Construction Equipment Manufacturers Show Enthusiasm for Greater Adoption of Productivity-Enhancing Technologies
It is a well-known fact that skilled labor shortages are hampering construction operations throughout the U.S. With highly qualified talent in short supply, contractors are more actively seeking productivity-enhancing technologies to speed project delivery and mitigate rising labor costs.
In this article, subject matter experts will discuss how construction machinery capabilities have evolved due to rising demands for increased efficiency and safety and reductions in job site waste. In addition, original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) will share insights on what is driving the deeper integration of technology at the factory level as the industry continues to mature.
US Construction Market Slow to Embrace Change
Historically, the construction market in the United States has lagged significantly in deploying technology solutions compared to other sectors. Many sources characterize this otherwise fast-paced industry as disjointed and siloed, as its traditionally fragmented way of operating makes it difficult to streamline processes and boost productivity on projects.
“The building construction process was virtually unchanged for over 100 years. While there were advancements in the mechanical tools being used, it was still a slow process utilizing known methods and a lot of hard labor,” says Jansen Herr, President of ATI Corporation, a Pennsylvania-based manufacturer of the Level Best line of machine-control grading equipment.
Representatives from Kobelco Construction Machinery USA say the need for increased efficiency has been a major driver for upgrades to excavators and other large pieces of construction equipment. The company’s Product Development and General Manager of Marketing, George Lumpkins, explains that machinery in North America is focused on production more so than in other parts of the world. Ancillary attachments, in particular, are really what have spurred demands for enhanced machine functionality and control.
“Today, an operator can sit in the seat and adjust not only the flow and pressure to an attachment, but in many cases, actually change the way a machine reacts to a job and fine-tune operability,” Lumpkins says. “These workers have evolved from dragline operators to skilled professionals who are in high demand.”
Herr adds, “Today’s building site is a bustle of activity and innovation. While structures are still built on concrete over dirt, those processes are done in record time with amazing accuracy thanks to the implementation of modern technology with machine control. We are now harnessing the power of invisible information to achieve tangible results.”
Modern jobs are demanding extreme accuracy – and not just to reduce the costs of waste resulting from unnecessary work and rework. “The increasing use of computer interfacing to handle job planning and laser technology from drones is making the previous technology of straight-line lasers for measuring the depth of a pipe, grade, and other mechanical measuring devices obsolete,” Lumpkins says. “Machine control systems, once shunned by the previous generation as a perceived ‘threat,’ have evolved to make their jobs easier, more comfortable, and more accurate.”
According to Herr, today’s construction market is at a critical juncture in its evolution. “Technology is being implemented into each step of the site prep process – from the mapping and planning stage to screeding the concrete floor. The old ways of doing things are no longer good enough to be competitive,” he says.
A Deepening Focus on Technology Integration
Present-day technology offerings are capable of transforming work across the project lifecycle for owners, engineers, and contractors. From planning and design software, to precision machine control, to site positioning systems and more, these advanced solutions aim to improve productivity at every phase of a project – from concept and design to construction and maintenance.
Right now, the market conditions are ripe for OEMs to accelerate their customers’ productivity gains by increasing technology integration efforts. For this reason, Trimble, an industry-leading innovator of hardware and software solutions for civil engineering and construction, is deepening relationships with its OEM partners.
“These days, many OEMs are coming to us for more than just machine control,” says Jeff Drake, Business Area Director, OEM Solutions at Trimble. “It used to be that their main request was just about making their equipment ‘Trimble-ready,’ but as the industry has evolved, more and more manufacturers are looking for deeper partnerships and more robust technology integrations.”
Nowadays there are significantly more customers requesting electronics to be integrated at the factory level, Drake notes. Equipment manufacturers are noticing the broadened acceptance of these state-of-the-art solutions – and are growing more aware of the importance of technology’s diverse capabilities.
Currently, many manufacturers offer built-in machine control capabilities as standard or optional equipment on a range of heavy equipment models, instead of just high-end models.
“These on-machine technology options 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,” Drake says. “Basic technology options, such as offering the equipment with hardware provisions, making the machine ‘ready’ so a contractor can add technology they already own or have it added later, is becoming increasingly more common.”
He adds, “Equipment manufacturers are also offering more machine models with basic elevation control or 2-D systems from the factory. Two-dimensional machine control allows the operator to quickly establish a flat or sloping surface to grade or excavate to in the field and is a great, inexpensive way for a customer new to this technology to get experience and immediately see efficiency and productivity benefits.”
More sophisticated 3-D machine control options, which include global navigation satellite system (GNSS) equipment and can control the implement to a 3-D digital design, are offered from the likes of Caterpillar, John Deere, and Komatsu. “These built-in 3-D offerings help operators get to grade more quickly, help reduce operator fatigue, and dramatically improve quality and job timelines,” Drake says.
Due to the added level of sophistication of 3-D systems, it is important for contractors to have a good technology support network if issues arise. “Having great support for 3-D technology is critical. When customers invest in this technology, they do not want to see that investment wasted due to machine down time as a result of issues with the technology,” he adds.
Corey Rogers, Marketing Manager at Hyundai Construction Equipment Americas, Inc., shares how his company recently began offering a Trimble-ready option on certain equipment before it’s rolled off the factory floor.
“We’re incorporating brackets in specific locations where the IMU (inertial measurement unit) sensors go and also the cable harness that needs to connect the sensors and the monitor on the inside of the cab. We’re also adding brackets for the 3-D GNSS receivers,” Rogers says. If customers at a dealership decide to purchase one of Trimble’s solutions, they will see a slight cost savings because the machine is already compatible with the tech. But if equipment buyers prefer to invest in these add-ons at a later time, that’s also a viable option.
Rogers continues, “Every piece of equipment we offer is slightly different in terms of its responsiveness, speed, control, power, and feel. To provide these integrated solutions, we spend an extensive amount of time on testing, tuning/retuning, and soliciting customer feedback. The nice thing about the systems that we work on with Trimble is that it’s all Hyundai-branded, so it’s designed and tuned exactly to our equipment.”
This heightened collaboration between tech providers and equipment manufacturers is a sure sign of progress in the industry. “It’s a sign that the construction market is maturing, and indicative of a greater adoption of technology,” Drake says. “Equipment manufacturers are realizing this technology is not just a bolt-on or a retrofit option anymore; it’s something they really need to pay attention to.”
A Healthy Dose of Competition
The uptick in consumer demand for factory-integrated electronic upgrades is fueling strong competition to deliver solutions swiftly. “Year over year there is significant growth in the adoption rate of this technology, especially as it becomes more commonplace on bids. It’s almost impossible to win projects if you don’t have the technology someone else is competing with,” Rogers says.
To keep pace with the industry’s growing needs, Kobelco and other OEMs are having to add more personnel – a great sign that business is thriving.
“Every manufacturer is racing to make machines easier to operate, more efficient and cost-effective. These demands place an increased load on all research and development groups, marketing and support systems to keep up,” Lumpkins says.
Rogers concurs, adding: “It makes it a more competitive environment. Uptime and machine down issues, as well as expectations for customer service, have skyrocketed. Their expectation of responsiveness is much higher than it used to be and will continue to get more and more demanding.”
Nifty Solutions with Shorter Learning Curves
Understandably, many end users are deterred by the time and cost investments required to learn and deploy new electronic systems on machines. However, equipment manufacturers are seeing more buy in from both owners and operators.
“In the past we had to convince them that investing in machine control was well worth the cost. What they are most concerned with now is ease of use and a short learning curve. They want to be able to have their operators up and running in as short a time as possible,” Herr says.
For certain customers, machines that are easier to control can help to bridge the knowledge gap when experienced operators are in short supply.
“Skilled labor challenges are a fundamental issue throughout the industry,” Drake says. “We’re seeing more and more equipment manufacturers trying to address that challenge through the integration of technology, which ultimately makes their machines easier to operate. Also, this makes the less-experienced operators more productive and more efficient while maintaining their safety.”
Herr remarks that the “unknown frontier” of machine control can be less intimidating when OEMs incorporate tools that users are already familiar with. “With a Level Best grading system and the Trimble Earthworks GO! platform, contractors can now use their existing skid-steer loader or compact track loader – regardless of the brand – and their existing smartphone to get set up and grading accurately in mere minutes,” he says.
Upgraded machine systems are also useful to the most seasoned equipment operators – even if they lack certain tech knowledge. Herr emphasizes, “You don’t have to be a young kid that’s a technological wizard to grade with machine control. We are making it easier for the old dogs to learn new tricks. If you can send a text, you can grade.”
A Game Changer for Future Prospects
Across the nation, construction demands are generally increasing or at least staying relatively steady. OEMs promoting the adoption of productivity-optimizing solutions will help to strengthen the competitiveness of this market and achieve greater profitability and viability for themselves.
“New features such as setting machine dig depth, rotation, boom height, weighing loads and record keeping are all either under development or are available now from OEMs and aftermarket dealers,” Lumpkins notes.
Construction technologies will be a game changer in other exciting ways, too, creating even more attractive prospects for the future.
“I think tomorrow’s job site will look dramatically different from today’s,” Herr says. “I envision a site with dirt excavation being automated, masons having collaborative robots lay the block, carpenters using augmented reality to ensure walls are being built where they should be, and scanners will be checking tolerances constantly. I do not see the elimination of humans from the site, but a collaborative effort between people and technology to make a better product.”
Rogers predicts there will be continued advancements in autonomous systems, telematics, and remote-control capabilities. “Remote-control technologies are going to be a big thing in the future,” he emphasizes. “Operators literally anywhere in the world could remotely operate a wheel loader or an excavator, for example, especially as 5G becomes a reality in North America.”
As time goes on, these and other sophisticated construction solutions will become less expensive, more accurate and even easier to use. For equipment manufacturers to maintain their momentum, it is imperative that they keep working hand in hand with the innovators that are breaking down barriers with transformative technologies.
“Similar to technology advancements in the automotive industry, machine automation will continue to become more mainstream on construction job sites,” Drake says. “This will have a positive impact on operational safety and productivity, as well as help to ease the challenges caused by workforce shortage because machines will be easier to use by personnel with varying levels of experience. Automation also enables machines to operate more efficiently, which has a dramatic effect on the job site and on the environment.”
Trimble Earthworks Boosts Operator Productivity
The Trimble Earthworks Grade Control Platform is one example of a next-generation machine control system that optimizes mixed fleet operations. Available since early 2017, this revolutionary product features the industry’s first integrated 3-D aftermarket excavator with semi-automatic capabilities.
When the excavator is placed in Autos mode, the operator controls the stick, and Trimble Earthworks controls the boom and bucket to stay on grade, reduce overcut, and increase production. By automating excavator operation, Trimble Earthworks allows operators to achieve grade consistently, with high accuracy and in less time.
The Earthworks application was developed based on feedback from construction equipment operators around the world, resulting in an interface optimized for productivity. Colorful graphics, natural interactions and gestures, and self-discovery features make the software intuitive and easy to learn. Each operator can personalize the interface to match their workflow and a variety of configurable views make it easier to see the right perspective for maximum productivity.
“This technology platform has been architected to allow for OEM customization,” says Jeff Drake, Business Area Director, OEM Solutions at Trimble. “Many of our manufacturing partners have chosen to collaborate with us because this flexible platform architecture enables them to develop certain features or integrate the technology in a specific way.”
In addition, Earthworks allows data files to be transferred to or from the office wirelessly and automatically so that the operator is always using the latest design. Using the machine’s Android operating system, users can download other applications that provide the operator with additional useful tools inside the cab. To make the system even more flexible, contractors can use the Trimble TD520 display or a third-party Android device with the platform.