2D vs. 3D machine control: Which is right for your construction business?

By Jenny LescohierNovember 02, 2021

At a recent Case Live event, product experts talked about 2D and 3D solutions for dozers and motor graders

Machine control can be a phenomenal tool for contractors looking to improve job site efficiency and quality of workmanship, but there’s more than one way to outfit your fleet so it’s important to understand your options.

At a recent Case Live event, product experts talked about 2D and 3D solutions for dozers and motor graders. The discussion began with the difference between guidance and automatic machine control systems.

“Many of these systems are guidance or indicate-only solutions, providing the operator with feedback on the screen in the cab to help guide their actions,” explained Nathaniel Waldschmidt, product manager-excavators at Case Construction Equipment. “The solution still relies entirely on the input of the operator, it simply lets them know where they are in relation to their desired result, and helps them dial in their work from there.

“Automatic solutions, however, are where ‘true machine control’ takes place,” Waldschmidt said. “This is where the system actually takes over the hydraulics of the machine and the blade to automate that performance. This is particularly helpful when trying to build complex grades and site profiles.”

2D and 3D both have their place

Richie Snyder, solutions marketing manager at Case, explained that 2D is a solid starting point for many contractors looking to dip their toes in machine control. Many of the components for 3D are the same as 2D, the foundational building blocks are already there, so the system is scalable. “When you’re ready, you can easily transition to 3D,” he noted.

The two solutions are very different, however. Simply put, 2D machine control works in two dimensions, plane and slope. You set an external point of reference, and then you set the slope to what you want it to be.

“This can either be indicate or automatic and depending on the solution, you may see one or two masts on the blade,” Snyder said.

3D machine control, however, allows you to expand beyond working with just a slope or plane.

“You’re essentially dropping the machine into a digital, fully built world,” explained Snyder. “These systems can be indicate only, but reach the full potential of machine control when they’re automatic.”

He added, “You do need to add some additional geospatial technologies to make it work, such as a GPS or GNSS receiver or Universal Total Station. These systems still allow you to do plane and slope work, but really simplify those more complex curves and site plans.”

Waldschmidt pointed out, “2D is great for those jobs that are simple and consistent in nature. If you’re typically working on a single slope away from a fixed point of reference, which is often to ensure proper drainage, then a 2D system is going to be more than adequate. If you’re doing driveways or parking lots or simple final grading in residential neighborhoods, where all you’re doing is ensuring that the grade is pitching away from the home or the building, 2D will work. If you’re only creating building pads and doing flat work, 2D will definitely work for you and help you ensure you have that flat clean plane you’re looking for. Those types of applications are where 2D absolutely excels.”

He continued, “3D is for more complex projects. Think large commercial developments and highway and infrastructure projects, where there are countless points of reference throughout the sites that must be hit to ensure stability, water flow, and just the overall aesthetics of the project.

“3D systems put the machine within the total site plan and help ensure that the earthmoving you’re doing is what is needed and works within the flow of the whole site. And it makes things like contouring and more complex design furnishes considerably easier.”

Jeremy Dulak, product and marketing manager at Case, added, “There are very few earthmoving applications that won’t benefit from machine control in one way, shape or form. And as adoption is increasing, the contractors you are bidding against on a regular basis may already be using it to streamline their operations to make their bids more aggressive.”

2D machine control gets it done for Bissen Asphalt

Bissen Asphalt in Door County, WI worked with a 2D system on their Case 836C motor grader for a parking lot paving project.

“I was looking for a mid-size grader because the road-style graders are too big for what we do,” said Rick Bissen. “I found a perfect machine in the 836C, it’s been very awesome for us so far this year.

“If you need to cut some hard material that’s been in an existing driveway for very long time, it will cut that material in one pass, if not two.”

Kirk Wilke, Bissen Asphalt, added, “With the rear-mounted system, I can keep my front off of a windrow and keep the rear behind the moldboard, keeping all my force behind what I’m trying to cut and grade.

“We don’t get into the huge parking lots, and for the smaller lots and longer residential driveways we’re into, 2D is all we need just to set up the slopes.”

Bissen said, “Even something as simple as a straight driveway that’s 100 feet long, you can run one side manual, you can set your degree of slope that you want on the driveway, you can cover that slope in one pass with automatics versus running manual.”

Outfitting your fleet

Contractors interested in trying machine control have three options to consider: 1) Add an aftermarket solution at any point, 2) Install an aftermarket solution at the time of purchase, or 3) Choose the OEM-supplied, factory fit solution at the time of purchase. (Case recently added factory fit machine control to its dozer line).

“The advantage of doing it at the time of purchase is you’re analyzing the combination of the machine and the solution and working with an expert to ensure they are well suited to work together,” Snyder said.

“We focus a lot on scalability, so if you start out with a 2D system as an initial investment, you’ll have the building blocks there to expand upon and into more advanced systems as your business grows.”

Factory fit machine contol solutions

One advantage to going with a factory fit solution is simplified ordering.

“Working with your certified case dealer, you can group the system to best fit your needs with the purchase of the machine. This combines all elements of the investment into a single payment, a single financing package with a single interest rate,” said Dulak. “The factory fit solution also ensures that when the machine arrives at the dealer, it’s just about ready to go. The machine and system are purpose-built together, ready to work.”

He added, “Ordering or buying the dozer with factory fit machine control will also increase the residual value of the machine, giving you increased residual value when you’re ready to turn that dozer over. The second owner will be confident that the system was purpose-built with the machine and meets all the quality and performance standards.”

Dulak said an increasing number of dealers and independent rental operations are making machine control available to their customers.

“Your local rental house may be another great way to dip your toes into machine control for a project or two without making that big first investment.” he said. 

Why machine control?

As previously noted, the obvious benefits to investing in a machine control solution include increased efficiency and consistent quality, but there are others: 

Productivity - “You’re going to reduce rework,” Waldschmidt said. “This saves time and lets you get the work done with less wear and tear on your machine.”

Improved estimating and billing - Snyder said machine control will give you much better control over your job costs.

“It’s going to make your work schedules much more predictable and it’s really going to help you be more competitive on your next bid,” he said.

Less wear and tear and equipment - “If you can complete a job in half the passes, you can complete a job with half the wear and tear on the equipment,” Waldschmidt stated. “The amount of work doesn’t change, that’s the constant. You know what you have to do to complete the job. Machine control lets you do it with significantly less time on the equipment, which has huge lifetime implications.”

Equipment utilization - Machine Control can help you streamline your fleet and your workflow. “We had a contractor in the Carolinas who was able to go from two dozers on each site to one because he was able to complete both the cut and the final grade with the same machine,” Snyder said. “So the second dozer was able to be off on the next job working instead of sitting idle, which allows contractors to be smarter about how equipment is deployed, and how it’s working.”

Lower operating costs - Less wear and tear on equipment means lower operating costs and less maintenance. “Say you keep a machine for three years, you’re going to be able to get more done and build more work for that machine within those three years,” Waldschmidt pointed out.

Improved operator performance and reduced training time - “It’s really hard to find good people these days, but machine control machine control is good people,” Waldschmidt said. “It’s actually really intuitive to learn and it can help get newer operators up to speed faster and help you turn the employees you already have on staff into even better operators.”

No restaking - Snyder said the lack of a need to restake can be the most lucrative ROI point with machine control.

“You typically have a person that’s checking grade for you. You can have that person off doing some other work that’s more productive,” he explained. “Depending on the size of the site, many contractors will set aside a whole portion of their budget to account for re-staking.

“Stakes either get moved, they get run over, designs change, and so on,” Snyder said. “This can be very costly. We’re talking tens of thousands of dollars. With machine control, the data points don’t change and the design remains constant within the system, unless you do a design change, at which point a new design is simply uploaded, rather than re-staking the whole site.

“This eliminates costs associated with re-staking, which in some cases can alone account for the price of the single machine control system,” Snyder said.

MacMor’s factory fit dozer does it all

Pennsylvania heavy-highway construction specialist MacMor Construction went with the factory fit option for its Case dozer. 

“One of the trickiest things with the site development side of things is the unknown,” said Bryan Golden, owner of MacMor. “We always look for ways to better it for the owners in terms of that unknown. We try to keep open lines of communication with folks, and we look at different ways for owners to save money on projects.

“We’ve come to rely on these Case 850s,” Golden continued, adding, “Machine control was something I wasn’t 100% sure of at first, but we see the market and the need to be more competitive on the production side, which has led us to machine grade control.

“It makes a difference on the cost side as well,” he said. “It takes us from having a surveyor out on the project, putting in hundreds of stakes - which have the potential of getting knocked over. We use a rule of thumb that each stake costs about $75. If you knock over 100, that’s $7,500 quick. Machine control takes that out of the equation.”

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