Cover Story: Digital Earthmoving
| June 12, 2007 |
You are – right now – living through a revolution: A diverse array of technologies have converged to utterly change the way earth is moved. As with most revolutions, these advances happened in stages. The development of high-pressure hydraulic control systems and powertrains was revolutionary to men who cut their teeth on primitive clutch-and-brake and cable-controlled machines. And now the development of small, powerful microprocessors has taken hydraulic technology another quantum leap forward.
Coupled with increasingly sophisticated hydraulic systems, microprocessors – often called “electronic control modules,” or ECMs – have created machines with quick, precise control systems rivaling that of the human hand and arm. Little black boxes on your equipment control millions of electronic impulses a second and allow minute control over functions as mundane as cylinder firing order or as complex as the shape and amount of fuel sprayed from an injector into a combustion chamber.
Other black boxes devote their efforts to optimizing the flow of hydraulic fluid racing through a machine’s high-pressure circuits. Move a joystick ever so slightly, and a black box will take note. In less time than it takes to blink an eye, pressure and flow rates are adjusted to meet your inputs and deliver an immediate, accurate corresponding machine movement. At the same time, black box will maintain preset production criteria, all while selecting priority valves and circuits to maintain seamless operation.
Additional boxes are attached in strategic locations on the outside of a machine. These seek out and interpret signals beamed from lasers broadcasting high-intensity light beams or triangulated positioning signals sent by government satellites orbiting the earth hundreds of miles overheard. The black boxes compare the laser or GPS topographical information with the machine’s real-time location on the jobsite. In an instant, a blade or a bucket moves in accordance with the data and cuts a grade or a ditch to within millimeters of the desired depth.
Deep inside a machine or a truck, highly sensitive electronic sensors sit silently in the heat and dark, monitoring every aspect of a machine’s life. Information is collected, codified, compiled and sent to more black boxes, which beam it back to high-tech communications satellites. Crucial operating data, including engine temperatures, idle times, braking patterns, fuel and oil consumption and imminent failure warnings are in turn sent to OEM data collection centers. Within the hour, this information is posted on an interactive website. Not only can you see how the equipment or truck is being used, you can see where it is, right now. You know instantly if it’s moving and, if so, how fast it’s going. If it’s not moving, you can tell how long it’s been sitting idle.
On the human front, communication now is instantaneous. Plans can be changed on the fly; trucks can be rerouted, crews reassigned, loads given priority, parts ordered and deals struck all with the push of a “transmit” button.
But the revolution is just beginning. New changes, systems and ways of working are coming fast. Older, more conventional business systems are still competing with laser-fast, GPS-based communication and earthmoving systems. But that parity won’t last. The battered notepad on the pickup console is rapidly giving way to the PDA and the laptop. Those contractors who can’t – or won’t – embrace these new business methods will be swept away – put of out business by competitors who use technology to cut costs, double – or even triple – their productivity, precisely manage their assets and people and consistently do more with less.
The revolution is now. Are you ahead of the wave, or behind it?
Moving dirt may be a down-to-earth job, but increasingly tech-savvy contractors are looking for help from the sky.
Have you ever:
- Felt like staking and restaking jobsites is not your core competency?
- Had to move dirt twice because of some confusion over the stakes?
- Dug into a job only to find that the original plans were off and you have to move more dirt than you bid for…?
If so, you might be a good candidate for GPS guided earthmoving systems.
GPS stands for Global Positioning System, and in the earthmoving industry it involves taking positioning information broadcast from satellites in space and using that data to guide machines, primarily dozers and graders, in real time on the jobsite. Basic GPS earthmoving systems are accurate to within 1/10th of a foot, and there are systems that team up with laser technology to give you results to within final finish specs.
The GPS signals from space are captured by a stationary base station on your jobsite, recalibrated for accuracy and then broadcast to all the machines on your site equipped with a receiver. The machines’ receivers are wired to an onboard computer that contains digitized 3D site plans.
On simpler systems the computer extrapolates where your machine’s blade is in relation to where the plans say finish grade should be and then with lighted arrows or bars on a screen tells your operator to raise or lower the blade. These are called indicate-only systems. More sophisticated systems tie the computer into your machine’s hydraulics and raise or lower the blade automatically. These are called automatic systems or automated machine control. The automatic systems will also give you a screen view in the cab that shows the site from an overhead or cross section view with the finished grade one color, the material yet to be added or removed another color and your machine’s blade in the plan in real time.
“In bulk earthmoving a lot of our customers are running GPS in the indicate mode,” says Reynolds Boyd, product marketing manager for machine automation at Leica Geosystems. “Then they’ll put the machine in the automatic mode when they get close to final grade.”
In addition to machine-mounted receivers, many contractors are also putting GPS receivers on poles or vehicles and moving them around the site to check progress, monitor volumes in stockpiles and double check the accuracy of site plans before work or bidding starts. These mobile receivers are typically called rovers.
GPS doesn’t come cheap. Depending on the sophistication of your system and whether you order indicate-only systems or full automatic machine control, outfitting a dozer or motor grader will run from $80,000 to $120,000.
Why it’s important
There are several benefits to using GPS systems to guide your earthmoving:
- Most of your grade staking is eliminated. Instead of waiting for surveyors to stake or restake a site, you simply jump in the machine, turn on the monitor and go to work. “The payoff is substantial when you have massive cuts and fills,” Boyd says. “Those stakes are going to get taken out. But not having to wait for surveyors to come back in and restake enables the contractor to finish a project in much less time.”
- Inexperienced operators get more productive. Good operators get even better. With automatic machine control, an operator rarely touches the blade controls. Even with indicate-only systems, the operator need only manipulate the controls up or down guided by the up and down arrows on the display in the cab. What this means is you never have to move dirt twice. An operator who is inexperienced hits the target right the first time and every time. “Even experienced motor grader operators will leave their trailing edge a bit high while cutting to the finish grade with their leading edge,” says Murray Lodge, Topcon’s national sales manager for construction products. “Then they’ll make a second pass with the trailing edge on grade to finish. But with GPS and automated control both edges of the blade will be perfect, eliminating the need for that final pass.”
- You can double check topos. Unless you pay for a formal survey of a site, it’s almost impossible to tell how accurate the plan or bid documents are. And if the plan calls for removing 300,000 cubic yards of dirt, but in reality it requires removing 400,000 yards, you can lose a lot of money. With a GPS receiver and a rover you can check out the site yourself and, within the time it takes you to walk or drive around the site, get an accurate picture of the true elevations and volumes on which to base your calculations.
Who is using GPS
While initially it was a handful of large contractors who started using GPS systems to boost productivity on their jobsites, today contractors of all sizes are benefiting from this technology. “Many of the first adopters were larger companies, primarily because they would typically have larger projects and were better able to make the required investment,” says Dan Dykhuis, product marketing director for construction and machine automation, Leica Geosystems. Nonetheless, Dykhuis says, a handful of tech-savvy small contractors also saw the first GPS systems as a way to make their operations more productive and get a leg up on the competition.
For several reasons, it may be smaller contractors who stand to benefit from GPS the most, Lodge says. Larger contractors often have their own survey crews or can schedule work arounds if the surveyors can’t get to their sites immediately. Smaller contractors who have to wait a couple days for surveyors can have a hard time keeping their crews and machines busy until the staking is complete. Likewise, if the topos or bid documents are inaccurate a big contractor can more easily eat the difference, whereas checking sites with a GPS rover prior to bidding can help a small contractor avoid mistakes that could destroy profit margins, he says.
How the technology works
The GPS signals that guide earthmoving equipment are the same signals that tell hunters where they are in the woods, help you navigate your car and guide jet airliners across the sky. But construction GPS systems have to be much more accurate. To describe how GPS earthmoving systems get that accuracy we need to start with what happens in the sky.
At any given time there are a couple dozen satellites orbiting above earth and sending out streams of radio waves that announce their location. When a GPS receiver on earth locks in on four or more of these broadcasts, powerful software programs within the receiver triangulate the various positions of the satellites and calculate the position of the receiver.
All this is well and good if you’re trying to pinpoint a favorite fishing spot. But raw GPS data is not terribly accurate. To get close enough to meet civil engineering standards requires the use of what the industry calls a GPS “base station.” The base station is a GPS receiver, but unlike the other receivers in the system it is set up on a stationary point that has already been surveyed so that the grid coordinates are known.
When the GPS satellites send down their relatively rough position information, the base station compares that against what it knows are its true coordinates, makes the adjustments and then sends out a corrected signal to the receivers on your GPS enabled machines or rovers. These corrected signals are accurate to about 1/10th of a foot. Once you have your base station set up and calibrated it can support an unlimited number of GPS receivers running on machines and rovers across your jobsite. For jobs that require greater vertical accuracy, GPS manufacturers are combining GPS systems with lasers and total stations.
How to set up a GPS site
Despite the sophisticated nature of all this technology, it is still possible to screw things up with low-tech mistakes.
Getting the best results starts with a good site reconnaissance, says Jeff Drake at Trimble. First, you need to evaluate your site to determine the best position for your base station, or the control point as it’s often called. If you don’t have a known surveyed point on the site, you’ll need surveyors or an engineering firm to establish one for you.
You also want to make sure your base station radio has a good line of sight to the machines. A typical GPS system can have a range of one to five miles depending on conditions.
Obstructions such as buildings or dense foliage can block the radio’s signals. Other obstructions like a chain link fence or reflective surfaces can interfere with radio signals. Reflective surfaces can include everything from aluminum or corrugated metal siding to a parking lot full of windshields to a lake or pool.
And because the portability of GPS equipment can attract thieves, you’ll want a base station site you can secure or one where you can easily disassemble the components and haul them away at the end of the workday.
Since all of your systems’ accuracy depends on the accuracy of your GPS base station, it is imperative it be set up such that it cannot move. “The GPS antenna needs to be as stable as possible and as high as possible,” says Brian Girouard, an applications engineer for Trimble.
A lot of contractors will set their base station antenna on a T-bar made from welded I-beams anchored to a concrete footing in the ground. If you do use a T-bar, Girouard recommends you mark the spot on the crossbar where you anchor the antenna and radio. Crews will typically remove these at the end of a day to keep them from getting stolen, but if the crew that puts them up the next morning mounts them on the wrong ends of the bar, when the operators get into their machines everything will be off by 5 or 6 feet from where it had been the previous day. If you mount them on a portable tripod, you have to make sure your tripod elevations remain exactly the same every day.
Some contractors will mount their base station antenna on a jobsite trailer, but Girouard cautions against it. If the soil underneath the trailer settles or the trailer moves even as much as 1/4 inch, that will throw off the results of your entire site by 1/4 inch, he says.
You’ll also want to put some thought into the power source for your GPS system, Girouard says. He recommends 12-volt, deep-cycle batteries and deep-cycle chargers too.
Perhaps the least talked about link in the GPS earthmoving chain has to do with site plans. The 2D plans that most contractors receive on paper are often sketchy or inaccurate in the vertical plane and, being paper plans, unreadable by GPS machine computers. To get from paper engineering drawings to vertically accurate and fully detailed machine-readable plans requires the plans be converted to 3D CAD drawings.
Contractors with surveying and engineering staff may have the skills in-house to do this themselves, but a lot of companies are springing up that do these conversions for a fee. “I tell contractors who are buying GPS equipment that the file prep is going to be an ongoing need,” says Brad Phipps, a managing partner at Applied Construction Technology, which does plan conversions. Phipps likens the GPS plan conversion process to what happens in factories and machine shops with AutoCAD and CNC machines. “If you have a digital drawing of a crankshaft, that’s what your computer-navigated lathe will cut. If the model is wrong, the end product will be wrong, and it’s the same with construction. GPS is your navigating tool and the design model is what your machines are going to cut.”
About 95 percent of the work of file conversion is in creating an accurate 3D model, Phipps says, which involves isolating and detailing things like design contours, surface spot elevations, manhole rim elevations, the tops of drainage boxes and curb spot elevations. The remaining 5 percent of the work is a fairly easy process of creating equipment-specific file types.
Applied Construction Technology usually charges a set fee for these services, starting with a $500 minimum for small sites. Road designs range from $1,000 a mile for simple roads to $1,500 a mile for four-lane interstate designs. “When you talk to a contractor and tell him how much they’re going to spend on file prep, it knocks them back at first,” Phipps says. “But when they start using the GPS equipment they find production is so much better it’s just a drop in the bucket. I’ve got contractors who pay $30,000 to $40,000 a year for file prep and they don’t even bat an eye at that because of the production increases they’re getting.”
Training, adapting and crew changes
The elimination of most of the grade staking makes surveyor and grade staking personnel almost obsolete in companies that employ their own. But many of these companies have also redirected these talents by making their surveyors and grade stakers GPS system managers.
As for machine operators, training on how to use GPS systems can usually be done in a day or so and is often done by the vendor. And while there may be a digital divide between young and older employees when it comes to computer technology, the in-cab interfaces for GPS systems are easy for operators of any age to understand. “The systems are menu and icon driven with touch screens, so even if you don’t understand the technology, even if you don’t understand the language, you can still walk through it,” Dykhuis says.
Isn’t this overkill for simple jobs?
If all you’re doing is flat building pads on a flat jobsite or digging water and sewer lines, you may not need GPS. Lasers do fine to guide you across any flat plane. Where GPS really shines is on super-elevated curves and sites with multiple, curved topography. But even with flat or simple sites, you still have some grade staking costs and time considerations that GPS can reduce or eliminate. And while total stations can guide machines through super-elevated curves and complex topography, remember that total stations can only control one machine at a time, whereas one GPS base station transmitter can control as many machines as you can put receivers on – not to mention the rovers your supervisors can use to check the progress of work and the volumes in stockpiles.
Ironically, in asphalt and concrete paving, the two applications where GPS could save contractors perhaps the most money, acceptance has been slow – not from contractors but from U.S. Department of Transportation officials. “For one thing, they can’t check it,” Phipps says. “They are used to setting up on a stake and measuring things. The technology is there and it’s ready, but the people don’t trust it enough.”
What does the future hold?
Perhaps the best reason to take a serious look at GPS is the role it will undoubtedly play in the future of earthmoving. Think of GPS as one leg of a triangle, the other two being telecommunications and software.
In the mining industry, Leica is already combining the three, Boyd says. “Aspects of what is going on in the field are being seen in the office – where the machines are and what kind of production they’re getting,” he says. “Some of that technology is going to come back to construction. You’re going to see a revolution in the whole construction process, things becoming integrated from start to finish and GPS being very much a part of that.”
“You’re going to find a more networked site,” Dykhuis says. “You’re not only controlling the earthmoving machine, but you also have fleet management through some of the same systems.”
GPS itself will also change, Lodge says. “Additional sensors and technology will allow the machines to grade faster and more accurate than today,” he says. And more machines will come under the umbrella of GPS coverage, he predicts. “In asphalt paving and concrete paving you’ll be able to monitor the rate of compaction and how the trucks are flowing from the batch plants. They’ll be able to communicate all kinds of production information. All the machines will talk to each other.”
Recent introductions in GPS product offerings
Leica’s new GradeStar V5.0 software features a consolidated sensor module, the GSM5, which is designed to be a central communications point between position sensors. It can be configured with an internal GPS module for space savings and ease of installation and can be removed and exchanged between machines. GradeStar V5.0 works with Leica’s total stations and GPS sensors so you get the convenience of GPS with the accuracy of lasers in one product. It is designed to be backward compatible with any of the company’s 2D or 3D products.
“We are making the system so that a contractor can start out with just a 2D basic platform and then upgrade by adding the GPS component,” Dykhuis says. “Contractors hate to buy a system only to find it’s obsolete or start all over a year or two after their investment. With this they can get their feet wet with a 2D laser system and then just add components to take the next step to 3D GPS.”
Topcon’s GPS+ technology gives its rovers and machine control systems access to both GPS and Russian GLONASS satellite systems. “That offers two major advantages,” says Bob Highfill, Topcon’s 3D machine control product sales manager. “It currently provides access to an additional 17 satellites that GPS-only systems cannot receive. This minimizes risk of downtime that can be experienced with satellite positioning products that rely on only one system. When trees or buildings block portions of the sky, just the addition of a few GLONASS signals can make a big difference.”
Topcon’s new Paradigm G3 chip is designed to track GPS and GLONASS, as well as the Galileo constellation – a new satellite system developed by the European Union. Galileo will be fully operational within the next several years. “The G3 chip will allow you to track all available signals now and in the future,” Lodge says. When fully deployed, Galileo will have 30 satellites and users of all three satellite constellations will have access to more than 80 satellites.
GPS accuracy is variable depending on the number of available satellites, their distribution in the sky and other factors. This variable accuracy is acceptable when working to vertical tolerances of 1/10th of a foot, but cannot be considered reliable when higher precision is required. To enable the use of satellite positioning for these tasks, Topcon developed a new laser technology – Millimeter GPS/LazerZone. This product provides accuracy to within a few millimeters and can be added to any Topcon GPS+ machine control or rover system.
The Trimble Grade Control Systems provides an upgrade path that can start you with the simplest system and allow you to build up to full GPS by changing some of the components. The system starts with the GCS300, which uses a laser receiver to control the lift of the machine blade. The GCS400 is also a laser-based system designed primarily for dozer blades. The GCS500 and GCS600 systems will perform cross slope functions, and the GCS900 is a full blown 3D, GPS system for stakeless grading. The company’s Construction Asset Management System uses software to connect the office to the jobsite by bringing together all location-based information to provide an overview of the contractor’s assets.
ONE CONTRACTOR’S STORY
How one of the largest earthmoving companies in the country adapted to GPS
We bought our first GPS system about five years ago. We have always been a company that prides itself on being on the cutting edge of grading, so it was natural for us to be interested in this technology. At the time we were familiar with laser-based grading, but were intrigued by the ability of GPS to add horizontal alignment to the position. In addition, GPS would allow a one-time setup of a base station that would permit unlimited rovers and pieces of equipment to operate on site.
The initial cost of a startup machine control package, which consists of a base, rover and one dozer setup, was about $100,000 – not too much different than the cost of the same thing today. With that in mind, we were very apprehensive about committing to one manufacturer. The two we evaluated had their pluses and minuses (according to opposing reps.) In order to decide which one to go with, we bought both and used them simultaneously on one job to get a real head-to-head comparison.
We quickly realized that when the GPS system was working, it was a joy to have. Let me, however, define working. Working means:
- All of the wires are connected properly and in good shape.
- The geometry of the satellites is correct so that low accuracy doesn’t kick the system out of fix.
- There is not a small crack in the coaxial cable that kicks the system out of lock when the machine is moving, but looks perfectly fine when the machine stops.
- The base station keeps a good source of power and doesn’t die halfway through a shift because someone forgot to charge the battery.
- The model is correct and accurate according to the plan and the operator is informed about quirks in the model so he knows what to expect when grades are not as they should be.
- The surveyor is on board with GPS on the project and as-built changes, interpretations and variations from the plan are incorporated into the model.
My point is that GPS is not a plug ‘n play device. It is a system that requires dedicated management as well as policies and procedures. It requires contractors to use a different approach to the traditional methods grades are set on site. The blow-and-go approach doesn’t fly with GPS. One doesn’t fire up a bulldozer without checking the oil or making sure it has fuel and water and randomly inspecting the undercarriage and wear-and-tear components. The same applies for GPS.
With all that said, we think we’ve got the learning curve of GPS figured out, mostly. So our original system has grown from just one to over a dozen machine control systems and nearly the same number of rovers. For the last three years we have assigned a full-time project manager, myself, to be in charge of the implementation and development of the GPS system.
My background is civil engineering, project management and estimating large earthwork projects. In this role, I have developed an aptitude for computers and the CAD work involved for doing earthwork takeoffs and GPS modeling.
What I try to do is transfer my knowledge base to our lead grade checkers in the company. I provide them with a laptop computer and the CAD software that allows them to transfer from physical grade checking to digital grade checking.
The premise is that the nitty gritty work of grade checks would be taken care of by the dozer’s GPS system. In the industry, there is limited formal training that can be provided by the manufacturer. The cookbook method of getting the 3D model from the engineer and going to work is not realistic. Not all engineers understand 3D or have an incentive to try to develop it. Therefore, contractors often have no choice but to develop techniques on their own to make GPS work profitably for them. We are constantly developing practices and changing methods to try to simplify GPS into a form that can be quickly adopted by foremen and grade checkers with little GPS knowledge.
When we first started using GPS, we used it primarily for the finish grade stage of projects. Our tolerance for rough grade is +/- 1/10th of a foot, which is well within differential GPS accuracies. However, today we use our GPS for all aspects of the grading process.
GPS is so easy to use that it has become a shared tool for the project rather than something just in the hands of a surveyor. Lasers still have a place on the job because they’re easy to use and practical for many applications, and we continue to buy laser systems.
The majority of our systems are indicate only, but we do have several automatic systems. In areas where we do have variable grades, rather than flat pads, the auto systems have shined. For example, automatics on a motor grader are mandatory because they are placed in areas of constant changing grade.
We don’t necessarily profile a job as being a “GPS- type” job. We do try to consolidate multiple pieces on one site. It takes the same amount of effort to GPS a 40-acre site as it does a 400-acre site. It takes the same amount of management and systems design.
We actively topo sites now to get project snapshots of how the dirt is being moved. We do this to try to get an idea of how efficiently material is being loaded into the scrapers and to identify bulk/shrink factors of the soil.
GPS has also increased the level of safety on projects. The fact that the grade checker does not need to be working alongside a piece of equipment is a benefit within itself. Having GPS on the jobsite will ultimately lead to fewer accidents.
The not-quite-stakeless job
The idea of GPS creating a “stakeless job” is a misconception. We have reduced grade checker stakes in the finish stages of a project and some of the mass grade portions, but overall we still need stakes.
Most of the projects in California are on hillsides with a lot of topo relief. GPS is great for the guy who has it, but everyone else on the project needs to see lath and ribbon. What GPS does is eliminate the need for the surveyor to place stakes for the use of our layout. With a correct model, we can perform the entire layout without survey. That doesn’t mean we don’t need a surveyor. We still need survey stakes to keep quality control within the project. Survey adds the necessary redundancy to keep the project accurate.
The role of the surveyor is changing from physically placing lath to providing management of the digital model, ensuring the 3D model works for line and grade and conforms to whatever the government agency may require, and certifying that those grades were placed correctly by the contractor.
We have recognized the need for sites with GPS to have a GPS guru on site. We pick seasoned grade checkers for this role and call them “GPS site coordinators.” It doesn’t cost us any extra to add this resource to a project because we are retraining someone who would be there working with a dozer anyway. The dozer just doesn’t need a full-time grade checker anymore.
We currently do all of our 3-D site modeling in-house. In the past three years we have grown our CAD abilities tenfold. AutoCAD – in the past a tool specifically of our takeoff department – is now in the hands of our project managers, engineers and grade checkers.
What contractors need to understand is this: AutoCAD is the new language of construction. Terms like polyline, DTM, model and PDOP are common words on site now. In order for GPS to be successful in construction, the magic and mystery must be eliminated. It is essential for GPS to be managed and models created on a level field in order to realistically keep up with the changing dynamics and intricacies of a grading project.
The bottom line
It has been very difficult to pin a hard number on the cost effectiveness of GPS. There are tangible benefits and intangible benefits of which the intangible ones greatly outweigh the tangible.
We do know we have fewer corrections to do with GPS on site. We constantly identify cost savings with GPS. For example, we would have had too long of a haul if we hadn’t been able to change logistics quickly with the aid of a rover. Or we were able to get scrapers into that area an hour earlier because the geologist brought it off quickly with the aid of our GPS rover. Or we eliminated the cost of survey restake because we were able to capture survey stakes with the GPS rover. Or a dozer was able to pioneer a cut without a grade checker or survey wood. Putting a cost saving number on all those instances would be difficult and time consuming.
We are increasingly promoting GPS to our clients as we become confident in its ability and are able to directly characterize its benefits. Clients who have had GPS on their projects have noticed fewer problems, a better quality product and lower overall costs.
—By Matt Eklund, P.E., GPS program manager, Sukut Construction
Sukut Construction is among the nation’s top 300 contractors and has moved more than 1 billion cubic yards of California’s earth in its 38 years in business. The company has more than 600 plus employees and $195 million in annual revenues.
Real-time command and control of your truck fleet at your fingertips.
For years you’ve probably joked your pickup truck is your office. Now, OEMs are taking you at your word. Advances are aimed at making working from the front seat of your truck easier and more productive.
Managing your medium- and heavy-duty trucks is about to change dramatically as well. For under $700 per truck, you can monitor a driver’s behavior throughout a business day, electronically place, file and bill deliveries, set truck operating boundaries, track vehicle location in real time and even preset authorized vehicle operation times.
And all of this technology is infinitely adaptable. You can easily mine down as deep as you want to go. Would you like to check engine idle times for a truck? No problem. Watch for speeding drivers? Easy. Check engine operating temperatures and schedule preventive maintenance? Just click your mouse. Pull up a GPS file to prove a truck delivered a load at a certain date and time? As easy as opening a new window on your PC.
It’s called telematics – the science of integrating a vehicle with electronic control and tracking systems. In its infancy now, the potential of this science envisioned by OEMs is practically limitless. So far contractors have been slow to see the benefits of real-time maintenance, positioning or personnel tracking with regard to their truck fleets. As telematic technology becomes more seamlessly integrated into vehicles, however, OEMs will fine-tune its awesome potential. Its impressive capabilities will become easier and more practical for contractors to use. At the same time, prices will fall as more trucks come off assembly lines either fitted with, or hardwired and ready to accept, telematic systems.
“Multiple trends are driving the growth of telematic systems,” says Randy Amerine, director of marketing, construction equipment division, Qualcomm Wireless Business Solutions. “As end users and dealers and rental outlets look at ways to drive more efficiency for their businesses, they’re going to take a look at the assets themselves – trucks – and look at the impact on the logistical aspects of managing labor, vehicles, pickup and delivery, parts and all of the components that make up the maintenance and service process for those assets.
They realize those elements will need to be consolidated and coordinated. And telematics provides the framework for gathering information. So there’s a natural integration that occurs because the ability to efficiently locate trucks and plan the dispatch of those pickup and delivery units is going to bring more efficiency to the owner.”
“Telematics gives companies an entirely new way to manage their fleet,” notes Bryan Calloway, senior vice president, marketing and business development, LeasePlan USA. The technology can help increase safety, manage fuel costs and reduce unnecessary vehicle maintenance and repairs. Managing your vehicles and drivers through telematics has a number of benefits that could have a real impact on your bottom line. Features such as monitoring speed and driving habits could help you better manage your liability and enhance driver safety. In addition to monitoring driver speed, monitoring vehicle idle time and unauthorized usage could help to reduce fuel costs significantly as well.”
“What we’re really offering contractors is command and control of their business,” notes Tim McRady, director of customer service, Qualcomm. “In many ways, running a trucking or construction business is really a logistical issue. And that means efficiently managing a supply chain. And the best way to manage your supply chain is to have information. Right now, most contractors do that with notepads, papers and cell phones. And information is filtered through three or four different departments in a business, often manually, through faxes, post-it notes, memos, what have you. But now, you can gather all of that supply chain information, electronically and in real time, and integrate it into your business processes. And not just random information – information about the things that really matter to your business and your bottom line: the hours or miles on your trucks, their physical location at all hours of the day and night, the status of pickup and delivery jobs. This information allows you to fine tune and streamline your operations and will eventually lead to a lot of innovating thinking on how you manage your business.”
The mobile office comes of age
It’s an old maxim that ergonomic or technological advances start in the consumer automotive market and eventually work their way into medium- and heavy-duty trucks. That’s not the case with telematics. The benefits of tracking loads, monitoring drivers, paperless billing and so many other telematic capabilities are so obvious that many heavy-duty truck manufacturers, including International and Mack, are pioneering its use in a variety of real-world applications.
Light-truck manufacturers haven’t been asleep at the switch, though. Real-time GPS tracking systems are now commonplace – usually offered as optional equipment on high-end luxury vehicles, including pickup trucks and SUVs. In most cases, these navigational systems use a dash-mounted screen to display constantly updated vehicle coordinates in real time. When used in conjunction with an interactive, DVD atlas, the system shows scalable maps with a variety of different viewpoints. You can calculate routes by time, distance or local attractions. You can key in a specific street address in a city hundreds of miles away, and the navigational system will take you right to the specified location via voice prompts to alert you to turns, highway exits or landmarks. Miss a turn and the computer will automatically recalculate the route to get you quickly back on track.
Ford’s new onboard computer system, recently previewed in a 2006 F-250 Super Duty pickup truck, was developed in conjunction with Microsoft’s automotive division. The computer, manufactured by Stargate Mobile, is mounted in the dashboard between the driver and passenger seats. The monitor and hard drive are protected in a durable rubberized case. The PC itself contains a GPS navigational system, tablet computer with full suite of Microsoft Office software, a mapping program and wireless, broadband Internet access. The system won’t be ready until late spring or summer this year, and then only as a dealer-installed option. Initial price for the onboard computer will be approximately $3,000.
So it’s starting. Anyone who’s watched the evolution of automotive styling and ergonomics knows today’s options are tomorrow’s standard equipment. When’s the last time you sat in a new car that didn’t have power windows or a tilt steering wheel? It’s just a matter of time before these systems become routine and light trucks become true rolling offices.
Keeping the honest man honest
Medium- and heavy-duty trucks are going to get telematic makeovers too. The emphasis here is on driver productivity – from both sides of the fence, so to speak. Truck drivers in the future will be surrendering more of their autonomy to the main office. Owners of trucks fitted with GPS tracking and communication systems now have unprecedented access to reams of truck-related data. “Direct feedback from January’s World of Concrete told us that 95 percent of the contractors we talked to at that show looking into truck tracking systems were interested primarily in driver accountability,” says Tony Nicoletti, national sales manager for DPL America, which markets Web-based GPS truck and equipment tracking systems. “For these contractors, it’s not so much a ‘Big Brother’ thing, but a desire to keep people honest. They want these systems to make sure guys are where they’re supposed to be. They’re paying these guys good money. And this system can make sure no one’s spending too much time at their girlfriend’s house, or getting to work late and padding their time cards – it just keeps them honest.”
One Maryland contractor uses his DPL system to control speeding drivers. “It’s an image issue,” Nicoletti says. “Having speeding trucks weaving in and out of traffic just isn’t good for business. But this contractor’s drivers don’t even know they’re being monitored.”
Nicoletti says the contractor has his system set up so speeding alerts are sent to his cell phone if the monitoring system detects a truck breaking the law. “He’s got an 800 number driver alert sticker on all his trucks,” Nicoletti says. “So he just calls the driver up and says somebody called in and complained and asks them to slow it down a bit.”
Concrete company triples production with GPS-based truck tracking
Smaller contractors tend to use telematics for monitoring drivers. Larger operations use that aspect too, but find the most value in using telematics to streamline dispatching operations. Country Materials in Marathon, Wisconsin, is a concrete construction firm that handles everything from pre-stress concrete beams, bridge beams, ready-mix delivery and “pretty much anything to do with concrete,” laughs Andy Dupuis, who handles ready-mix dispatch and design and control responsibilities for the company.
According to Dupuis, County Materials is also a long-time convert to telematics and the electronic business model. “I’m in charge of the software behind our concrete dispatch operations and I’ve been working with our owners, trying to discover new ways to do more with less. That’s the ultimate goal. We started down that road in 1995 with the first signaling systems – they worked over two-way FM radio. (We had the little turkey call squabble moving the truck across the screen on the first dispatch systems back then.) And we’ve stepped forward progressively as the years have come along.”
Today, that means using Qualcomm GPS tracking systems on the company’s 400-plus fleet of ready-mix trucks. “We take advantage of it in any way, shape or form we can,” Dupuis says. “We use both inbound and outbound macros to tell us where the truck is and what it’s doing automatically, without the driver being involved, and then apply that information to other portions of the fleet and our business.”
A good example Dupuis points to is the transporting of a 100-foot-by-8-foot concrete bridge beam – something County Materials does on a routine basis. “If you have a 10-axle-combination semi moving that beam through the state, DOTs want to know where that truck is at all times,” he explains. “They want to know what route it’s taking and where it is before they’re going to allow it through certain metropolitan areas at certain times of day. So tracking is crucial.”
Because Dupuis has the real-time information and position of the truck in front of him on his computer, he can tell the DOT exactly where the truck is and even get ahead of the game: “If they’ve scheduled a police escort for the truck, I can look at the screen, and tell them, ‘He’s going to be at exit so and so in 15 minutes. You can meet him there.'”
If Dupuis gets word that an accident has tied up a highway, he can route trucks around the resulting traffic jam – even guide drivers down alternate roads by watching the map display on his computer screen. “If you don’t have communication, you don’t know what the trucks are doing,” Dupuis explains. “And as a dispatcher, if you don’t know what’s going on, there’s a natural tendency to have some of the trucks sitting there on the side not being used.”
When Dupuis combines all the technologies at his disposal and the information they give him, he says the power he has to use his company’s assets wisely and productively increases exponentially. “I can look at my demand graph once the trucks are assigned and see where everyone is going. And I’ll immediately know if I can do more with the trucks I have on hand. So you take trucks and plug them into the overall operation. Look again, and guess what? I can do still more. And I know it because I have the ability to see how every asset is being used in real time. I can take a unit that is not pulling its weight and put it to work in a way that brings additional revenue in.”
The system works on days when one of the company’s jobs is moving slow. “In the old days, the trucks assigned to that job – maybe 10 or 12 units – would’ve sat there under local control and contributing little or nothing to the bottom line. Now, we control them centrally. So we can pull them out of that slow operation and put them someplace where they can be of service to us.”
Make your life easier
Dupuis wasn’t always a fan of technology. “I was in the original resistance movement when the first batch computer came through the door of this corporation in 1991,” he says. “I told them to take that blankety-blank thing and get it out of here.”
Like many people, he was scared. “Initially you think it’s just going to mean additional complications in your life. And you’ve got to get over this idea that the computer is somehow going to replace you. It’s not going to replace you. It’s going to help you. Don’t be afraid to learn with it and keep going forward. It’s just like a hammer or a screwdriver. And there are a million different people out there that can use it in a million different ways – just like with any tool. Don’t be a slave to the technology and don’t be afraid to keep using it.”
Today, Dupuis says County Material’s experiences with telematics and truck tracking systems have been so positive that the company plans to move to a completely electronic business model in two years. “Our goal is to tie everything together with this system – from A to Z,” he says. “The dispatch system is going to tell us what you can do with the trucks and track them through the day. The tracking system is going to tell you where the trucks are and what they’re doing. The powertrain data from the internal ECUs will be sent over to our maintenance system. And obviously we’re going to take our wireless technology and use it to the nth degree.
“Soon, our dump truck fleet will be completely paperless. Our drivers will have their own personal data assistants, just like Fed Ex drivers do. Our drivers will dump a load of dirt, take their PDAs, walk up to the customer, ask them to please sign it. They can give the customer a receipt if he wants one from a little strip thermal printer in the truck. The truck will signal dispatch that the load is complete. The customer’s bill is automatically sent to his Web-based account and he can pay his bill – electronically – tomorrow morning, thank you very much. Meanwhile, the driver’s ready for another load, which he’ll get beamed to him from the dispatch office. And away he goes. At the end of the day, he downloads his PDA into the computer system and everything’s recorded and proper.”
And at the end of the day, week, month, year or whatever, Dupuis will have a complete record for every single aspect of that truck’s working life: “We’ll have a true cost-per-truck, per-hour, per-load analysis that will enable us to understand everything that’s going on with them and how they’re contributing toward the bottom line.”
Taking ownership is key
The cost of installing and running a truck tracking software system isn’t as bad as you might think. Nicoletti says DPL America can typically outfit a single truck for under $700. Then there’s a monthly subscription fee, usually in the neighborhood of $35 per truck.
If that still sounds exorbitant, consider that Dupuis is convinced truck tracking systems have tripled the productivity and profitability of County Materials’ mixer fleet since the first systems were brought online three years ago. “The system pays for itself pretty quickly,” he notes.
More important to successfully implementing a telematics system is creating a shift in thinking at your company, says Qualcomm’s Amerine. “Senior management within the company need to acknowledge you’re going to go through a transformation process,” he says. “And they also need to let it be known there’s enough value in adopting these systems to justify doing so.”
Once the word is out, Amerine says the next step is making a concerted effort to budget for the training and the resources needed to get a tracking system up to speed. “Then you really need someone like Andy Dupuis to take ownership of that technology. Someone who will handle getting it set up, getting it running, training your people, and the ongoing customer support. And that person needs to stick with it and find out those key aspects of the information and how to use it wisely. Once that’s done, telematics will help you transform how you do business and you can begin to look at your return on investment and increasing your productivity.”
Phones are for taking pictures and computers are for calls in the new age of communication technology. To remain competitive, you’ll have to keep up.
Today technology that speeds communication and allows you to do in the field just about anything you can do in the office is optional. It can give you an edge over your competition. But five years from now, that might not be the case.
“Just to stay alive you’re going to have to do everything you can in terms of meeting timelines and keeping costs down,” says Jeff McDowell, director of alliances for Research in Motion, maker of the BlackBerry platform. “If you want to be a competent company in the future, so that if anything goes wrong during a project it can be fixed quickly, the No. 1 way to do that is with mobile solutions.”
While the push-to-talk feature on Nextel cell phones was a breakthrough in communication technology for contractors – the company calls it the original instant messenger – it was just the beginning. Now you can take a photo with your phone and send it to someone else’s cell phone while you’re talking to that person. With the push of a button, you can send a voice message – or a picture – to any e-mail box in the world. You can get real-time satellite images of your jobsites or the location of a job you’re about to bid on – with resolution that allows you to clearly see parking lot stripes.
You can capture signatures in the field when a job is complete, letting you send a bill the next day. Your employees can clock in and out on their cell phones and the information goes directly into your payroll system without paper documents. If you need to substitute materials, rearrange a schedule or inspect a jobsite and document what’s done, what isn’t done and what needs to be reworked, you can do it at the jobsite with the assurance everyone in your company will get the message immediately.
The point of all these advancements is to save time, which, in the construction industry perhaps more than in any other, is money. You deal with a lot of people to make sure the right materials, machines and workers arrive at the jobsite at the right time. Communication companies have realized this and are devoting a large portion of their business targeting divisions to creating applications and services for contractors. “If I was being asked what problem mobile computing solves, I’d say it all comes down to workflow,” McDowell says. “I’m really paying attention to construction right now because the value of timeliness is so important in this industry.”
Your cell phone: not just for talking
If you still view your cell phone primarily as a device that allows you speak to someone at a remote location, you’re missing out on a lot. While the ability to push a button and talk to someone at the office, a different jobsite or even the other side of the jobsite where you are can be priceless at times, today’s cell phones are capable of much more.
The Sprint Nextel application contractors like best, according to a recent survey the company conducted, is time tracking. “People totally understand it right off the top,” says Jim Hayes, product and portfolio manager, construction and field service, Sprint Nextel.
Your employees can click in – rather than clocking in – using their cell phones. Or you can put a supervisor in charge of clicking in and out for everyone at a particular site. As employees click in, the software uses the GPS capability of their phones to put markers for them on a map you can view on your phone.
The program can track time for entire crews as well as individuals. Hayes says one of the first contractors to use this function saved money on overtime expenses because a supervisor noticed a crew that had set forms for a concrete pour had already logged 32 hours for the week and doing the pour would put those workers over 40 hours. So he brought in a second crew to pour the concrete.
Sprint Nextel’s multimedia phones allow you to e-mail photos as well as voice and text messages. The Direct Send Picture feature that allows you to send a photo to someone while talking is just a few months old. Hayes says this function addresses the problem of “as built vs. as designed.” If you have to do something a little differently than what’s written in the job plans, you can show the owner immediately and ask if it’s OK rather than stopping work and waiting for an answer or doing it one way and then having to change it.
And if the person you want to show a picture doesn’t have a Sprint Nextel phone, you can send the photo as an e-mail and attach text or a voice message explaining the picture or identifying something in it.
“The phones aren’t just for taking pictures,” Hayes says. “They’re for documenting what’s at the site.” If you’re inspecting an electrical box, for instance, and find a problem, you can send a photo to the electrical contractor. You can also store photos in a job log on your phone.
Steven Hendricks, director of communications and public affairs for Motorola’s iDen mobile business applications group, says the camera function of cell phones will get even better in the near future, making it easier for you or your customers to make decisions based on photos. Being able to take quality pictures can also help you record evidence to protect you and your insurance company.
Through a partnership with Trimble, Sprint Nextel offers GPS black boxes for equipment that monitor hours of operation, fuel levels and out of limit events – such as a machine overheating – and send that information to your cell phone. You can also get satellite images of jobsites where black-box-equipped machines are located.
Mobile computing: take the office with you
You can take these capabilities a step further by using mobile computing devices – BlackBerries, for example – in place of cell phones. In additional to providing cell phone functions, these devices can connect you to the Internet and the systems at your office so that databases, e-mail accounts, etc. are available to you in the field.
“BlackBerry is really an extension of your office,” McDowell says. “It’s more of a terminal or a connection to your office. Basically, anything you can do on the Internet, you can do on a BlackBerry.”
McDowell leads the RIM group that partners with companies that build customized applications on top of the BlackBerry platform. ATSG, JumpStart Wireless and Corrigo are major BlackBerry partners. These companies will put together a software package for your organization and then provide as many integrated handheld devices as you need. The price is comparable to a well-equipped cell phone – about $200 per unit – and the service providers charge about $40 a month per device, McDowell says.
A popular application for contractors allows you to inspect a site and fill out an alert form if you find anything wrong. If you discover a subcontractor has left something undone or needs to re-do something, for instance, the form will go to a database and the application will look up which subcontractor did the work. He’ll receive a “go to fix” message automatically.
If you need to rearrange crews because work can’t be done at one site or needs to be speeded up at another, you can use your BlackBerry to see where your workers are and what crews are available. Instead of going to the office and faxing a form when you have to substitute materials, you can fill out the form electronically and send it from the jobsite, ensuring a quicker delivery.
Sprint Nextel has launched a handheld Windows Mobile platform that will be available for the first time this month. It’s similar to BlackBerry, but uses Windows rather than the Java operating system.
Windows Mobile has a touch screen and stylus, allowing you to capture signatures in the field. A Store-in-Forward feature lets you keep working even if your connection fails at a remote jobsite. The device will store all the information you enter and automatically send it when it picks up coverage again.
The learning curve
While he finds contractors are eager to try out new communication technology when they realize what it will allow them to do, McDowell says the implementation phase is slower than it is in more technologically savvy industries. Your workers have to learn how to use the devices and there is a shift in the way everyone operates.
“Sometimes contractors think, ‘My guys are construction workers – they’ve got big thumbs. They won’t be able to use mobile computing,'” McDowell says. “But once they start using the device, you’ll never get it away from them.”
Hayes takes issue with the notion construction companies are slow to adopt this kind of technology. “There are some folks [in the construction industry] who are really on the cutting edge,” he says. “They’re looking for what’s next.”
To those who are still unsure about the Digital Age, Hayes says communication technology providers have gotten past many of the learning curves. “There’s so much fun stuff going on in this industry. This technology allows you to stay in touch with your office and your customers, which can help you get more business and maybe get paid quicker,” he says. “You can instantly let a client know when a job is done or let a subcontractor know when the site is ready for him. We’ve taken all this technology and made it useful and easy so the business owner is more productive and profitable.”
TALK TO ME
How on-board electronics are changing the way you control and manage your machines.
Credit the EPA.
As the calendar turns on each new tier of engine emission regulations the demand for installed electronics on machines increases. And yet much more than the engine is involved – transmissions, hydraulics, axles and operator controls are all getting their commands electronically and are all talking to each other via electronic controls.
In addition to making machines more productive and abuse proof, these electronics have also upped the ante on the information that can be extracted and analyzed. And while these electronics are now just on heavier equipment, they will likely find their way into compact equipment as emissions regulations dip into the lower horsepower ranges.
Control, control, control
“As the cost of construction equipment increases, owners want more reliability and durability,” says Rick Hall, vice president of engineering, Case Construction Equipment. “One way we can do that is to control how the vehicle is operated.”
Electronic controls are now used in a variety of ways to protect the machine from operator actions that eventually doom certain components. For instance, there are engine and transmission controllers that limit the machine’s movements to minimize any damage from operating it before it’s warmed up. Another example would be controllers that limit engine speed when shifting into forward or reverse, thus preventing drivetrain overloading.
Deere’s Total Machine Control – which has been on its forestry equipment and dozers since the late 1990s – is “designed to make a good operator better and a mediocre operator good,” says Brian Rauch, Deere’s director of engineering and technology.
In simple terms, TMC allows you to operate aggressively yet with precise control. The system integrates control of everything from engine to transmission to hydraulic functions to brakes, all responding automatically to the speed and feel preferences set by the operator.
Deere plans to put TMC on other machines debuting next year.
Another example of what these controllers do is Volvo’s Automatic Traction Control option on artics, where multiple speed sensors constantly check ground conditions and select the correct drive combination to negotiate the terrain. In addition to leaving the operator free to concentrate on driving, ATC reduces fuel consumption and tire wear by engaging the dog-clutch differential locks only when necessary.
Today’s electronic controllers already vary greatly from those first appearing on machines. They’ve come down in price, become more robust and have far more computing power. Further advances will only add to the protective nature of these controls.
“They’re there to control the operation and monitor the health of the vehicle,” Hall says. “They’re there to help, not hurt.”
Spilling the beans
As long as these controllers are talking to each other, they might as well be talking to you and your service technician.
Components these days are a chatty group. The engine and transmission will spill the beans about their oil temperature, level and pressure. The hydraulic system and wet disc brakes will get into oil temperature and level details. Dog-clutch differential locks, engine/transmission retarders and service brakes will let you know if they are on or off. And all this information has a time/date stamp on it.
Manufacturers are grappling with how to properly extract this information and give it to their customers and dealers. Some have opted to provide this information wirelessesly using a Web interface. Wireless, however, is constricted by band width, which limits the amount of information it’s capable of transmitting. Because of this, Volvo chose to put a port on certain machines through which a laptop can download the information. Although more cumbersome, it does allow a significant amount of information to be drawn out of a machine for analysis. (See charts on page 64.)
Asset management programs have gained a level of maturity. In addition to those offered by manufacturers, there are also a variety of aftermarket systems, such as Qualcomm’s GlobalTracs and Trimble’s Construction Manager. Most of these tools, whether from the manufacturer or an aftermarket provider, also offer the addition of GPS, allowing you to track a machine’s location and establish geo-fences that alert you when a machine has moved out of a designated area. Last year, Pettibone announced it would make GlobalTracs standard on all its telescopic handlers, and Bobcat said it would offer the system on its entire equipment line as a dealer-installed option.
Let’s use Caterpillar’s Product Link as an example of how a wireless asset management system works. The system gathers data from a machine’s on-board electronics and then transmits it wirelessly via the Orbcomm satellite service to Cat’s network operations center. Information is then delivered to a customer’s desktop via Caterpillar’s online application, EquipmentManager. The on-machine part of the system includes a satellite communicator and a separate electronic control module. (The satellite communicator can be used alone if you just want basic information, such as machine hours and location.)
The high cost of fuel is just one example of how these systems can give you a leg up in your daily operation. Trimble’s Construction Manager, for instance, monitors how much time expires between “ignition on” and “start moving” events, information you can use to save unnecessary fuel costs.
“Users want to know who is starting the machine, at what time of day, how many times a day it’s turned on and off, how much fuel is being consumed, whether or not the machine is sitting idle and if they’ve got a PM job coming up,” explains Mike Kellen, product support supervisor, commercial sales, for Caterpillar’s information products and solutions division. “This allows y