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Automating your World: An introduction to machine control


Welcome to the first Automating your World column, a series of advice articles by Aptella’ technical experts. In this series of articles, we will be exploring the various aspects of machine control solutions – from a simple stick-on laser receiver on a backhoe to full blown 3D machine control systems using satellite positioning technology to automatically control motor graders, dozers, excavators, pavers and profilers.

Sometimes referred to as grade control systems, machine control systems are now an everyday sight on construction sites around the world. If you do not already use such systems, chances are that you soon will.

Just a few years ago, contractors bought machine control systems to get a ‘leg up’ on their competition. The increase in productivity achieved with these systems allowed them to greatly reduce their bids and still maintain a healthy profit.

The ability to maintain tight tolerances lead to great material savings, thus reducing the cost of earthmoving operations and adding to the contractor’s bottom line.

Today, however, this technology is quickly becoming standard and contractors are realising that they need to implement this technology simply to stay competitive. Bidding a job now without factoring in the productivity gains from machine control is becoming increasingly difficult.

Everyone working in the construction industry nowadays has at least heard about machine control and hardly a month goes by without a magazine having a special feature article detailing the use of these systems on some high-profile project.

What is not always clear, however, is what differentiates the various types of systems. Exactly how do they work? How does the site plans get into the machine? Which system is most suitable for a special application? How can I get started with this technology and how should it be maintained?

In these columns, we will examine these questions and try to provide you an answer that is simple and easy to understand.

We hope this information will serve to educate the reader and assist those who are contemplating investing in machine control in making an informed decision.

For those who are already using this technology, we will explore ways to maximise the utilisation and productivity of existing systems. We plan to look at some unique machines and specialty applications as well.

While machine control systems have been around for a long time, they were previously limited to grading in a plane or following a physical reference such as a stringline or curb and gutter.

Today, the biggest excitement in the industry comes from the use of 3D machine control systems.

These systems are capable of grading complex surfaces such as super-elevated curves without the use of any pegs or stringlines. This 3D technology was introduced commercially less than 10 years ago, but it has already become a necessity on large earthmoving projects.

Head contractors and project managers are increasingly specifying that subcontractors use this technology as well. That the requirement to use machine control is trickling down to the subcontractor is no surprise.

The project owner wants to ensure that the job stays on schedule and that all work is done to specification. For this to happen, every stage in the construction process must stay on schedule, rework must be kept to a minimum and change orders must be executed ‘yesterday’.

Machine control systems can assist with all of the above and help keep cost down as well.

While the project owner gets his road built well, on time and to specification, other parties in the construction process also benefits from this technology.

Reducing rework (which often comes out of the contractor’s own pocket) is in itself a great thing, but this technology also helps the contactor to better utilise his fleet.

Reducing the number of passes to get to grade reduces both fuel and labour cost and reduces the wear on the machine. Increasing the productivity of each machine allows the contractors to use fewer machines on the job and keeping the grade as close to tolerance as possible generates great material savings.

The machine operator in turn also benefits by having a system that makes it easy for him to maintain grade, regardless of the conditions. Automated machine control manages the blade elevation for the operators and also gives steering indication.

This lets the operator focus on managing the material instead of the blade elevation, leading to less operator fatigue.

Lately, another issue has helped accelerate the implementation of machine control: The construction industry skill-shortage (something which even the current industry downturn is likely to only affect in the short term).

As most of you are painfully aware of; a whole generation of master operators have either retired or are close to retirement and it has been difficult both to recruit and retain new machine operators.

Contractors world-wide have discovered that implementing machine control on their sites not only lets their good operators do more, it also allows fine grading to be done with lesser-skilled operators.

With an automated machine, the time it takes for an operator to become proficient is greatly reduced — and a shorter learning curve means less training cost.

Interestingly, Australia and New Zealand have been pioneers in developing machine control solutions.

In fact, all the major manufacturers of these systems have research and development operations right here in Australasia.

The mining industry here has helped develop much of the underlying technology and the systems we use in construction today have a lot of things in common with the ones used in the mining sector. No doubt, our region will continue to play a very important role in the field of construction automation for a long time to come.

We hope you will enjoy this column and that you will find it helpful in making decisions about construction automation. Next time we will take a closer look at the inner workings of a 3D machine control system.

Grade well, grade quickly.

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