The next big thing: machine control

Using surveyor data is set to revolutionise the construction industry

ANALYSIS, PMV, Machine control

Using surveyor data to automate machine operation is set to revolutionise the construction industry, reducing project time and cutting costs - but how quickly will contractors in the Middle East adopt this technology?

Game changer
Trimble and Caterpillar machine control technologies produce significant performance advantages for contractors, says SITECH Gulf’s sales manager John S. Taylor

While machine control may only be in its infancy in the construction sector in the Middle East, the improved operational efficiency and profitability the technology yields means that is only a matter of time before the early adopters are viewed with envy by their competitors.

One of the companies active in the field is SITECH Gulf, formed last year as a part of the Mohamed Abdulrahman Al-Bahar group of companies, and a clear sign that one of the largest equipment-selling groups in the GCC is focused on the importance of machine control.  

SITECH offers Caterpillar AccuGrade and Trimble GCS 2D and 3D machine control products in UAE, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman, and Kuwait, as well as Trimble surveying tools, for use on a range of machines, from dozers, graders, excavators, to soil compactors and asphalt pavers.

While telematics offerings from manufacturers are generally focused on machine health, looking to improve servicing and maintenance, as well as providing information about utilisation, the machine control industry aims to directly improve the job-site performance and functionality, reducing the amount of machine time needed to complete a job according to specification.

John Taylor, SITECH’s sale manager, first worked in the GCC in 1984, originally as an engineer and surveyor. He says that the best proof of the value of machine control is the huge leap in efficiency that can be demonstrated for customers.

Once companies adopt the methods they are not always likely to want to share this information, nor does any one company measure its business in the same way – nevertheless the results are transformational.

A 2006 study by Caterpillar into the use of AccuGrade on a road building test site in Malaga saw a 100% increase in productivity and a 31% increase in machine utilisation.

And in the Middle East, the upgrade can help guard against problems caused by poor operator skills. Taylor says that in the past few months they’ve trained operators ranging in age from 21 to 60.

“The most experienced operators have all loved the systems we’ve installed, and it’s actually shown them how they can increase their productivity to an even higher level.

“We make their machine operators that are very good, even better. Our systems will turn a mediocre operator into a pretty decent operator,” he explains.

From an operational standpoint, a contractor needs to have a fleet of machine control-enabled equipment. Many manufacturers can produce Trimble-ready new machines, which needs to be specified by a buyer, and then the kit is a plug and play installation, with the GCS sensors and the control chips mounted and plugged into the machine’s electronic system.

“Each manufacturer is a little bit different, but all of them are starting to build into their systems the controls and electronics needed for us to bolt our systems externally on”, says Taylor.

On newer Caterpillar machines, the AccuGrade system – jointly developed by Cat and Trimble – is integrated into the electro-hydraulic system, which simplifies installation. Older machines will require the installation to access the hydraulics of the machine – which is a more time intensive operation.

“An example is the Cat 14M grader, which has all the hydraulic controls, and most of the wiring necessary – it would take a half day to install a 3D system. By comparison, an older 14H, which didn’t have the hydraulics and electronics built into the system, takes a little longer with extra installation.”

For a machine such as a grader or bulldozer working on a road construction site or other earthmoving project, the surveying data is used to improve the machine performance, by guiding the operator to manually position the blade for rough work, and automatically controlling the blade for fine dozing or grading.

The utilisation of surveying data also means that contractors don’t have to wait for the surveying information to be pegged out onto a site, which can take weeks or months, says Taylor. Additionally, in many companies in the Middle East, surveying is done by their in-house team, so cost savings immediately go on the balance sheet.

The machine’s GNSS sensors measure its position on the job site, while the information from the blade-positioning sensors is fed into the machine controls to ensure that the surface is finished to a highly accurate level. There are a number of ways that machines can communicate directly with the site office and the surveying information, whether 3G, WIFI, or radio.

Luckily, most sites in the GCC, especially the UAE, have excellent 3G network coverage.

Taylor says that they’ve seen dramatic improvements in company costs, especially when measuring the performance of graders per square metre. Fewer passes from graders and dozers means lower diesel costs, less machine wear, and higher overall machine utilisation.

In North American and Europe, diesel costs can be as much as 40% of a earth-moving project’s cost, and Taylor says that in the UAE, with a relatively high cost of diesel, it is a similar figure.

More efficient contractors will use less machines, an area where the benefits of machine control seem to go against the wishes of the manufacturers, namely to sell more units. Nevertheless, demand for the technology is customer driven and therefore can’t be halted, believes Taylor.

While initially some operators have concerns when they see the complex-looking kits, this is quickly dispelled by 20 minutes of training.

Andrew Caldwell, regional manager of Trimble’s heavy civil construction division, covering UK, Ireland, Africa and Middle East, says that from a manufacturer standpoint their focus has been to take the advances in technology and keep it behind the scenes, making the operator’s systems more intuitive.

“It’s all graphical interface, it’s all basic numbers, and simple lines to follow. Technology in the past five-ten years has advanced tremendously, but the operators perhaps don’t see that, it’s all behind the scenes.”

Trimble has been providing technology for the construction industry in late ‘70’s, with its first machine control product in 1984, beginning with land-levelling in agriculture.

“We have always been at the leading edge of this technology, and through either development of our own products or acquisition of other companies, we’ve continued to grow and keep that position,” says Caldwell. “Trimble has the most complete line portfolio of products in the industry – from grader, dozer, compactor, excavator, to trucks.”

The technology development will continue, believes Caldwell. “We’ve only scratched the surface of information and availability of efficiencies that we’ve given to contractors so far.

This industry stood still for many years, and it’s the advancement of communication technology such as 3G and 4G, that has enabled us to do the things that we were thinking of five-six years ago – such as two-way data transfer, communication with the field, access to field information from remote sites – all that’s advanced.

“The technology curve is very much on the increase – there are going to be a lot of changes in the industry. As companies become more adaptive to the change, and they see the benefits, they will embrace them a lot more.”

There are parts of the world that are three-four steps ahead of the Middle East, but the region will catch up very quick, believes Caldwell. “Everywhere is playing catch up.”

From an operating environment perspective, Taylor says they recommend products and services suitable for the working environments of the Middle East.

Likewise, with the expensive technology, Taylor says that the approach is to treat the kits as an extension of standard surveying tools, and give the surveyors – who have experience with complex instruments – responsibility for the machine control equipment.

Productivity snapshot
A study by Caterpillar into the advantages obtained by AccuGrade on a road site showed dramatic improvements.

100% Increase in Productivity

  • 3.0 days vs. 1.5 days to construct the test project
  • Increased accuracy

A 31% Increase in Machine Utilisation

  • Less waiting time
  • Longer passes

Savings in Operating Cost

  • 43% less fuel used
  • Less wear
  • 1/3 of the passes needed

Talking Machines
Testing of machine efficiency on work sites shows that installing machine-to-machine (M2M) communication devices on equipment could improve overall site efficiency and lower machine running costs, said Peter Wallin, research coordinator at Volvo CE.

Tests have been carried out by the company to calculate the potential fuel savings M2M communication could bring to articulated haulers working in the quarry and aggregates segment.

Wallin said that many quarries they have visited have not had their work flow optimised, and would benefit from M2M technology.

“Usually there isn’t a structure stating when the haulers should arrive at the crusher. Often the machines are driven at maximum speed but when you look at the amount of idle time it’s clear that this isn’t always necessary,” he said.

“When the machines are stationary, waiting to unload, they’re wasting time and money. By using M2M communication the operator would know exactly when to arrive at the crusher and what speed to travel at to get there. Through reducing machine speed and idle time we are reducing fuel consumption and wear and tear on the machine as well as facilitating an efficient flow of equipment.”

Wallin said that the next stage of the project will be to provide the operator with information, such as target speed and arrival time, inside the cab. “This live information will support and guide operators to the most fuel efficient operation and could be presented in future concepts like heads-up displays and other innovative approaches.

“If all the equipment on a job site was fitted with this technology they could be linked to a central control point used by the site manager to optimise efficiency of the fleet. The results from this project will determine if, when and how this technology will reach the market.” 

On-the-spot surveying
Wirtgen received an award at Bauma for its slipform concrete paver control system

Wirtgen has received a Bauma innovation award for its fully automatic, string line-free concrete paving method for slipform pavers, the AutoPilot Field Rover, which utilises GNSS positioning and on-the-spot surveying.

The technology will speed up road construction, improve accuracy and quality, and lower material costs says Wirtgen, which was awarded in the ‘Machinery Component’ category.

The system uses a hand-held GPS reference station, which the operator uses to map out the paving line. The data are transferred via USB stick to the slipform paver, which then automatically follows the path via the use of two GNSS sensors installed on the machine.

Unlike conventional stringline-free 3D-systems, which can only be operated by personnel trained in surveying, the AutoPilot Field Rover is designed for simple operation by the machine operator, rendering special training unnecessary, says the company.

A highlight of the Field Rover is that the software calculates the optimum course on the basis of the measured points, creating a virtual stringline. And since the data are collected on site immediately prior to beginning the job, it can take into account deviations from surveying plans, such as a hydrant positioned incorrectly.

The system was used earlier this year by a German road contracting company, VSB infra GmbH & Co. KG, Dortmund, which first used it for the construction of a 3.5km-long concrete protection wall on a highway project.

VSB infra completely dispensed with the use of stringlines, with the construction manager recording measuring points at intervals of 20 metres with the Field Rover a few days before beginning construction.

“The big advantage of this method is that there is no stringline to obstruct the team around the paver. The concrete mixers also have more room to manoeuvre. This makes the work much easier and quicker,” said VSB’s managing director Kay Petersen.  

The recorded data can be viewed on the Field Rover display and re-edited if necessary.

Early adopters
Topcon produces a a full range of machine control tech, and has collaborated with Komatsu on its innovative new bullldozer with full dozer blade automation for rough and fine grading

Founded in Japan in the 1930s, Topcon originally manufactured lenses for cameras, binoculars and surveying equipment. Today is it is one of the leading companies manufacturing surveying tools, positioning technology and machine control, while there is also a separate ophthalmology division.

In 2004 it signed an alliance with Komatsu, which has seen cooperation in the field of machine control. Intensified in 2008, Komatsu sells dozers which are factory-standard with Topcon plug and play provision for easy installation of the Topcon machine control kits.

This year at Bauma, Komatsu announced that it would take this a step forward, and begin selling a bulldozer, the D61EXi/PXi-23, fully factory-integrated with Topcon technology, and an excavator prototype with similar technology was also shown at Munich.

The bulldozer had been under development for five years.

Calling it “Not just factory integration, but added intelligence,” Komatu’s system includes a GNSS antenna that has been relocated from the blade to the top of the cab, which lessens the chance of damage, but provides accurate as-built data collection. The sensors are directly integrated into the hydraulic cylinders, which Komatsu says improves reliability, and measurement of ground location and height.

When activated, the blade lowers until it meets the target surface or until the blade load reaches a maximum. The blade can be operated in fully automatic mode both for rough work and fine grading, an advancement on most machine control options, which only provide operator guidance during rough dozing modes.

During rough dozing, before the blade overloads, it automatically rises to minimise track slip and maintains forward momentum, the advantaging being that this maximises productivity and minimises track wear and damage to the target surface.

As with Topcon’s machine control products, the Komatsu bulldozer uses Topcon’s site management tool Sitelink3D to communicate the site manager on the machine’s progress, while updated design data can be sent directly to the machine.

Speaking at the machine’s launch in Munich, Ray O’Connor, president of Topcon Positioning Systems, said that the collaboration had produced “the world’s most advanced, fully integrated, machine control automation system”.

O’Connor compared the rise in machine control with the level of automation in factories and other industrial sectors, saying the technology will change construction forever. “We are automating the largest manufacturing business in the world – construction.”

Outside of its work with Komatsu, Topcon is one of only a handful of companies that currently have aftermarket kits “for basically every type of machine and every brand,” says Achiel Sturm, marketing manager for Topcon Europe Positioning. This includes options for customers to specify a factory install of Plug and Play provision with brands such as Liebherr, Terex Construction, Gomaco, and Vögele pavers.

Like most in the industry, Sturm says that he expects the number of brands offering factory-fitted plug and play to steadily increase, due to strong customer demand.

While there are the obvious advantages for contractors of better-performing machine operators, there can also be cost savings in unexpected places. Using 3D modelling and the automatic systems means no more use of surveying crews banging in stakes – which saves time for surveyors, but on a major road project, the cost of the stakes themselves also becomes significant.

And with increased accuracy there are material savings, says Sturm, such as aggregates which may have to be trucked in, or the asphalt layer. “If it’s only half a centremetre of material on a road project of 30km, that’s a lot of trucks.”

The sub-base is typically made of cheaper material, and contractors will push this to the highest tolerances, and at the same time push the thickness of the more expensive asphalt layer down to the lowest levels allowed – which is easier to do with precise machine control.
“You save in time, you save in fuel, you save in blade-wear – for every customer it’s different, and for every customer there’s a different return on investment,” he says.

The main project types where companies are realising cost savings through machine automation are presently road construction, rail, airports, landfills, landscaping and parking lots – projects where there are precise design requirements legislated for, and where there are normally large amounts of earth and material to be moved.

Sturm says that while the first step is for the technology to be utilised on larger projects, once it is in the market it then goes into the smaller projects.

“There is a little bit of a differentiation, because the big projects are normally 3D, so GNSS, while the smaller job sites are normally 2D – lasers, and flat surfaces, slopes – but they’re also moving towards 3D, because of the ease of use.”

Some machine operators can initially be negative towards the concept, but once the system is on, says Sturm, within a day they feel how it works, and they can focus on safety or where to spread the material.

“At the end of the day, they are way more relaxed.”

Nevertheless, with high prices for fuel and materials in much of the world, it is on the larger projects where being more efficient clearly improves – and is essential to – profitability.

“That’s where you can still make money – by being fast, being more efficient, or being more precise.

“We’re delivering products that save contractors time, that’s why we’re in a good position in our business. There’s many companies around that do machine automation, but either they focus on one machine, or they focus on one solution. What we’re trying to do is focus on everything, and there’s only a handful of companies that have the same capability.”

Looking forward, Sturm expects that machine automation will be standard on machines in five-ten years, and he expects big improvements to be made in the areas of data gathering, management of data flows, and also task allocation – instead of people outside directing machines, tasks will be generated for machines and will show up on the display screens inside the operators’ cabs.

“With real time reporting, processes are better manageable, leading to better and faster decisions about machine allocation.”

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