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August 1, 2012 by Corinne Lynds

Whether it comes as an upgrade installed by the OEM or aftermarket, machine control technology continues to grow in popularity across the construction industry.

Boasting as much as 30 per cent in productivity improvements, significant fuel savings and glowing reviews from machine operators, it’s little wonder that machine control is becoming standard on many heavy equipment models.

One area that has been slower to catch on, though, is the use of machine control on compact equipment (CE). Available for more than 30 years in laser-guidance models and more recently in single and dual solutions, the CE market is beginning to gain some ground according to Mike Reed, business manager of Leica Geosystems’ machine control division. “That growing interest is the result of an increased adoption of 3D machine control.” This, combined with tough economic conditions over the past three to four years has created more demand for contractors who are looking for cost savings and productivity improvements.

Lacklustre demand for machine control in the CE category has been blamed on the fact smaller equipment doesn’t get the same non-stop usage that heavy equipment does. “With these compact machines, a lot of times they’re on-site, and they may not even be working because they are just used to do quick/odd jobs here and there,” explains Scott Crozier, segment manager, machine control at Trimble Navigation in Denver.

This reputation, as “jack of all trades and master of nothing,” combined with the fact machine control for CE isn’t exactly cheap, makes it easy to understand why contractors haven’t been scrambling to buy the stuff.

“Costs will come down over the next few years,” assures Tony Vannerman, construction marketing manager for Topcon in Livermore, Calif. He says a combination of increased competition between machine control manufacturers, deeper market penetration and improved manufacturing procedures will eventually bring “lower price points to the industry.”

Today machine control for compact equipment ranges from roughly $1,500 for a basic laser-guidance system, up to $15,000 for a dual automatic solution.

Small, but mighty
One of the most significant factors contributing to the growing interest for CE machine control adoption is the increasing power and versatility of new model compact machines.

In many incidences, these mighty little machines are coming in at over 100-horsepower. This added power and precision, when paired with a machine control solution, is enough to replace some heavier equipment on the job site. This is an added bonus for contractors who are looking to reduce costs in the areas of fuel economy and transportation of heavy equipment from job site to job site.

Previously, CE with machine control technology were used primarily for fine grading applications. Fine grading continues to be predominant, but OEMs are now diversifying more than ever. 

Today, we frequently see machine control installed on mini excavators, skid steers and compact wheel loaders for a variety of applications. Typical jobs include: positioning rocks, drilling holes, use in tight working conditions around buildings, sidewalks, laying stone, utilities placement and parking lots.

“Construction companies doing the final grading for concrete floors of a building is another area where there has been more demand for accurate and precise grading,” says Crozier. 

“With the past four years of the economy being tough, we are noticing more companies trying to find machines that can do more applications on smaller commercial site types of projects; where they can be working inside a building, but then also go outside the building and do work,” explains Reed.

Bryce Johnson, operations manager for Laramie, Wyo.-based Elk Ridge Builders and Design is a good example of a general contractor that’s using his compact machine to gain significant productivity improvements. The company is using a Leica Power Grade 2D dual laser system on a 332 John Deere skid steer tire machine.

“This machine, in combination with the steel grouser tracks that we use, is very powerful; allowing not only final grading, but also a degree of subgrade cutting. The primary application is for dual slope grading,” explains Bryce. Since implementing the machine control technology, he reports “significant time savings and less man power and equipment [are needed].”

Aftermarket installs
If you’re not in the market for a new piece of compact equipment, but are looking to add a machine control solution, chances are you will need to visit a hydraulic specialist first.

Although some of the newer, more powerful CE models are now outfitted with the necessary electric hydraulic valves as a standard feature, most equipment more than a year or two old, is not.

According to Crozier, the cost of having these electric valves installed “is in the order of US$5,000 to $10,000 depending on the system and the machine, and whether you want single or dual control. So it almost doubles the cost of the system if you need to add those valves.”

Don’t let that deter you though. The majority of machine control systems currently installed go onto the attachment, rather than the machine itself.

“Right now we’re focused on the fine grading attachment box blades, equivalent to a mini grader on the front of the machine,” says Crozier. “The blades on those machines are controlled from the skid steer, but often have their own control bank and are driven by auxiliary valves on the compact machine to drive the grade. These attachments often come standard with the electric hydraulic valve, so then it is just simply the OEM attachment plus our system, the compact machine doesn’t have to be modified.”

Down the road, there’s a very good chance that machine control manufacturers and the OEMs will partner up and make machine control technology standard out of the factory. This is already quite common on paving equipment. Topcon has developed a partnership with John Deere; Trimble with Bobcat; and there are more in the works with other manufacturers.

“Ultimately all types of contractors benefit from using machine control on CE. General, concrete, landscape, engineering, utility… they all use machine control on their grading and excavating equipment,” says Vannerman. “The size of the machine does not matter, because machine control systems will increase production, save fuel, reduce engineering expenses and help the contractor better control material costs.”

As the price point for CE machine control solutions drop over the next few years and innovations in the technology continue, savvy contractors should take a second look at the power and versatility these systems have to offer.


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