How Tech is Giving These 7 Contractors a Competitive Edge

Caterpillar excavators and a compact track loader moving dirt
Caterpillar demonstrated its suite of technology products at its recent Cat Construction and Technology Days event, in Edwards, Illinois.
Equipment World

What is the true ROI of applying technology on your jobsites? And how can you get your operators to adopt it?

A recent panel of contractors pulled back the curtains to share how they have made technology stick – and the varying ways it has enhanced almost every aspect of their businesses.

The seven-person panel, held during Caterpillar’s recent Construction and Technology Days event, included: Shay Stutsman, Stutsman Gerbaz Inc.; James Bennett, Otto Baum Company Inc.; Bryce Wuori, Pavewise; Tyler Flynn, Savage; Robert Gaines Blackwell, Partners Excavating Company; Justin Spates, Luck Stone; and Curtis Blank Jr., Associated Terminals.

How to get employees to adopt new technologies

The panelists agreed that just purchasing the technology won’t make you an overnight success; it starts with finding a champion of change to engage employees of all levels and ages.

“Technology is only as good as somebody grasping it,” said Bennett, a heavy equipment mechanic and operator with more than 25 years of experience. “I’m the old guy here. You think I’d be the guy that was resistant to it. As I started to apply that, I flipped the table. I went to the new guy and said, ‘You want to run that new piece of equipment? You’ve got to learn the technology.’ Lo and behold, he grasped it pretty quick.”

Bennett says other operators wanted the opportunity to run the new equipment, too, causing the adoption of the payload weighing technology to spread like wildfire across the concrete, civil, and masonry contractor’s employee base.

Wuori saw a similar phenomenon take place among his asphalt paving crews. After some initial resistance and fear of “big brother” watching their every move, operators at Pavewise soon realized the ways intelligent compaction technology could help them improve.

“We found a champion crew, and they found success. Pretty soon, the next crew wanted success as well,” he says. “We were maxing out incentives on density on PWL (percent within limits) projects and just being super-efficient to the point where we could even take a roller off the mat because we were so efficient with the other ones.”

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“They’re competitive,” he added. "Each crew wants to start competing and being ‘the crew,’ the A-team.”

“It starts with relationship building,” adds Spates, a pit performance specialist who uses equipment telematics to help make open pit quarry operations more efficient. “When we first start this program at a site, I’ll spend weeks at a time just sitting in the old trucks, sitting with the loader operator and getting to know them. Once they get to know me, we have a mutual relationship and a mutual agreement to try this thing out.”

Caterpillar wheel loader and haul truck using payload technologyEquipment WorldMeasuring ROI and Benefits of Technology

Now that technology is fully integrated into the contractor’s businesses, they say they can’t live without it. Panelists generally agreed the primary benefits boil down to efficiency, safety and workforce development.

Recruiting and Retention

Stutsman, who deals with complex excavation and utility projects in Aspen, Colorado, has equipped his entire fleet with grade control and quick couplers for attachment changes within seconds. He has also been testing the first excavator bucket in the U.S. equipped with ground-penetrating radar and recently helped develop the  first 6-way blade for a track loader. He says all this technology has operators banging down his door for a chance to run these unique machines. (Stutsman was named as Equipment World’s 2023 Contractor of the Year.)

“Now that we’ve implemented all this, our retention of employees has been tremendous,” says Stutsman. “We haven’t really had anybody that’s wanted to leave. In fact, we now are getting more applications than we ever have because people want to come and run this equipment.”

While safety was the initial reason that Associated Terminals implemented Cat Command remote operating stations, improved labor flexibility has been an unintended consequence for the cargo solutions company.

“Once we hit COVID and personnel shortages came along, the ability to be dynamic with labor, the ability to touch different sites without having to send personnel to those individual sites, which could be 150 miles apart, became very valuable and it just began to scale from there,” said Blank Jr.

Beyond geographical flexibility, Command technology has also helped the company tap new labor pools.

“Traditionally, it’s been a male operator workforce for us. You had to come in as an able-bodied person. What we’ve seen is we’ve been able to tap other labor markets, so now we have females that want to run equipment for us. We’ve also had employees in the past and people in the labor market with disabilities. We’re able to bring those folks in and give them a job that they couldn’t otherwise perform,” he adds.

Training Support

As new operators enter the business, panelists said technology can be used to improve their skills at a faster rate.

“We can take an individual who has very minimal experience operating and give them the data and training to be just as good as someone who has been operating for 10 to 15 years,” says Wuori. “I think that’s really helped the company take on a different workforce - the younger generation coming in with a lack of experience - and make them successful really quickly.”

Spates agrees. “I use the data that [Cat] VisionLink Productivity can spit out to us to identify training opportunities with our newer operators. It’s hard to find new labor coming in – trained labor – so this is a tool that helps us get those baselines where we need to be. Some sites better utilizing it have seen about 25% improvement in production.”

Increased Efficiency

More skilled and informed crews, paired with advanced technology, also equates to faster project completion.

“We have found that being able to integrate the technology into our business with grade control has made us so much more efficient on our jobsites. We’re able to do so many more projects in a given year,” says Stutsman.

Bennett adds, “We use [Cat] Payload on on-highway trucks and what it’s done for us is reduced our idle time. In a year-and-a-half’s time, we probably dropped idle time 30%. It allows our foremen to know how many trucks to stage in the line to be able to be efficient.”

Data-Based Decisions

Panelists also pointed out the numerous ways technology has helped them make better decisions faster.

“When you have preventative maintenance looking forward – next week we have these pieces that we need to get taken care of on these jobsites, so go ahead and order all these parts to have it there – logistics of just shop maintenance as a whole has been prevented,” says Gaines Blackwell on the benefits of using Cat VisionLink telematics.

In addition to reducing downtime, telematics has also provided more historical bid data for Partners Excavating’s estimators. If a cost code was expected to run for 500 hours on a job, but it actually ran for 300 hours, estimators can make adjustments to future bids. “The analytics that we get from VisionLink really helps with that continuous feedback loop. [It] allows us to tighten our estimates to know what was actually done on the jobsite, so that we can continue winning bids and continue to grow.”

“I’m managing about 12 paving projects right now, and I can go in and see how the operations are performing,” adds Wuori. “If we didn’t have that technology, I would have to physically be there or trust the individuals out there. Now, I have foremen and operations managers asking me to look at data and give our perspective.”

Identifying and Preventing Safey Hazards

And at the end of the day, technology is also helping Savage’s hundreds of transportation, logistics and material handling drivers and equipment operators get home safely.

“We utilize Cat Detect, specifically the DSS system, in our on-highway vehicles. We’re looking for driver fatigue – that’s a big concern, making sure our drivers are attentive to what’s around them and to avoid the distractions of daily life,” says Flynn.

As operators have gotten used to the technology, Flynn says they’ve gained full acceptance of the new safety measures. “We now have drivers and operators that will not operate the piece of equipment unless the cameras are working, so it has that cultural shift and appreciation for what it does, what it helps and avoiding all the distractions.”

Moving the Needle

Blank Jr. may have summed the conversation up best, saying, “It’s really about being competitive. The use of technology is something that’s always been important, but what we’ve really learned over the years is…you’re miles ahead of your competitors.”

“Looking back six years, the way that we operate today is completely different. The way we think about labor, the way we think about distance, the way that we think about just analyzing the things that are going on, the jobs that are created at the company and the evolution of the jobs, to the benefits that have been given down all the way up from the top to even the lowest person on the totem pole in our companies, it’s really changed the culture.”