trendy development, John Deere formed a strategic alliance with Kespry to provide customers with a system capable of rapidly capturing survey-grade topography in a matter of minutes. Mairet says the ability to rapidly acquire accurate data has made UAVs indispensable in providing valuable insights having to do with bidding, productivity tracking, inventory management, and project verification.

Once-unimaginable devices and methods are currently making road construction more efficient, safer, and more accurate. Available now, selectively, from Topcon is the Z robot. “Mainline paving uses up to six robotic total stations—three with the machine: left, right, and to check grade,” details Painter. Three are set up in front, roughly 300–350 feet ahead, and leapfrog as the machine approaches. Topcon’s system uses one instead of three or six per machine. He says it’s easier to set up and use and costs less.

“There are hundreds of stringless machines running,” states Painter, “and thousands of stringless machines grading. The wave of the future 10 to 12 years ago is here. The industry has changed.” Innovation, along with the demand for increased efficiency, will ensure that it continues to change. GX_bug_web

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