Precision construction technologies continue to expand in today’s market, but many contractors still associate these solutions with large-scale site prep and road building projects. The truth is that machine control technology is a highly scalable solution, and these systems have become more accessible than ever before to contractors of all sizes.
This technology provides greater predictability and control over job costs, improves productivity and reduces the amount of necessary rework. Over time, intelligent equipment utilization through machine control reduces wear and tear on machine components and ground-engaging tools, lowers maintenance costs and fuel consumption, and extends the life of equipment.
Machine control technology can be divided into two basic categories: guidance/indicate-only systems, and automatic systems.
A guidance/indicate-only system is designed to “indicate” operating parameters to an operator—usually a laser-based system that will beep and/or flash when a predetermined digging or grading parameter has been met or exceeded. Automatic systems are a bit more automatic in nature and require less input or manual control from the operator, and are designed to control the blade or bucket function, physically preventing the operator from exceeding the parameters set for the jobsite.
1D, 2D and 3D Systems; What’s Right for You?
There are several key considerations for determining the right machine control solution. Contractors need to consider site conditions, the required accuracy of the finish work, as well as any potential application issues (complex slopes, etc.). They also need to take budget priorities into consideration, in addition to their existing fleet size. Contractors should also consider their future growth plans when determining the level of investment available for precision construction solutions.
In the simplest terms, 1D systems regulate single plane grade and slope. 2D systems regulate grade and slope with many variations needed on the work site. The most advanced and capable of the available systems are the 3D systems that regulate grade and slope dependent on the positioning of the machine across the entire site, based on GNSS machine position, laser guided sensors or total stations, and changing map/worksite topography.
1D systems are an ideal entry point for contractors interested in seeing the immediate benefits of machine control with the lowest cost of entry. Designed to guide basic excavation and grading through indicate-only functions, and simple slope and grade automatic control with manual parameters set by the operator based on their jobsite needs, 1D systems are ideal for digging foundations, some utility work and rough grading.
An example of a 1D system is the CASE SiteControl CoPilot, a simple solution comprised of an inertial measurement unit (IMU), wiring harness and in-cab display. The affordable and easy-to-use system allows operators to set a desired slope/grade reference, and the system automatically holds that slope/grade without the need for lasers, masts or GPS. This allows both seasoned and less-experienced operators to easily achieve and maintain a smooth surface, slope or grade throughout a work area, and can help eliminate the need for additional passes and re-work while reducing fuel costs, labor costs and machine maintenance intervals.
2D systems allow a machine and its attachments to work in two different dimensions—plane and slope. These systems can be both indicate-only or automatic, and are ideal for residential and general construction, drainage work or other more complex commercial excavation projects. 2D grading systems are designed to regulate elevation and cross-slope with the aid of lasers and reference points set for the worksite, and are ideal for mid- to large-sized residential and commercial developments.
3D systems are the most advanced of the three—these systems are comprised of a series of sensors, GNSS masts and receivers with the addition of a base station for good accuracy, or a total station for ultimate accuracy on site that serves as a cross-reference point to locations on the ground. These systems are designed to place the machine precisely within a 3-dimensional site plan and provide the highest degree of accuracy, and are ideal for medium to large infrastructure and development projects, industrial sites and large highway projects. Accuracy of the grade can easily be scaled to the need of the jobsite within thresholds as large as a golf ball and as small as a pencil diameter.
It’s important to know that most 1D and 2D systems are easily scalable to 3D systems as a contractor’s needs grow over time. Many of the sensors, lasers and other basic components of these systems are integrated into 3D systems as well, so upgrading to a more advanced system is often easier and less costly when the time comes.
Equipment owners and fleet managers should consider their long-term needs and research the scalability of their machine guidance/control systems. Several equipment manufacturers have partnered with technology companies in order to offer some form of grade control option installed direct from the factory. Specifying grade control options direct from the factory not only saves time and money in the long run—by eliminating the future downtime for installation—it also means it’s easier and more affordable than ever for contractors to get started. CASE introduced the Universal Machine Control system for this reason. This allows dealers and customers the ability to bundle in the main harness and mounting points for cents on the dollar compared to ordering the entire system, so the machine will be ready for installation without major retrofitting when the owner is ready to begin their machine control journey.
Machine control technologies are becoming easier to operate and integrate across fleets of all sizes, and with that comes the possibilities for greater productivity and increased ROI. The costs of more advanced 2D and 3D systems should no longer be seen as a barrier to entry. While some still think of it as a technology that’s only suitable for large-scale projects, the truth is that machine control is a transformative technology for machines of all sizes that can help contractors, fleet managers and equipment owners get onto their next jobsite with greater efficiency and profitability than ever before.