Pavers and compaction equipment get most of the attention in roadbuilding – they give us the primary beauty of a finished pavement. But, as is often pointed out when we discuss top-notch road construction, the performance of a road is dependent on the quality of the base.
With that in mind, it’s easy to see that motor graders are a bit of the unsung hero of quality pavements – they provide much of the accuracy when it comes to the grade and slope upon which the rest of a roadway is constructed.
While motor graders are viewed as singular in purpose, their functionality is far more diverse, as they are one of the more complex machines to operate. And operation enhancements are where much of the manufacturer’s focus has been of late.
The general construction labor shortage, and the difficulty of finding and keeping experienced operators, is a top problem for contractors. While nothing will replace an experienced operator, manufacturers have been working to advance the capabilities of motor graders to make operation easier, which would benefit less experienced crews.
“It’s well known there is a lot of turnover in motor grader operators,” says Luke Kurth, John Deere product marketing manager for motor graders. That factor often leaves a contractor with a skills drain in his crews.
And even if an operator is adequate, he or she could be missing out on features that can step up their performance. “You get a guy that hops in the seat that can run and cut grade, but maybe he doesn’t understand how to run the extra features that are on the machine,” Kurth adds.
Kurth explains that, in that sense, many of the capabilities of the machine, for which manufacturers have worked diligently to advance, are wasted. Six-wheel drive, he says, is a good example.
“Six wheel drive is going to give you a third more power to the front of the machine,” he says. “It’s going to pull way more of the blade on the tandem machine. You’d be surprised how many operators get in a motor grader and don’t know to throw on that switch.” Teaching operators that simple step, he adds, will give them a major boost in performance.
Machine control, however, will probably help an inexperienced operator most in producing better grading results.
“One of the biggest steps a contractor can take to improve motor grader performance is through machine control,” says John Bauer, brand marketing manager for Case Construction Equipment. “Machine control continues to evolve and offer new ways for contractors to operate more efficiently, and it helps contractors plan for the right materials and the right equipment to do the job.”
Bauer says machine control also offers specific benefits to motor grader operators by cutting down on rework, because it gives them the ability to reach a final grade in fewer passes. This also minimizes maintenance and wear and tear, increases productivity and accuracy, improves planning, simplifys training and reduces the cost and effort associated with re-staking jobsites.
Caterpillar’s Wade Porter, market professional for motor graders, says Cat Grade with Cross Slope is a machine control system specifically aimed at assisting road construction.
“This system is the 2D building block to the more sophisticated 2D and 3D systems that road builders are using every day,” he says. “It is used in conjunction with these systems, to provide reference points and slope readings necessary for the more complex 2D and 3D to work properly.”
He adds that if these 2D and 3D systems go down, Cat Grade with Cross Slope can serve as a backup to provide slope control until the other systems resume working. It automatically controls one side of the blade, which cuts in half the manual work from the operator.
“Experienced operators can maintain peak efficiency levels throughout more of the work day, while less experienced operators can be more productive faster,” Porter says.
One corner of the moldboard is controlled automatically, while the opposite corner is managed by the operator. Porter explains that this helps reach target slope automatically during operation, which increases the accuracy and consistency of the bladed surface.
Cross Slope can also facilitate one-handed operation, depending on which blade corner is in automatic mode.
“Grade control has absolutely taken over the industry for some years now,” says Deere’s Kurth. “Our Grade Pro machines are open architecture, so you can put a Topcon, Trimble or Leica system on them. We have factory-ready kits with all the brackets, the harness, everything you need ready to go. This is where the industry will continue to grow in the future.”
“New technology can sometimes have a bit of an intimidation factor, especially when there are costs involved,” says Bauer. “Manufacturers recognized this and are making it easier for contractors to implement these technologies, and its only going to get more intuitive.”
Last year, Caterpillar launched a technology suite that included Cat Grade and Cross Slope, but the system also added a couple more physical control measures aimed at road building.
“Advanced Control Joysticks were specifically designed for customers that use blade control technology, which is prevalent on almost every road building jobsite in the country,” says Porter. “Operators specifically asked us to integrate the automated blade control functions into the joystick, so they didn’t have to take their hands off the primary machine and blade controls, in order to operate the automatic controls.”
Stable Blade is another feature Caterpillar added to help with machine bounce, which can be caused by material or underfoot conditions, but also by operator inexperience.
“Softer underfoot conditions, such as spreading AB materials, millings, etc., are prime examples of where a bounce situation can occur,” Porter explains. “Stable Blade can sense the harmony that causes bounce, well before the operator can feel it, so it works quickly and efficiently to help control the situation, stabilize the operation and improve the graded surface quality.”
Caterpillar also added Auto Articulation to be used for tight turnaround situations or maneuvering around an obstacle. “Road building jobsites are full of obstacles and tight areas, where this feature will make an operator’s life much easier and more comfortable,” Porter adds. “It reduces control interface complexity, allowing operators to concentrate on the task at hand, which is moving material efficiently and accurately.”
Case also has focused on articulation capabilities with its B-Series motor graders. “They offer a tight 23-foot, 9-inch turning radius for quick and accurate machine positioning,” Bauer says. “With front articulation, the operator maintains the center position while the gooseneck is articulated, allowing for greater visibility to the moldboard, circle, saddle and tires during operation.”
Kurth says, in his experience, what motor grader owners and operators really want out of machines is more power, a feature Deere has been working to update.
“When you talk to guys in the United States and Canada, it’s all about power – power to weight, getting that power to the ground,” he says. “Motor graders have grown 30 to 40 percent in power over the past 10 to 12 years. Customers just want a bigger, faster, stronger machine.”
Deere has been focusing on power improvements this year, with the company increasing the power and torque across all their models in March of this year. And Kurth sees that power boost offering specific advantages to municipalities running the equipment beyond roadbuilding applications.
“Let’s take a governmental guy,” he says. “He’s out snowplowing, and he’s pulling a hill and he hits a big drift. One of the things they hate to do is slow down, because if you lose momentum, grab a gear, then you don’t have enough to get through the next drift that’s coming.”
“So the shape of the torque curve, with the power on the top side, is meant to help them blow through those drifts without grabbing a gear, without slowing down. It helps them get up the hill, so they can get more miles of road done in an evening or during a day.”
Feedback, such as incorporating more power and improved controls, are prompting manufacturers to react quickly with design changes and updates.
“Designing in a vacuum doesn’t do any good,” says Porter. “We must understand the needs of our customers by listening, collecting their voice, and implementing that voice into our product design. These technologically advanced offerings are examples of years of customer voice data collection, heavy research and development, and a commitment to providing the best solutions to those customers.”
“Our whole focus is on looking at the customer feedback, looking at the things we’re hearing in the field and what the customers are saying and what can we do to make the machines more productive and durable,” says Kurth. “It’s all about that uptime piece – we want them to have a great experience with our machines, and they want to keep them up and running non-stop. So we look at what can we do to make them last longer.”