Technology: Connected construction

For a time the earthmoving industry was the last holdout of the information age. Whatever your operators did or did not do, whether you made money or not – all the critical measurements of success – couldn’t be verified for weeks until the final survey was done. Experienced supervisors usually had a gut feeling about how well their projects were progressing, but a lot of supervisors had ulcers, too.

Today, thanks to a handful of emerging technologies you can measure, manage and monitor every aspect of your jobsites and machines remotely and in real time, from your truck, the jobsite trailer, the corporate office or halfway around the world – anywhere you have Internet access or a cell phone connection. This is connected construction, and it touches everybody from the operator in the cab to the president of the company and the owners of the project, subcontractors, architects, engineers or anybody else you want in the loop.

With this technology you can find out how much dirt was moved today, yesterday, two weeks ago, or in the last month. You can check on a machine to make sure it’s running or not overheating or having problems. You can complete as-built plans and send them to the client even before the last machine is trailered off the site.

To connect a construction site manufacturers such as Leica, Topcon and Trimble have taken two established technologies – GPS earthmoving and telematics and uploaded the streams of information that come from those devices into a web, cellular or radio communications network.

Customers increasingly expect the ability to send and receive data from their machine fleet, be it terrain models for machine control applications, as-built records of work executed or information on the engine, hydraulic systems, loading, fuel consumption and performances, according to Leica. All this, or any combination of these, can be collected, distributed and shared through a connected system.

Intersection of information
“You typically don’t just jump into the Connected Site solution from Trimble and go 100 percent whole hog,” says Allan Sharp, segment manager. “The Connected Site isn’t just one thing. It depends on what you want to do. There are Connected Site elements all over the place and it’s a matter of which ones you want to make use of.” The information that feeds into connected construction comes from three areas, says Sharp: site positioning systems, GPS machine control and asset management or telematics.

Site positioning systems use a GPS rover on a pole or total station target with a data collector containing the engineering design that’s walked or driven around the jobsite checking topos and the amount of work done. In the past the surveyor or supervisor with the rover would complete his check and then drive back to the construction office or trailer to download the data files. On a connected system your rover can send that information or receive new information from the office instantly via a cell phone signal or mesh radio network.

“This saves him time and the fuel costs by not having to drive back and forth to the office,” Sharp says. And as soon as he’s finished work for the day he can send the data to the office with the push of a button. The process also works with GPS-enabled earthmoving machines. Armed with radio or wireless communication devices these machines become mobile information gathering tools. The machines can send regular updates to the office, and because the information flows two ways, connected jobsite managers can monitor what those machines are doing from the office, or even have information sent to their Blackberries.

Design updates used to take considerable time and effort on big sites running multiple GPS-enabled machines. Thumb drives or data cards with the new model would have to be physically delivered to every machine. With a connected system, it can take less than a minute.

“It allows you to make that modification and send it through the Internet to the jobsite trailer, which shares it through the radio mesh network to every machine on the jobsite,” says Murray Lodge, vice president of construction sales at Topcon Positioning. Topcon’s connectivity solution is called SiteLINK, and includes data logging, reporting and asset management tied together in a site-wide Radio Mesh Network built on a standard Wi-Fi environment. The operators in the machines receive the information and notification as an e-mail on the GPS controller in the cab. “It will just pop up and tell the operator ‘you have an e-mail.’ He’ll download the file, and you get verification back in the trailer that received it and he is using it,” Lodge says.

Talk to the engine
Two-way communication with telematics systems enables you to drill down into just about any level of information you need on a connected machine. “A critical part of any manager’s day is to make sure his machines are running and stay running,” says Mark Bittner, senior vice president with Topcon’s Tierra, a just-introduced telematics system. “If you can tell him what his engine performance is, the rpms, the oil temperature, then he can be very predictive with his maintenance. If he needs to rent a machine because one is out of service he can do it ahead of time as opposed to facing a catastrophe at 8:30 in the morning because a dozer doesn’t work.”

This asset tracking and management side of connected construction doesn’t require the precision positioning provided by GPS rovers and machine control systems. But it does rely on GPS for approximate positioning and differs from trucking telematics in that you have the option to monitor a lot more than just the asset’s position or travel on a map.

The new telematics hardware “talks” to the engine and component systems through a connection to the CAN-BUS*. “Some machines can give you two or three parameters, some project 17 to 20 parameters,” Bittner says. The level of information you can tap into will depend on complexity of your CAN-BUS system and whether your use a full-featured telematics system or something simpler. “A smaller, lower cost box answers the need for generators, light stands, air compressors and things that are hard to locate and prone to theft,” Bittner says. The top of the line, fully-featured model runs on a Windows CE operating system, he says.

Virtual fences
The simpler position and location monitoring telematics are also finding a lot of fans in the construction industry, particularly when it comes to theft deterrence, and a lot of manufacturers are jumping into the market (see Telematics sources on page 48.) One of the most popular features in these systems is what’s known as a “geofence.”

A geofence is a geographic area outlined by GPS-monitored grid. If somebody tries to move the machine outside the geofence (typically the perimeter of the jobsite or the yard), the machine will automatically alert anybody you designate via an e-mail, a text message or telephone call. This not only helps prevent theft, it can also prevent unauthorized weekend use of popular machines like backhoes. Geofences can also be used to tell you when dumps or material delivery trucks enter and exit a site.

Websites, servers and software
On a connected system, the information streaming out of your connected rovers, machines or tracked assets is forwarded to a website on the Internet or a server in a jobsite or office trailer. Alerts and emergency situations can be programmed to go directly to your cell phone or other mobile communication device. On the websites and servers, the information can be viewed by anybody to whom you give a user name and password. And you can set up your site so different people have access to different levels of information. Project owners, for example, can view the progress of a job without delving into your job costing or machine utilization.

Collecting data from the field in real time is a boon to the productivity of operations, but the ability to compile and sort this information, to study it and generate custom reports, is likewise increasing the productivity of supervisors, shop managers, even accountants and finance people working in the office.

“The office personnel can see what the field crews are doing, how much progress they’re making, whether they’re working to the tolerances of the project, whether they’re making mistakes,” Sharp says. On a daily basis, the machine is capturing real-time production data. As a manager you can look at that and compare it to the model to see how much cut and fill you have to go, how much progress you made last week, what production you got on each machine and how many hours the machine was working in a specific area.

“For billing or costing purposes you’ve got real-time knowledge without having to go out and send somebody to measure it,” Sharp says. “You can watch production remotely from the head office over the Internet on all the projects you’re running and communicate with the machines.”

The office component of a connected system will continue to grow in importance as the contractor becomes more familiar with and creative in managing the system. “The key to the Trimble Connected Community is to aggregate the information from a variety of sources and workflows, because it’s not one person that does everything in most companies,” Sharp says. “You have an asset manager who looks after the assets, a machine or equipment manager running all the machines, and a data manager or GPS manager running the information from the field crews. Each needs a dedicated workflow but at some point you need to aggregate the information from those three workflows and bring it to a central point. The Connected Community is a way of delivering that information to a manager in a web format so that he can make quick decisions about what equipment to buy, what maintenance schedules he has coming up and where he’s got bottlenecks.”

Pricing and installation
Unlike GPS machine control and site positioning systems, which are one-time hardware purchases, connected construction systems use cellular signals or licensed radio networks and web based services. As a result there’s usually a monthly fee or some other recurring charge. Fees will vary depending on the number of users or the level of services.

Installation of the hardware on machines can be done by dealers, but the GPS vendors we spoke to said that many contractors prefer to do the installations themselves. Much like a new computer, the components come packaged with full instructions for installation.

Connecting to a machine’s CAN-BUS system is as easy as plugging in to a wiring harness. “You don’t need to be an IT (information technology) person,” Sharp says. Companies that sell the equipment also have field staff, online and telephone-accessible engineers to provide training, answer questions and support end users.

GPS, telematics defined
GPS earthmoving got started in 1999 and uses satellite signals similar to those that guide automotive navigation systems to guide your blade or bucket, but with accuracy sufficient to grade to within a tenth of a foot or better. Telematics, also GPS based, has been used by the over-the-road trucking industry for almost two decades now, to locate and schedule delivery trucks. Telematics systems combined with machine sensors can send you reports on oil temps, engine performance, fuel usage and just about anything you can monitor with a sensor.

Is GPS worth it?
To get set up with GPS earthmoving is not cheap. At a minimum you’ll need to spend $100,000 or more to outfit one dozer or motor grader. Per unit costs go down as you add machines to the system, and worksite connectivity and telematics components and services aren’t as expensive.

Still, that’s a lot of money, but consider this: A 2006 study reported in the Canadian Journal of Civil Engineering that found that a GPS-enabled earthmoving operation can increase productivity by 21.74 percent and generate cost savings of 12.92 percent in a project with a short haul distance. On a hypothetical $1-million job you’d be saving more than $120,000 and the system would have paid for itself. After that everything falls to the bottom line enabling you to bid more competitively and complete more work in the same amount of time.

With diesel prices pushing towards $5 a gallon the ability to grade with precision and not have to move dirt twice,only becomes more attractive. Additional savings could be expected as you add in connectivity features and use that information to streamline operations, boost productivity and fine tune your bids and equipment utilization.

*CAN-BUS stands for controller area network bus. In plain English, it’s a type of wiring that allows signals to run two ways and routes these through what is essentially a small computer. Rather than have a single wire going to and coming from every single sensor and dashboard light, the CAN-BUS serves as a collection point and decision making center for all incoming and outgoing electrical signals. This greatly reduces the number of wires in the vehicle and allows you to program different electrical parameters according to your needs.

For more information on the GPS earthmoving, telematics and systems quoted in this article see:

Leica Geosystems

Topcon Positioning’s SiteLink and Tierra

Trimble’s Connected Site and Connected Community

Telematics sources
A lot of companies make telematics systems that don’t necessarily have GPS site positioning or earthmoving systems.

Here’s what they offer. Many of the major equipment manufacturers also offer telematics for their off-road machines.

Check with your local dealer for more information.

Arsenault’s Dossier On-Board is a real-time interface between the company’s Dossier fleet maintenance software and Networkfleet’s GPS tracking service. The Networkfleet system senses and transmits equipment fault code exceptions and mile or hour readings. The Dossier product then imports these into your Dossier program to inform you of maintenance issues independent of the driver. The systems also give you asset tracking, geofencing, engine idle time, driver stop details, roadside assistance and speeding alerts.

Ayantra’s FleetQuip solution for what it calls “out of sight” assets includes a MAT 410H monitoring unit, a website to deliver asset location and other reports and real time alert notifications delivered as a text messages to cell phones and/or e-mails. On the website a history log tracks and displays all communications to and from the assets. FleetQuip also allows you to track any time an engine is turned on or off and you can create up to 99 custom jobsite formats to fit a variety of business types. The company also sells asset tracking systems for generators, trailers and non-powered assets.

SkyBitz GLS 100 focuses on low-mobility assets such as construction and heavy equipment. It has three reporting options (twice a day, once a day or once a week). Paired with the company’s InSight web interface the system allows you to pinpoint asset location, increase utilization and track missing or stolen equipment.

XacTrac provides integrated monitoring and tracking system that collects and transmits information about equipment operating status, location and engine hours accessible via the Internet from any computer. You can create multiple reports, track assets in real time on roadmaps and/or satellite images, add custom information about each asset, put up geofences around equipment yards, schedule lockdowns and create reports on things like runtime, idle time, routes and speed notifications.

The HCSS GPS system allows you to view the current location of all your equipment using Microsoft’s MapPoint technology. With it you can create cycle time analysis reports to determine how long it takes trucks or paving units to leave and return to worksites, and calculate instantly how many hours per day and per week the equipment is being used. These engine-on meter hours can be downloaded into the company’s Dispatcher program, which automatically notifies you when a piece of equipment is due for preventive maintenance.

LoJack’s LoCate GPS-based asset management solution is designed for heavy equipment fleet managers with a simplified platform that gives you real time asset location, daily engine hours and utilization reports. You can choose from three different service plans and get on-site installation. The geofencing feature puts boundaries around equipment and creates alerts if the equipment exits the area. User-defined reports enable you to analyze fleet and workforce productivity, maximize utilization and get accurate, timely data to support maintenance and equipment management decisions.

Qualcomm’s GlobalTracs Suite for fleet management delivers detailed engine hours and utilization and location with virtual fences and after-hours security alerts. In it you can create user defined management and maintenance reports, assess productivity, monitor the health of your machines, schedule maintenance and give drivers directions and instructions. A less expensive version, GlobalTracks Lite, gives position and engine-on information but doesn’t integrate with the machine’s CAN-BUS system and sensors for diagnostic applications.

Distance is no longer a barrier to communication when your information flows are digitized and broadcast through satellite and wireless communication systems.

WIRELESS/CELLULAR networks take information from jobsite and send it to equipment dealers or headquarters.

TRUCK TELEMATICS tap the GPS signals to give supervisors updates on location and arrival times. Some systems also record and help you manage maintenance information as well.

HEADQUARTERS has the ability to access any and all of this information and can aggregate data to help estimators, financial managers and executives make better decisions with much less effort and time.

DEALERS can keep track of machine maintenance records via telematics to schedule PMs and monitor critical functions such as temperatures and pressures.

JOBSITE TRAILERS often serve as a mounting point for the GPS base station and take in and send out information via radio mesh networks or cellular transmissions.

GPS SATELLITES broadcast positioning information to machines, rovers, surveyors and trucks.

ROVERS equipped with a GPS receiver can check work in progress, measure stockpiles, confirm topos and help supervisors communicate with operators in the field and managers in jobsite trailers or headquarters.

SURVEYORS take GPS signals, triangulate them with the base station and get instantaneous positioning information accurate to a tenth of a foot that can be stored on a data collector on the pole or sent to the jobsite trailer.

GPS ENABLED MACHINES use satellite information to guide the blade, showing operators in real time exactly how much they need to cut or fill.