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Seeking machine control ubiquity

November 4, 2022  - By

Guidance and precision control, the base elements of modern machine control for construction, have continued to evolve since broad productization began in the mid-1990s. However, the value proposition has become even sweeter since, with value being realized beyond the return on investment (ROI) of the general contractors and the total project price tag for the clients. While the majority of equipment globally is still non-digital, new levels of simplicity and affordability are helping to fill that gap.

The roots of machine control stretch back a century. The Historical Construction Equipment Association (HCEA) posits that the A.W. French & Co. “utility grader” of the 1920s, a crawler-mounted unit that used stringline control, may be the very first example — and this before electronics and computing. However, it was the advent of real-time kinematics (RTK) for GPS in the mid-1990s that brought machine control as we know it to the construction site, and coincidentally to precision agriculture.

Initially, the focus was on guidance. Then it moved to precision control, such as blade control, and later propagated to more classes of motorized equipment, improved with further sensor integration.

The impact on construction and agriculture has been undeniable: productivity gains, less rework, more efficient handling of materials, shorter timelines, site safety improvements, and more. These benefits are as obvious to clients and operators as they were in the early days of adoption, gains from nearly three decades of innovation.

What form have these growing benefits taken, and who is realizing them? We sought insights from industry experts to find out.

Grading and Excavation

Automation is not just about speed; it is also about better control of the load and stress on the equipment and moving just the right amount of materials so as not to place a burden on it. Photo: CHCNav

Automation is not just about speed; it is also about better control of the load and stress on the equipment and moving just the right amount of materials so as not to place a burden on it. (Photo: CHCNAV)

These two activities, as each of our interviewed experts attest, represent the lion’s share of realized productivity gains.

While not the complete picture of overall value, the sheer volume of equipment that has been, or could be, automated speaks, well, volumes. “Apart from the skid steer systems, there are more excavators manufactured than all the other equipment types combined,” said Daniel Sass, product manager of machine control at Hemisphere GNSS. “Excavators are the workhorse. And people use them differently, and they use other pieces of equipment to complement excavators somewhat differently. Certainly, the bulk of our sales is excavators, and in fact a key part of our value proposition is focused on compact machines, but also all the way up to mining shovels. Certainly, by volume it is excavators and compact excavators.”

Numbers help tell the story. “In the United States, at least in a three-year period from 2019 to 2022, about 253,000 excavators were sold, for which I have pretty reliable data, but only 61,000 dozers and only 7,000 scrapers,” Sass said. “That’s North America, where we also use a lot of dozers and scrapers. If you go to Europe, where they use excavators for many other tasks, the proportional impact might be higher.”

Operators can easily gauge the ROI of going digital for individual pieces of equipment such as excavators, but part of the incentive could be that general contractors are requiring subcontractors to be equipped and ready to fit into a more complete digital site. “Some definitely require it,” said Randy Noland, vice president of global sales at Hemisphere GNSS. “A lot of … larger sites. I wouldn’t say everybody mandates it yet, but that it is growing.”

“Operator assistance is not only helping someone cut to grade faster, but is also the best way to cut to grade,” said Cameron Clark, earthmoving industry director, Trimble Civil Construction. “How do you move the material? That directly ties into productivity by only moving the material you need to move, which also equates to less fuel because you can do it faster.” With operator assistance, Clark said, it is not uncommon to see productivity gains of 30% to 40%, even with inexperienced operators. And with automatics, this could exceed 75%, depending on the work done.

There are substantial gains to be made in operator assistance for less complex heavy equipment, such as compactors. “Often a contactor will put a less experienced operator in the compactor,” Clark said. “In manual days, to overcome the potential of under-compaction and missing spots, they’d create quite a big overlap, maybe up to 40% of overlap between paths. By adding steering control, we can automate the compactor to where it needs to be — to stay on line every day, all day. And you can reduce the overlap to 10% or 15%; having to compact a smaller area means that you’re quicker, say 30% quicker.”

“Grade control gains can be 30% to 50%,” said Magnus Thibblin, president, machine control division, Hexagon Geosystems. “Depending on the machine and the job application, and how experienced the crew is, it can be similar for excavators.” Thibblin was an end user from the early days of machine control. He saw its potential and how it might work better. Its benefits came not just from automating elements of the equipment, he said, but from implementing a more complete digital workflow.

“How much are you working with the digital design from the start?” Thibblin said. “I’m one of those who believes you should have 3D from the start; for any kind of layer that the machines can build to. Incidentally, in North America, working to models is implemented for a lot of graders and dozers. In Europe, there is a large excavating market, but it’s the same foundation. If you work from the design, you will have savings in fuel, time, efficiency, safety, etc. Depending on all of these things, the total value proposition may be 30% to 70%.”

Wenming Sun, vice general manager for digital construction, CHCNAV, reiterates these points. “Currently, our machine control solutions are mainly installed on earthmoving machines, including bulldozers, excavators and motor graders,” Sun said. “The greatest value of these solutions is to improve construction efficiency, shorten construction time, reduce fuel consumption and mechanical wear while ensuring construction quality.”

CHCNAV is a relatively new player in the construction machine control market, launching initially in Europe and Asia. The company has been developing automation and steering systems for equipment that can yield the highest gains for their customers. “For example, our 3D TG63 automatic control system for motor graders can double efficiency compared to manual operation of machines and reduce time by 50% for the same workload,” Sun said.

Getting to the designed grade, or trench line, of earthworks geometry faster is a huge benefit, while reducing or removing finishing steps is a bonus. “Now we’re seeing that with excavators that have automatics, the finishing we can get out of an excavator is amazing,” Clark said. “You used to get dozers cleaning up after excavators. Now, with the performance you can get with an automatic excavator, you often don’t need to run the dozer — the excavator can get it done the first time.”

However, dozers are used for many other tasks. Clark noted that about 95% of blade-control systems for dozers sold have automatics. He said grade control brings tremendous productivity gains, but that excavation is right up there as well. “When you look at the number of machines out there, it’s in a different league,” Clark added. “In 2021, for example, globally about 370,000 crawler excavators and 325,000 mini excavators were sold.”

Lateral Benefits

GNSS has revolutionized automation for many classes of heavy equipment. However, for certain high precision work, particularly finished elevations, site levels and totals stations are essential. Photo: Hexagon

GNSS has revolutionized automation for many classes of heavy equipment. However, for certain high precision work, particularly finished elevations, site levels and totals stations are essential. (Photo: Hexagon)

For the general contractor, ROI is a key measure. This can be reasonably easy to gauge, as this ROI calculator shows: However, what matters is not just the upfront time and cost for grading and excavating, but also avoiding lateral time and costs. “If you can do jobs faster and more accurately, it lends itself to less rework,” Clark said. “You do it right the first time, which again goes into less fuel, and then also less material. For example, let’s say your excavator is digging down to a trench and the operator digs too deep, which happens often. That material dug out of the trench potentially needs to be carted away. So, extra fuel and trucks are needed to take the material away. They’ve got to put high quality material back in, so that means they actually have to cart more material back to put in the trench, and you have to spread the material.

Again, it’s a flow-on effect — a chain reaction. When you look at sustainability, what we do has direct and indirect effects — it’s 1 gallon of fuel you don’t use that saves about 22 pounds of carbon emissions.”

The green dividend goes beyond just what individuals and firms wish to see. Increasingly, infrastructure developers and owners may be subject to sustainability requirements. Depending on where the work is being done, sustainable development goals are being acted on. This includes not just the environmental goals, but also requirements for the digitalization of design and construction, and ultimately smarter and more sustainable infrastructure. Machine control in construction can deliver some of the most substantial benefits in meeting these goals.

Like overall value for the operators and clients, gauging the highest green dividend becomes a proposition of sheer volume. “On average, your dozer is going to burn much more fuel. However, we sell four times as many excavator solutions as we do for dozers,” said Miles Ware, vice president of marketing and global customer care, Hemisphere GNSS. “The excavator solution is critical for both an ROI and an environmental impact.” Among the most-sold excavators in the United States are the Kubota 4-ton, the John Deere 3.5-ton and 5-ton, and the Caterpillar 5-ton. “The smaller excavators are going to use a lot less fuel,” Ware added. “If we compare this to mid- and large-sized excavators and dozers, we might be getting close to a point of equilibrium, when it comes to environmental impact. Those that consume huge amounts of fuel move massive amounts of earth. However, the ability to have the larger units operate much more efficiently, complete jobs much faster, and get on site and off site quicker with fewer passes in fewer hours adds up to a green dividend. Then you take the smaller volumetric scale of so many excavators and the environmental benefit really starts to balance out. There are huge incentives for all these platforms, whether it be dozers or excavators, to have the technology in place.” Hemisphere announced at the Bauma Exhibition in October that it now has systems to support loaders and scrapers.

“One of the things that’s really intriguing to me about the loader solution is that it represents a crossover point between construction earthmoving and agriculture,” Ware said. “There’s a huge benefit for feedlots and agriculture-related operations, where they use machine-controlled loaders to avoid damaging base layers. We have a growing machine-control audience, and a substantially growing precision agriculture audience. It is just one example of how technologies are cross-pollinating in different verticals.”

The benefits of machine control are broadly recognized across the industry. “Improved construction efficiency and shorter construction time means that the machine operating time is shortened for the same workload,” Sun said. “According to our own calculation results, using for instance our system for motor graders, fuel consumption can be reduced by 35% to 50% under different working conditions. Thanks to the full real-time automation of its blade, the grader can achieve the expected finish accuracy in one or two passes, whereas an unequipped machine would require four to five passes. This effectively reduces fuel consumption and, as a result, minimizes the carbon footprint of construction projects.”

Automation means you can build to the model in less time and refine the movements of the equipment to move just the right amount of material — enough to improve productivity, but not so much as to put an undue strain on it. “Any time you have a piece of equipment that needs to be repaired or is out of service, it is disruptive to the project of course, but it can also have an environmental impact, and sustainability is something we all work toward,” Thibblin said.

Connectivity and Collaboration

Going to a fully digital site means working fully in 3D, from a digital model, and seeking to eliminate 2D plans sets. No more interpretation, no more estimation—the right amount of material is moved rapidly and reliably by multiple machines working in harmony. (Photo: Hemisphere GNSS)

Going to a fully digital site means working fully in 3D, from a digital model, and seeking to eliminate 2D plans sets. No more interpretation, no more estimation—the right amount of material is moved rapidly and reliably by multiple machines working in harmony. (Photo: Hemisphere GNSS)

Moving forward, there may be additional incremental gains in the productivity of individually automated equipment, yet this may be modest in contrast to the time since the introduction of machine control decades ago. For the next sea change in construction productivity, we should be looking beyond simply the machines. “Let’s take the holistic viewpoint,” Thibblin said. “You have everything from the machines that of course have either machine control or different levels of autonomy, everything from semi-autonomous to semi-automatic. Then you have the trucks, which can be connected also with the tracker devices, which enables optimal routing, enhanced safety, and coordinating material handling cycles.”

Total project and site coordination has been in the works for vertical construction for quite some time; we hear a lot about building information modeling. However, heavy civil is catching up. “We anticipate that the ongoing integration of digital construction solutions with internet of things technologies will bring more choice and functionality to customers,” Sun said.

Further, real-time collaborative software platforms are already in use. Many vendors for machine control have added live connectivity for such coordination.

“Our customers are using ConX,” Thibblin said, referring to Leica ConX, a cloud-based collaboration tool. “It is remotely connecting to the mission, which is support, service, file transfers, project updates.” While online collaborative tools have been around for years, current offerings have reached such a level of maturity that they have driven a boom in adoption for even smaller operations. Customers need to make sure that projects are working optimally, and continuously.

Another major difference from the early days of machine control is that the relative cost of outfitting equipment with automation components is far less. Therefore, it is more practical to automate nearly all equipment on a site, making a truly coordinated digital site possible. “It’s not just the larger businesses that are investing, it’s also the smaller businesses that understand and can calculate the ROI. It is also a difference in competency level: how complex and support-intensive the system was. Now, it’s much more integrated,” Thibblin said.

Today’s systems are tighter, work better, connect better with original equipment manufacturers (OEMs), and the learning curve not as steep. The machines have become smarter, yet easier to use and integrate. “You do not have to be a nuclear scientist to understand the systems,” Thibblin said. “The equipment and collaboration tools are now much simpler. Not simple to make, but we do that for you.”

It is a chain reaction: the equipment gets smarter yet simpler, and both characteristics drive more adoption. More of a site gets automated, enabling digital collaboration, and with that comes more efficiency, saving on time, costs, materials and fuel. The sum of the parts yields productivity gains, the site gets safer, and of course there is a green dividend as well. “It is not just the one thing that gets to this,” Thibblin said. “It is many parts.”

Clark reiterates, “The biggest driver and the biggest impact is when we can actually control the site, optimize how we coordinate groups of machines working together, and efficiently run the job site. That’s where you’re going to see the biggest benefit for sustainability and reducing the carbon footprint. You don’t just optimize productivity at the machine — it’s the coordination of the site and how the machines work together.”

What about the smaller firms and short-duration projects? Should the same level of full site integration happen for each job? Perhaps not. However, there are alternative ways to realize nearly all the benefits of automation without a full digital site. “There’s a lot of focus on short-duration jobs, not only for the typical small contractors, but also for large contractors,” Clark said. “Some large contractors actually target a decent portion of jobs for smaller duration, to balance out changes in market dynamics.” There is a lot of demand for small contractors with technology, and many small contractors have to automate just to stay in the game.

“People using grade control see all the benefits, and that affects their costs,” Clark said. “They can get jobs at a different price than someone who isn’t benefiting from grade control. We’re seeing this a lot in the adoption of our earthworks and grade-control products.”

A challenge to adoption by smaller firms used to be that with a small staff, they might not have the necessary office software, a surveyor, a design engineer, or a 3D modeler. While there is a cottage industry of drafters who do small 3D modeling contracts for that market, there are now more alternatives. “We’ve added features to our systems that enable these contractors, on these short duration jobs, to create designs without requiring office software,” Clark said. “Typically, without a 3D design, you are eyeballing, and you have to do grade checks. There are conventional systems that can include lasers and line tracers, but now that simple designs can be added to the machine-control systems without additional office steps, more operators will be able to use them on a greater number of small jobs.”

Multi-sensor integration has enabled more equipment on the site to be automated. Not long after the first GPS-guided machine control systems came along, more sensors were added, such as inertial measurement units (IMUs). Besides IMUs, the sensors in play can include GNSS receivers, lasers, lidar scanners, sonics, optics, cameras, displacement sensors, pressure sensors, thermal sensors, inclinometers, vehicle distance measurement instruments and telematics.

Beyond GPS, the wealth of additional GNSS satellites and signals has brought more robust and reliable solutions in mixed environments. Recently, a heavy equipment operator called to ask if there was “something wrong with GPS” that day. He reported having spotty fixes and wildly varying results. After some standard troubleshooting of his communications and correction sources, we determined he was using a legacy broadcast format, and his GNSS receiver, while fully multi-constellation enabled, was only using one constellation. Once a newer correction format was chosen — bam! — he was fixed instantly with results as good as he’d ever seen. Things are getting better on all tech fronts.

Coordination of a fully digital site often involves integrating as many operations as possible through a back-end site management software, connecting as much equipment as possible, and working from standard models. This can be a relatively simple proposition if a site is under a single solution. However, general contractors may not be in a position to use equipment from a single brand. They may have a diverse equipment portfolio and seek flexibility in being able to onboard subcontractors. Vendors have recognized this and offer different levels of interoperability. “In addition to high-performance and real-world site-smart software features, our systems play well with mixed fleets,” Noland said. “Meaning multi-brand GNSS systems, radios and various file formats. This is key for firms that have already made investments, as well as new users entering the market concerned about how compatible their equipment will be.”

“If you have a mixed fleet, you can easily grow it,” Ware said. “Or, you can interoperate with other contractors or entities. So, if there’s a brand X already working, and if a Hemisphere GradeMetrix contractor is added to that project, they can seamlessly come in and handle most of the files, go immediately to work, and further expand the use of the technology on that particular project.”

The Underserved Market

Machine control has evolved in the decades since initial productization from navigation and guiance to include precision control of blades, buckets and more, and the ability of even smaller equipment to work from 3D models. (Photo: Trimble)

Machine control has evolved in the decades since initial productization from navigation and guiance to include precision control of blades, buckets and more, and the ability of even smaller equipment to work from 3D models. (Photo: Trimble)

If the construction industry is going to help meet growing global infrastructure needs, to fill the existing multi-trillion-dollar infrastructure gaps, then a lot more equipment needs to be automated.

“Let me just make a general comment that speaks to both productivity gains and a lower carbon footprint: as an industry, we can do much better,” Noland said. “Only about 15% to 20% of the equipment that could be outfitted for machine control has been, and the other 80% is up for grabs.” Noland credited other key players — such as Trimble, Topcon, and Leica — with providing excellent solutions for certain sectors of machine control, yet he sees an opportunity for Hemisphere to excel.

“The next wave is the underserved part of the market,” Noland said. “If we’re successful, then your climate impact is greater and your productivity gains higher.” He noted that in addition to systems for large equipment, a particular focus for Hemisphere has been providing a range of affordable solutions for smaller equipment. “We feel like we are tapping into that part of the market that has been underserved. It’s not necessarily new features from what everybody already has, as much as it is democratizing the technology to that underserved 80%.”

Autonomy and the Near Future

It is exciting to think about, but is the next sea change for construction machine control going to be full automation? Is that truly an inevitability? Or is the road to autonomy already paved with productivity gold?

“The autonomous machine, and the autonomous site; it is what we are doing to get there that continually boosts productivity,” Clark said. “As more operator assistance is added, the semi-autonomy that many systems already provide means that the operator can concentrate on more aspects of the operation; and this definitely enhances site safety.”

Autonomy might not necessarily reach every piece of equipment, and contractors may not want it for every task. With the prospects of anything like a fully autonomous site being on a sliding horizon, contractors and clients are not waiting around — they are already reaping the benefits of automation on the individual equipment level. Productivity gains and a green dividend will only increase as sites become more fully integrated. In some ways, the best parts of such a future are already here.

Gavin Schrock is a practicing surveyor, technology writer and operator of a cooperative GNSS network.

Featured Photo: Trimble

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