Weighing the Options for Grade Management Technology

grade management solutions significantly improve productivity
Whether it is a crawler dozer, excavator or motor grader, grade management solutions significantly improve productivity.

On a worksite, maximizing productivity during every phase of a job is key. This is especially critical during the site development process, as the land is graded in preparation for construction. It begins with quickly getting the lay of land and calculating the cost to complete the grading job. When it is time to go to work, completing jobs accurately and efficiently is essential.

Fortunately, grade management technology has evolved to do just that. Grade control and grade guidance solutions provide operators with the confidence they need to productively and accurately tackle jobs. Whether it is a crawler dozer, excavator or motor grader, grade management solutions significantly improve productivity during the grading process.

Over the years, as the systems have become increasingly more popular, more customers are choosing an integrated system – meaning the grade management technology is installed in the machine before it leaves the factory – opposed to the aftermarket solutions that are installed after the fact. From an aftermarket perspective, three companies provide solutions that can be applied after the purchase– TopCon, Trimble, and Leica. Now, across the board, manufacturers have seen the interest, and customer benefits, and are rolling out integrated solutions on more models.

There are different grade management options. Depending on the machine form, customers may select either 2D or 3D. 2D or 2-Dimensional systems, use a local reference point such as a benchmark near the machine or a laser transmitter to display elevation of the work tool from the reference plane. 3D or 3-Dimensional systems, leverage the Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) to display the location of the work tool with respect to a global reference.

Additionally, customers can choose between a masted or mastless system. For bladed machines like graders and dozers, the masts are mounted on the blade and position the GNSS receivers directly above the work tool cutting edge. One of the key benefits of the mastless system is the elimination of these masts and cables, reducing potential damage or theft.

With the increased availability of integrated offerings, more contractors are considering a grade management system, and need to understand the benefits of integrated solutions vs. aftermarket offerings. While each option has its merits, there are many inherent benefits to an integrated solution.

More and more, contractors are choosing integrated solutions over the aftermarket systems. Why is that? There are several benefits to the factory-installed technology. Because the manufacturer is offering the technology, these systems are supported by the equipment dealer, offering customers a one-stop shop for training, troubleshooting, and repairs. Dealers are certified and trained to support this technology, providing a trusted partner for the customer. Additionally, the technology is purchased when the machine is ordered, so the cost of technology can be wrapped into the financing package for the equipment, allowing the owner to pay off the cost over time. Another benefit of the integrated system is that the technology is covered under the machine warranty, adding a layer of protection for machine owners.

Integrated systems seamlessly fit into the machine and the cab. This results in several key benefits. First, the parts of the system are built within the machine, instead of being added on after the fact. By fully integrating the system into the machine’s cab and structures, key components, such as wire harnesses and sensors, are shielded from damage, while also providing effortless control with full integration of the joysticks. Also, the system is designed for that specific manufacturer’s machine, which allows for added benefits, such as additional automation features, that increase operator productivity and reduce fatigue.

While integrated systems are appealing because of the seamless placement of the technology, the technology has limited portability. Most integrated systems cannot be easily moved from machine to machine because they are so deeply integrated into the machine form.
Depending on the operation and the business’ needs, an aftermarket solution may be a good option. Aftermarket options can be used with most brands of machines and are available for older models of graders, crawlers and excavators.

A downside of aftermarket solutions is that the company only supports the technology, not the full machine, which requires input from an additional party and makes troubleshooting more tedious and potentially time consuming. Additionally, many of these systems do require masts and cables, which can be potentially damaged or more easily stolen, resulting in downtime or reduced productivity.

As contractors weigh in on the best solution for their business, there are a few things that can help simplify the decision-making process. First, the equipment dealer is an excellent resource that can help discuss and narrow down options. Before going to a dealership, a contractor should consider a few key questions to help determine the right solution for their business:

  1. How often does the jobsite have an engineered design plan requiring staking or the use of grade management equipment? To what exent would minimizing or eliminating staking reduce costs and improve efficiency on your jobsites?
  2. Could your current and future workforce benefit from automated grading?
  3. If your grading machines could complete grading jobs 25% faster, would it justify the investment into grade management equipment?
  4. Is having support for the equipment and technology all from the same dealer important?
  5. Is financing and warranty through the local dealer valuable?

When speaking with the dealer, contractors should have these answers ready to go. The dealer will be able to discuss the pros and cons of each option, and can coordinate a demo, allowing the contractor to test the technology before moving forward with purchasing a solution.

Grade management technology is the future. More and more, contractors are adopting this technology into their businesses, getting an edge over the competition and ensuring their operators are able to quickly and efficiently complete the job at hand. With pros and cons to each type of solution, it might be overwhelming. However, a trusted partner, such as the equipment dealer, can help navigate the purchasing process and select the best solution for the business.

Sean Mairet is Product Marketing Manager, Grade Control for John Deere, a NUCA Gold National Partner.

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