Machine Control: The Devil’s in the Details
February 1, 2014 by Jim Barnes
Proven by more than two decades of use in the field, machine control is well known for the productivity and profitability it brings to a jobsite. However, it is not a bolt-on system that requires no thought. Do it right and you will reap benefits.
Growth in Canada is accelerating. “In the last two years, it has surged. In Western Canada we have seen a huge increase in sales since late 2011, early 2012. I think that has to do with the industrial economic boom here in Alberta and in B.C.,” says Wes Rains, sales and service, SITECH Western Canada Solutions Ltd., Edmonton.
Private industry is showing a burgeoning interest in contractors who use the technology. “In the past, we would usually be approached by the contractors themselves, looking for a way to reduce costs. More and more, the oil companies and land developers are approaching us, gathering information and building that into their specs and tenders,” says Rains.
“Right now, we think the market adoption rate is 10 per cent,” says Dan Hendriks, vice-president and regional manager, Geoshak Canada, Concord, Ont. He notes with the spread of systems to a greater variety of construction equipment and the pending introduction of lower-cost, simpler systems, that number could reach 40 per cent over the next few years.
“In the past, dozers and graders have been our primary market,” says Hendriks. “However, we’re selling a lot of excavator systems now. We put systems on concrete machines and on drilling machines—it’s becoming ubiquitous.”
“Now, the technology isn’t such a mystery,” explains Rains. “The individuals in the survey firms have a better understanding. More and more, digital data is readily available.”
The big story in machine control is cost savings—machine time, fuel, labour and materials, among others. “We do ROI calculations for customers every week,” says Hendriks. When he tells a contractor that the technology will pay for itself in five miles of road, he says the levels of skepticism are high. “The truth of the matter is the ROI is crazy! It really can pay for itself that quickly.”
“In the past, [the cost savings] were taken on faith,” Rains says with a laugh. Even then, “a lot of contractors could see the benefits—just in rework, fuel savings and manpower.”
Now, says Rains, “I am seeing guys actually doing the numbers. Some of the contractors have their ducks in a row before we even get there… ‘This is my labour cost per hour, this is what it costs per month and I will have the system paid off in two months.’”
In some cases, machine control is the only way to get the job done on time, considering the labour shortage in surveying and engineering, especially in the West. “They just can’t keep up,” explains Rains.
Contractors have to assess ROI carefully. “I think there is a ‘disconnect’ between what the technology delivers to a customer and what they perceive it to deliver,” says Hendriks. “Many people understand the technology as a survey tool, so they look at their survey budget and expect that to cover the investment in machine control. The real value of the technology is control over the materials that they are excavating, placing or moving.”
Have a plan
The technology is straightforward, but implementation demands some thought.
“Have a plan,” says Rains. What are your staff requirements? Should you hire staff to manage the systems and data, or go to an outside source?
“Up until a few years ago, we didn’t have many of those outside sources. Most survey companies didn’t really understand it, didn’t seem to feel that there was really a need,” says Rains. “Now, there is everything from private individuals who can tackle data for you, to survey companies that can provide survey, data and management services.”
“We are seeing more construction surveyors getting involved,” says Hendriks. “In many cases, they see the writing on the wall. As opposed to going out and knocking in stakes all day, they invest in software and capabilities to offer those services to customers investing in machine control.
Plan for smooth implementation. Few contractors have much time to play around with new technology on a job. “If you are bidding work that is going to require machine control, contact your dealer. Start to look at pricing, look at availability, find out what the requirements are to get all the data and processes in place. Hit the ground running!” says Rains.
One decision will be between a 2-D system for checking grade and a 3-D system that can process entire jobsites.
2-D systems are based on technologies like lasers, sonics or cross-slope. The 3-D systems are based on GNSS (global navigational satellite systems), typically referencing the U.S.-built GPS satellites as well as the comparable Russian GLONASS system.
Hendriks says he sees contractors moving up from 2-D to 3-D systems “all the time.” Once they have a little experience, they are often willing to invest in a more capable system.
Do not over-spec, cautions Rains. It depends on your application. For many jobs, 2-D is “more than sufficient. GPS poses more challenges in many ways including costs, planning and prep time. 2-D can be very quick and cost-effective.”
“Over the past year, we have seen contractors putting their GPS systems on the shelf and going back to a 2-D solution for building pads, gravel spreads, oilfield leases and pipeline work. It’s simpler and more straightforward,” says Rains.
One issue is the data the site model is built on.
“It is not magic,” says Rains. “I run into a lack of understanding on what’s required to make it work. At the beginning of the job, have conversations with all the parties involved. Get the proper data and site calibrations. Ensure that the data you are using is accurate. You can’t just show up and expect it to work!”
“You are only as accurate as the drawing,” emphasizes Hendriks. Working through the data on your own can actually give you benefits, he says. “If you have knowledgeable people who are putting those models together, they can find errors in the design before the equipment is mobilized. They can address them with the owner and the engineer before errors become problems.”
Site calibration is what connects the model to the equipment on-site.
“There is a lack of understanding on aspects of the requirements for setting the survey up properly—calibrating the equipment and maintaining it,” says Rains. “These are things that will affect your overall performance and accuracy. We still find ourselves explaining the need to keep everything in check with regard to the plans and doing things right.
“It’s a communications issue, all the way along,” says Rains. Everyone from the surveyor who sets up the site initially to the mechanics maintaining your equipment down to the operator has to ensure that things are performing the way they should.
You do not need a PhD to get it working. “The product is kind of contractor-proof, in a way. Almost anybody can grab one of these things and make it productive,” notes Hendriks.
However you approach the technology and integrate it into your process, machine control could well offer you a very impressive ROI.
“Companies have to pay attention to how they are positioning themselves moving forward, so they are still able to compete. I think the people that do not use this technology will have a tough time getting work in the future,” says Hendriks.
Jim Barnes is On-Site’s contributing editor. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Back to base
If you decide to use a 3-D system, you will need to choose between networked and stand-alone base stations.
Without going into the physics, 3-D system makers use technologies like real-time kinetic systems (RTKS) and differential GPS (DGPS) to boost the accuracy of the GPS signal. These systems are what make your machines accurate to the centimetre rather than the metre of accuracy provided by your car’s GPS. A base station is required to supply the high-accuracy signals to your machines.
Many contractors buy their own, standalone base station and set it up for every job. Others subscribe to networked base stations, operated by the system manufacturer or perhaps a large owner. What is best?
It depends… “Where are you going to be working, how many sites do you run at one time, how much infrastructure do you need?” asks Rains. “Stand-alone base stations are the most common approach,” particularly when a firm often works in remote areas. “In urban areas, (networked systems are) much more common.”
In some cases, “The owners might provide the infrastructure. On operations such as mines and plant sites, the equipment is used by all parties involved,” says Rains.
Hendriks says his firm has positioned 25 base stations across Ontario for one of its products. “A customer who has paid for a subscription can obtain their corrections virtually. The base stations are permanent and rigorously tested. Customers who move around a lot can access any of those base stations as long as they have a subscription.
Why subscribe to a networked system? Convenience is one factor. You do not have to set up a base station yourself: “You just turn it on, and you are good to go,” says Hendriks. There are also savings in purchase and maintenance costs.
Print this page