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Inside Innovation: Automated, repeatable functions improve productivity, safety

John Bleasby
Inside Innovation: Automated, repeatable functions improve productivity, safety

Automated repeatable functions are quickly becoming a prime feature on the new releases of earth-moving machines from many of the leading manufacturers. These semi-autonomous and programmable controls are keeping operators in the cab and in control but relieving them of repetitive tasks that can add to fatigue or cause human error.

The measurable reduction in fatigue is linked to improved safety, not to mention new levels of efficiency and productivity never seen before. In fact, studies indicate that machines equipped with semi-autonomous control systems are up to four times more productive than those with no automatic controls at all.

Grading is an instance where semi-autonomous and programmable functions can make site preparation faster, safer and more accurate. A grading plan created on 3D design software is uploaded to the machine’s computer control. The machine then automatically handles the repetitive, precise movements, while the operator remains in the cab providing direct oversight and meaningful human control over other aspects of operation. This differentiates semi-autonomous, programmable functions from more complex control systems like in-sight and remote tele-operations — they’re simpler and much less expensive.

John Deere has integrated a proprietary, programmable software platform into the company’s line of graders called SmartGrade, a mast-less, 3D-integrated grade control that is factory-installed and ready to work.

“The value it brings to the jobsite is difficult to ignore,” says Sean Mairet, marketing manager, grade control with John Deere. “Grade control is an increasingly popular semi-autonomous feature, which improves the bottom line of the business by minimizing passes and maximizing the output of the machine.”

Mairet points to other programmable features that are part of John Deere’s SmartGrade technology. One such feature called Blade Flip enables automatic rotation of the blade to a pre-specified position. Other single-button pre-sets allow the operator to activate multiple functions, thus reducing the number of controls needed to complete repetitive tasks.

Trimble, a California-based developer of satellite navigation systems, unmanned aerial vehicles, and software-processing tools, is another entry to the semi-autonomous, programmable control market.

Trimble Earthworks, a 3D software control platform that runs on an Android operating system, opens the door to the company’s suite of automatic machine controls that can be installed on existing dozers, excavators and other earth-moving machines.

The software features colour graphics, natural interactions and gestures, and self-discovery features that make Earthworks intuitive and easy to learn. Operators can personalize the interface to match their workflow and select from a variety of configurable views in order to see the right perspective for maximum productivity. Data files can be transferred to or from the office wirelessly and automatically to keep designs current.

These control systems now coming to market will have major implications for the construction industry beyond productivity gains and improved safety.

First is the impact on the workforce. “The incorporation of grade-control solutions on equipment is positive for both the existing workforce and new operators,” says Mairet. “It provides operators with the confidence they need to productively and accurately tackle jobs.”

It also speeds up the training process for new operators, bringing them up to the level of more experienced operators quickly.

Just as importantly, many see this type of technology as key to attracting young talent by providing an inducement for a tech-savvy generation that is instinctively drawn to technology and picks it up quickly.

The other effect for contractors going forward is the changing nature of bid contracts.

“With the productivity benefits and material savings being realized, technologies such as grade control are starting to appear in bid specs,” says Mairet.

Some clients also require references from previous general contractors confirming that the bidder has experience with 3D machine control.

“It’s important for contractors to understand how these technologies can help their business as well as prepare them for how the current bidding process may evolve in the near future.”

John Bleasby is a Coldwater, Ont. based freelance writer. Send comments and Inside Innovation column ideas to

This is the third and final column by John Bleasby exploring robotics and remote control in construction. You may also enjoy Long Road for full AV in construction and Tele-operations being considered for construction equipment.

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