Many heavy civil and construction contractors today are turning to intelligent construction technology, including virtual construction methods, digitally connected jobsites, more sophisticated data collection and automatic machine control systems to reduce risks and improve productivity both on the jobsite and in the office. Part of this move toward increased technology adoption stems from the fact that intelligent construction technology has evolved significantly over the last several years, making it more accessible to a wider variety of users.
It is not a stretch to say today’s construction technology is much easier to use than solutions offered in the past. The user interface (UI) of construction technology like machine guidance, GPS solutions, handheld GNSS data collectors or even modeling software has been completely revamped and built on the familiar operating systems like Android. In the case of machine control, the in-cab devices themselves are also more user-friendly and often include large, touch-screen displays, more intuitive menus, and simplified navigation systems that reflect how operators work.
Although making construction software more user-friendly is a big driver of adoption, it is not the only one. There are many factors making intelligent construction technology more accessible to more people, many of which drive production, efficiency and overall jobsite performance.
Automatics Improve Production
“Automatics” features continue to gain popularity with users of an even wider variety of machine types. Now available for some machine control platforms for excavators, autos provide a significant boost to usability. These next-generation options help even less-experienced operators get to grade more consistently and more quickly because the technology controls the boom and bucket automatically. This keeps operators on grade and allows them to achieve grade at a very consistent rate, without the need to slow down to avoid over or undercutting. This added functionality improves excavation efficiency over standard machine control systems and traditional stake-plus-grade-checker methods.
Tom Gardocki, also known as the "Dirt Ninja", is a utility contractor based in New Hampshire that has recently installed the new Trimble Earthworks Grade Control Platform on his excavator to complete hardscaping jobs, such as building patios, driveways and setting the height for retaining wall construction.
“Automatic machine control systems that are more intuitive are ideal for operators who are newer to excavation work and are using machine control for the first time,” he says. “Even as an expert operator, I know the automatics feature will still speed up my operating time. I believe this technology will really change how productive we can be in our industry. Once you look at the cost, benefits and potential for eliminating errors, making the investment is a no-brainer.”
Gardocki is also leveraging user-friendly, flexible 3-D modeling software to take PDF plans directly from builders and turn them into models and 3-D data sets.
“When I get data files directly from the builder or designer, it’s a very clean and simple process with SketchUp, which they like because there’s no need to interpret their plans,” he says. “I can lay out whatever I’m working on exactly as it should be.”
Manufacturers Offer More Options
Many manufactures are now offering built-in machine control capabilities as standard or optional equipment on nearly every heavy equipment model, instead of just high-end models like in the past. These machine guidance packages are also available to fit a variety of needs and budgets, extending accessibility of intelligent construction technology to more general contractors and small and mid-size builders.
This might include GNSS equipment tied into machine hydraulics that allows for actual automation of work equipment functions, as well as manual machine guidance options from the likes of Komatsu, Caterpillar or John Deere. These built-in offerings help operators get to grade more quickly, help reduce operator fatigue and improve quality and finishing job timelines. The factory-installed options are also attractive for many contractors because there’s no additional installation masts, cables, or other exposed hardware to configure.
Technology Improves Machine Utilization
Advancements in machine control for excavators has also been a game changer for contractors of all sizes because it can enable less-experienced operators to achieve greater accuracy more easily. Another lesser-known benefit of machine control is that it can improve machine utilization on the jobsite, freeing up heavy equipment to go to other jobs as needed. Beaver Excavating is an example of contractor that is finding it is able to do more with the new Trimble Earthworks technology. The Beaver Excavating team is working on a $430 million bypass project in Ohio, where they are responsible for completing mass excavation work along with building drainage and retention ponds along the route.
“From the beginning, I could see how digging to design and digging a ditch or pipework will be so much more efficient with grade control technology. It makes working with an excavator every bit as efficient as working with an automatic dozer,” said Jim Sterling, Survey and GPS Manager for Beaver Excavating. “I feel that this will make us far more efficient, because even a good operator slows down to try to hit grade whether he realizes it or not. With this new system, you don’t have to slow down at all, which I anticipate will make our operators at least another 20 percent faster.”
More Options for Small Contractors
A recent report by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) demonstrates that owners, inspectors and construction contractors reported significant productivity gains from intelligent technology when using GNSS, GPS rovers, mobile devices and automatic machine guidance systems. In fact, the report shared an example of the time required for earthworks measurement on one project decreasing from three people working for five days with traditional tools, to one person working for one day with tools equipped with GPS technology.
In addition, because machine control lets operators know the precise position of the bucket or implement relative to the excavation in real-time while in progress, less time is spent stopping and starting work to verify grade. Not only that, these next-generation machine control systems are helping contractors achieve finished grade to a millimeter accuracy with fewer passes and to place finished grade materials more accurately. This is particularly important in keeping material costs to a minimum.
Small and mid-size utility contractors are benefiting because intelligent machine control can help them improve productivity and take on more work, while keeping a sharp eye on costs. Ryan Goodfellow, Owner/Operator of Utah-based Rock Structures, uses automatic machine control to dig out basements. Today, his team can more accurately place compacted gravel material when backfilling against pipes, and since investing automatic machine control on his excavator, he can do this work himself, without bringing another crewmember to check grade. Since using automatic grade control he is using 50 percent less gravel for utility backfill and saving $175 per basement job − equating to more than $1,500 saved per month.
“On top of our production, I think our attention to detail has improved overall,” he said. “Having automatic machine control on my excavator really helps us be more accurate because it allows us to get our dirt grades closer. When we can use less gravel, that equates to less concrete for the foundation guys and down the line. Contractors are all about keeping their costs down, so if we can help them do that, other contractors and our customers will really like working with us.”
Today, there’s tremendous innovation happening around intelligent construction technology that is making the technology more accessibility to more heavy and civil engineering construction contractors. Machine guidance, GPS solutions, handheld GNSS data collectors and even 3-D modeling software is much more intuitive, and it is being designed from the users’ point of view. There are also an increasing number of machine control options available directly from the manufacturer for nearly every model and at every price point. Facing tight profit margins, a shrinking skilled labor pool and more complex designs, contractors should consider the newest wave of intelligent construction technology to gain a competitive edge.