Poll: Machine Control Adoption Still Lags

Automatic Dozer Unicontrol
A variety of lower-cost machine control options have entered the U.S. market in recent years, as manufacturers try to overcome contractor's sticker shock.

Machine control solutions have been around since the 1990s, yet many contractors are still hesitant to pull the trigger on the technology – or don’t plan on adopting it at all. That’s according to the results from Equipment World’s latest website visitor poll.

Out of 129 respondents surveyed from April 15 to May 15, 2024, more than half (54%) said they were not using machine control on their construction equipment. Of that 54%, 30% said they are interested but haven’t taken the leap, and 24% are not considering the technology.

When given the option to comment on what they thought was holding them back from adopting machine control solutions, respondents pointed to a few primary factors: the cost of the initial investment, the time required to integrate it, or that the type of work they typically do doesn’t require it.

One respondent noted, “The concrete that we match up to is not consistent with the design to grade to reliably with grade controls. Plus, most of our projects are transient in nature. We’re onsite for a few shifts fine grading and then paving.”

Out of the 46% of respondents who said they are using machine control solutions, 30% have gone all in with 3D, and the remaining 16% are using 2D systems. Those active users cited accuracy, efficiency and cost savings as the most notable improvements the technology has brought to their business.

“It saves labor and time, as the equipment tells me if I’m at depth and I don’t have to stop and wait for someone to tell me what I already know. By then, I’m two more feet down the trench at grade,” said one respondent. “It makes your operating costs more competitive,” added another.

Alan's Excavating excavator and dump truckKansas contractor Alan's Excavating has overcome the labor shortage by training its truck drivers to operate machine control-enabled equipment.Equipment WorldBridging the Skills Gap

Beyond cost savings, machine control can also help contractors address the industry’s growing skills gap. This strategy has worked well for one respondent, who said he invested in machine control because he “can’t find good operators anymore.”

2023 Equipment World Contractor of the Year finalist Alan’s Excavating would agree. The Kansas-based contractor bought into the technology more than 20 years ago but says it has been particularly advantageous over the past few years.

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The company trained its truck drivers to operate machine control-enabled equipment, allowing them to flex duties when schedules require it.

“We’ll take truck drivers out of trucks, put them in equipment, and then hire in trucks if we have a big enough job,” Owner Jake McClure says. “Maybe they’re a little green yet, but they can all run anything.”

“And then, when we get done moving the dirt, and we're down to putting the base aggregate down for the pad or the parking lot, or both, the truck drivers will get out of the equipment, jump back in their semis, and start bringing us the material. It works really well for our operation.”

Jake estimates that machine control has given his 20-person crew the productivity of 25 people. “The last two years have really shown we’re doing a lot more work with fewer people. It's pretty impressive what our crew can get done.”

The upskilling has also improved morale for truck drivers by adding variety to what can be a monotonous job.

Cost-Effective Machine Control Options for Small- to Mid-Size Contractors

In response to contractor concerns over the high cost of entry, technology providers have rolled out a variety of more affordable options in recent years to ease the transition and make machine control more accessible. Here are a few solutions to consider if you're on the fence but the price tag is still giving you heartburn:

  • Unicontrol: Tailored toward smaller contractors and compact equipment, Unicontrol offers machine control for excavators, wheel loaders and skid steers – and even automatics for dozers. The system is compatible with other manufacturer’s base stations and rovers, or you can purchase Unicontrol’s positioning equipment. Unicontrol says it takes about 30 minutes to learn the system and is roughly half the cost of machine guidance systems currently sold in the U.S.
  • iDig: The iDig Indicate Only 2D System uses wireless solar sensors on the boom, dipper and bucket and in the cab to relay in real time whether the operator is on grade. The main difference from a typical 2D system is that it does not actually control the excavator but uses an in-cab receiver with LED lights to indicate the grade for the operator. The base system costs about $11,000, much less than an integrated 2D control system. It can also be easily transferred to any excavator, no matter the model or age.
  • Topcon MC-Mobile: Based off of Topcon’s MC-X platform, MC-Mobile is an easy-to-use and affordable machine control solution for mixed fleets. The MC-Mobile product line will offer 2D and 3D solutions, and Topcon says it is geared toward entry-level users completing short, day- to day-and-a-half-long jobs. The technology is a three-in-one solution, allowing operators to check grade, create designs on the fly and self-perform site layouts without traditional staking.
  • Trimble Earthworks Go! 2.0: Compatible with compact track and skid steer loaders, Trimble Earthworks GO! allows contractors to move the system between machines for efficient job completion. Profiles can be created for each machine for one-time setup. The 2D automatic grade control solution can help operators with various grading tasks, from pads to landscaping.
  • Hemisphere GradeMetrix: Hemisphere GNSS’ GradeMetrix system offers full 2D, 2.5D (infill), and 3D machine control, while using an open architecture that allows users to communicate and share files with different operating systems. Its simple interface is designed so that even less experienced operators can become proficient rapidly. Hemisphere says because it manufacturers all of its products in-house, it can sell them for nearly half the price of its competitors.
  • Rent or Rental Purchase Options: Most major machine control providers offer short-term or long-term rental options or rental purchase options for machine control solutions, helping to lower the risk of trying new technology.

Equipment World’s new poll series examines the latest trends in the industry and provides insights into what contractors are thinking. Got a burning question we should ask? Send it to Jordanne Waldschmidt ([email protected]).