Moving earth and building roads with the help of machine control and GPS technology may not be standard operating procedure in the construction industry just yet, but it’s well on its way. Currently, about half of all motor graders and 35 percent of all dozers use positioning sensors and a display to provide operators with a reference between the position of the blade and the target grade.
“Data shows the return on investment,” says Scott Crozier, general manager of Trimble’s Civil Engineering & Construction Division. “For the contractor it means operators with less experience can take on more complex tasks, and experienced operators can perform tasks with greater efficiency.”
“3D machine control is the only technology a contractor can put on a dozer or motor grader and see a 50 – 100 percent production gain over traditional methods,” says Matt Kohler, North America sales manager, West Region, Topcon Positioning Systems.
Many operators are excited to learn the new technology.
“The technology and workflow improvements are drawing people back into the construction industry in a way that has been lacking for years,” says Paul Thomas, director of Sales and Distribution for Americas, Civil Engineering and Construction Division at Trimble.
Here are key trends you should know:
1. Automation is expanding to other machine categories
Major construction equipment manufacturers have embraced grade-control technology, expanding offerings to include integrated machine control and GPS-ready options on everything from dozers and motor graders to excavators, skid-steers, milling machines, pavers and more.
“The number one trend we are seeing at the moment is a drive for increased levels of automation,” says Crozier. “The level of functionality that is being automated on excavators and compact machines is increasing annually.” According to Crozier, excavators with machine control are now doing finish grade work once completed by dozers.
Advancements in GPS technology and machine control for road building are allowing contractors to scan the pavement in real time as they repair it.“With our SmoothRide product a contractor can survey, design, and resurface a road, which results in a higher quality product while managing and keeping yields in check,” says Kohler.
2. Increased reliability from more satellite constellations and added frequencies
For GPS to work correctly on the jobsite, a signal is needed from at least five satellites, a task that is sometimes challenging when working next to buildings or in heavily wooded areas. Signals could come from the U.S. government-owned GPS system, or other global navigation satellite systems (GNSS), such as Russia's GLONASS, China's BeiDou Navigation Satellite System (BDS) and the European Union's Galileo. Expansion of these systems, as well as modernization of the U.S. GPS systems, is making it easier for contractors to find reliable signals.
A new L5 frequency for civilian use is designed to meet requirements for high-performance applications, including machine control.
“The addition of these frequencies will make GPS more robust in challenging situations,” says David Rowlett, manager, U.S. Machine Control, Leica Geosystems. “There are now enough satellites that L5 is becoming a useful tool for the industry.”
3. IMU technology and mast-less systems gain acceptance
With IMU (Inertial Measurement Unit) technology on grade-control systems, the relationship between the machine and blade is measured 100 times per second vs. 10 times a second for non-IMU grade-control systems.
“The machines are now able to grade faster with more blade stability and greater accuracy,” says Kohler.
Instead of bolting GPS receivers on long mast poles attached to the blade with cables draped from the receivers to the dozer, new mast-less systems integrate receivers into the top of the cab, and work with sensors and IMUs to orient the blade. The benefits: Improved safety and visibility, and fewer wear and tear issues with cables.
4. Positioning tools for the non-positioning professional
Machine control is a new way to work and one of the challenges is training construction personnel in positioning technology. “The next step is to take what used to be very complex tools and make them simpler and easier to use,” says Rowlett. New interfaces are designed to be as easy to use as a cell phone.
The growing availability of GPS networks should make using GPS technology easier and less expensive. Continuously Operating Reference Station Networks are unstaffed, permanently configured facilities that collect and record GPS data. “With a GPS network, there is no need to set up a base. You can set up and start working immediately,” says Rowlett.
Another easy-to-use GPS tool is the iCON 70T tilt rover from Leica that eliminates the need to hold the pole vertical to level the bubble to capture measurements. Some contractors are using it in combination with trucks and ATVs to measure material and track the progress of an earthmoving job. “Because it compensates for slope, it’s provided an instant increase in the precision of topographic survey capability,” says Rowlett.
5. Machine control for every job, every contractor
Adopting machine control is not just adding a tool; it requires a change in process. Companies that adopt it must be ready to make the change. As use of machine control expands within the industry, suppliers of GPS technology hope to alter the perception that machine control only makes sense for big jobs or big contractors.
“3D technology and machine control is not limited to mega projects,” says Crozier. “It can be widely used on all aspects of construction.”
“Smaller contractors can actually benefit the most from machine technology,” he says. “They can transform the whole workflow process to be completely digital, and that’s where you get the best benefits.”
Rowlett advises contractors to invest both in the technology and in training. “Plan from the beginning to devote time and effort in getting your people trained to make the most of the technology,” says Rowlett.
When choosing a supplier, Crozier advises contractors to choose one that is interested in more than the initial sale and setup. “You need someone who is going to get it established in your organization,” he says.
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