Three contractors explain the why and how of machine control

By Jenny LescohierJuly 18, 2022

Ryan Goodfellow, owner and operator of Rock Structures in Ogden, UT, uses 2D control on his excavators

Taking the plunge on machine control for your construction fleet is not a casual decision. There’s significant expense involved, not to mention the effort in getting staff to buy in as well as personnel training. 

To get some ‘boots on the ground’ insight into the issue, we look to a recent installment to Tech Talks by CONEXPO-CON/AGG which shined the spotlight on some contractors who’ve been using the Trimble Earthworks grade control platform

CONEXPO-CON/AGG Tech Talks are free, short videos sharing best practices, applications, and how-to info from peers on equipment technologies like machine control and telematics. Topics range from set-up to maintenance to in-field design to cost justification.

Hosting one of the machine control panel discussions was Kevin Garcia, general manager, civil specialty solutions, at Trimble. With him were Molly Barnes, equipment manager for Northern Improvement Company, a highway, heavy and municipal contractor based in Fargo, ND, and Scott Sattelmeier, BIM manager with Dondlinger & Sons Construction Co. in Wichita, KS.

Is machine control worth the investment?

To kick off the discussion, Garcia asked panel members what they would tell contractors not currently using machine control about the technology and getting up to speed with it. 

“Some people think you can add the controls onto a machine like a motor grader, for example, and it will just do everything, but that’s really not the case,” said Molly Barnes. “The GPS, and machine controls, are so helpful with productivity, but they take work.”

Barnes suggests hiring or assigning personnel to the task of making the machine part work correctly. “Don’t go in expecting to wave a magic wand and it’s going to work. It will take some effort. We’ve added personnel as we’ve added more machines and machine types,” she said.

The result has been phenomenal for Northern Improvement Company, Barnes said. “Whether it’s a dozer, a scraper or a concrete paver, it’s paid back to us in productivity and accuracy and has been well worth the investment.”

Scott Sattelmeier pointed out that machine control requires a major investment to get started, and not just financially.

“The knowledge it takes to put these things together, to build the models… is a long and arduous task,” he said. “But once you do it, it’s remarkable what it can do.”

Both Barnes and Sattelmeier said increased productivity and quality go hand in hand.

“Humans are prone to mistakes and that includes surveyors,” Barnes said. “We’ve gotten into some arguments with some of our surveyors over where the grades are supposed to be and we’ve discovered someone’s not calibrated right, or they’re using the wrong file or whatnot. It’s really helped us a lot in the quality.”

Bolt-on versus factory fit?

Machine control systems are available as bolt-on, aftermarket additions, or systems can be factory integrated. Both approaches have merit, depending on the circumstances.

Sattelmeier said, for example, that maintenance, repairs and troubleshooting can be more complicated in factory-fit systems because everything is integrated with the machine harness. “It’s harder to get in there and find and troubleshoot those areas,” he said.

“When we were doing aftermarket setups, it was much easier to go in and fix, we replaced just certain harnesses,” he added. 

For her part, Barnes said they’ve also had both setups. “We’ve retrofitted the intelligent compaction machines that we already had and had some problems with some sensors and things like that. We haven’t had those problems with the factory setups,” she said. “So, there are some gives and takes but I most certainly am not scared to retrofit a machine. They both work, it’s just getting used to the quirks that come along with them.”

Both Barnes and Sattelmeier say their entire fleet uses the Trimble Earthworks system, and it’s helpful to keep things on one platform.

“If we were on multiple platforms, we’d have nightmares,” Barnes said.

Avoiding the roadblocks to machine control adoption

Incorporating new technology into your construction business always comes with challenges, but learning from others’ mistakes can help prevent issues. Garcia asked the panel what their biggest challenges were with machine control and how they overcame them.

“Modeling was the biggest aspect that we’ve had issues with,” Sattelmeier said. “We’ve had some issues setting certain sites up with the system that we use - radios that we use have been shorter range and have created some problems - but there’s nothing that can’t be resolved.”

He recalled, for example, a motor grader with a damaged arm which was replaced by personnel who didn’t alert others to the change.

“They grabbed a different arm that didn’t quite measure up the same, so then the machine was out of calibration and everybody was pulling their hair out because they couldn’t figure out why the machine wouldn’t work. Finally someone said, ‘hey, I switched out the arm.’ Learning curves like that are definitely stumbling blocks, but you learn and you move on.”

“We often find that what makes this stuff so successful is having a technology champion, someone whose job is to make this succeed,” Garcia said. “Did you have one from day one, or was that a lesson you learned?”

Barnes said Northern Improvement Company learned the hard way, but now has a trusted technology champion.

“He does a phenomenal job keeping track of everything, what the measure-ups are, what’s unlocked on each system, as far as dozer, motor grader, scraper, whatnot. Or if it’s IC compatible, what has modems, what doesn’t have modems, what needs modems... He’s been tremendously helpful and cut down on the headaches,” she said.

Getting crews to buy in

It’s all well and good to have the latest technology on your machines, but if you can’t get operators to embrace using it, it can be a long, uphill battle to the benefits. Adoption can take time.

“Our earthmoving crews started with GPS technology first, and they probably had it three or four years before any of our other crews really latched on to it,” Barnes said. “When they did, it was like wildfire. Everybody wanted the newest motor grader, everybody wanted their dozer set up, so we had a few years of big expenditures and technology, and they found that the crews that weren’t taking to it just weren’t getting as much done.”

Even with evidence of the advantages machine control technology can bring, there were resisters. 

“Sometimes it was the supervisors themselves, thinking this was kind of a flash in the pan fad that really wasn’t as helpful and wasn’t going to pay for itself. Once we proved it would, they were all on board,” Barnes said.

At Dondlinger, Sattelmeier said everybody’s been pretty much on board from day one. “Obviously, the financial investment is difficult; you can’t just put it on everything, there’s some equipment that you just have to work with. As far as the personnel in the field, we’ve had no pushback from them whatsoever. There are always going to be a few that think they can do better than GPS, but they usually find out they’re wrong.”

Sattelmeier added that for all that technology can do for productivity and quality, it’s important to remember there’s no substitute for a skilled operator.

“You still need a good operator that can tell that the model may be off. You can’t just have somebody go out there and drive the machine and think he can build these jobs.”

Barnes agrees, adding, “Intelligent compaction has been the most eye opening for everybody within the company. Operators were like, ‘what’s this for, we don’t need this. We don’t need it to count our passes, we know what we’re doing.’ And then when they had it, they were like, ‘wow.’

“And now if they’re on a job where we don’t have it, or are not using the intelligent compaction, they get grumpy, they want it back because we do so much better of a job and they see that. It helps them do their job really well so they can be proud of what they’ve laid down.”

Less people, more return on investment

At the end of the day, machine control technology is a financial and time investment on the front end, but the payoff is quickly seen in efficiency.

“It’s speed, it’s time, and the lack of the extra two or three guys you need to have out there pulling a tape with a level and driving wood in the ground,” Sattelmeier said. “And the equipment never really has to stop to check anything. Every morning operators need to check in to make sure they’re on grade each day. Other than that, they’re ready to go. We knock off those two or three guys for the duration of the job and if it’s a big job, that’s a lot of money.”

Barnes added there’s less time waiting on a survey, or when a hub gets wiped out. “To come put a new hub in when they’re trying to fine grade so the asphalt crew can come in. If the asphalt crew gets held up, you could use a rule of thumb of 10 grand per hour for that asphalt crew to sit and wait to pave. Pretty soon that machinery’s paid for itself really fast.”

And in North Dakota, there’s no time to waste. “Our season’s very short,” she said. “Half the year we’re sitting, so when the sun’s shining we gotta go, we don’t have time to sit around and wait.”

Making the most of resources

Part of the the machine control Tech Talks package is a video demonstration of the technology titled “2D Basement Set Up and Dig.” It features Ryan Goodfellow, owner and operator of Rock Structures Utility & Excavating in Ogden, UT who said one of the disadvantages to being a “small guy” in the construction business is the additional manpower it takes to get jobs dug to grade. That’s one reason he uses laser-guided, 2D grade control systems on his excavator.

During his Tech Talk, Goodfellow shows how to set up a basement dig, enter equipment configuration, and start digging a basement in a subdivision development in less than 13 minutes.

“I have two machines set up like this,” Goodfellow explained. “Return on investment, for us, is about three months on a 2D system.

“Sometimes the 2D systems are perfect for the smaller guys who don’t have the time to model stuff out,” Goodfellow says while demonstrating how to use a Trimble Earthworks 2D system to dig and grade a residential basement. “This way, you don’t have to have a laborer down there checking grade for you. You can have that laborer go and do something else.”

Looking toward the future

With a labor shortage bearing down on the construction industry, anything that can be done to to increase productivity with fewer people is welcome. 

“It’s getting harder and harder to find people who want to work in our industry, who want to work outside,” Barnes said. “This technology helps attract some of the younger generation because of the tech side of it, but it also helps with the shortage of people because you’re not waiting for that land surveyor to come out.

“The very future of our industry could be three or four pieces of equipment running that are autonomous, that have this technology on them. Maybe there’s one person on site that’s keeping them all going, keeping them fueled, checking the grade behind them. Everybody in our industry knows it’s getting harder to get things done with lack of people.”

Sattelmeier said he agrees, but again, machines can’t replace people. “Technology does help attract the younger generation. It excites them, it draws a crowd. But like I said earlier, they still need to be operators, not just drivers. There’s still a legitimate learning curve that’s got to be calculated into this, no matter who you bring in.”

Autonomous machines are part of construction’s future, for sure, Sattelmeier said, but adds a word of caution. “I still feel like there are specific conditions out there that only a person can tell when it’s muddy, when it’s slick, when you’re getting up next to things or underground utilities or buildings. So, those things do concern me as much as the people that have been put out of work by making machines autonomous.”

Barnes said, operators are too hard to find right now to be worrying about putting people out of work with autonomous machines. “For us as a company, we’re not going to replace people with autonomous, but we will supplement with autonomous, when we can’t find the people.”

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