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Over the years, positioning technology innovators and construction equipment manufacturers have integrated grade control technology on excavators, dozers, motor graders, skid-steers, milling machines, pavers and other earthmoving equipment—and are well on the way to testing and implementing autonomous solutions to further improve productivity, accuracy and safety on a jobsite. 

Yet, while adoption of machine control solutions is steady, many construction professionals are still hesitant to invest, unsure of the benefit-to-cost value. Industry leaders are working to provide those metrics through productivity studies and real-world performance measurements.

Performance Metrics 

A recent weeklong productivity study put some metrics to the conversation. The study compared the performance of 16 excavator operators of varying skill levels using three methods: 

  • conventional excavation techniques;
  • guidance-only; and
  • full excavator automatics machine control. 

The results of the study demonstrate that the path toward autonomous machine control is set. 

The study was simple: each operator was asked to dig a 1m wide by 15m long by 0.5m deep trench to an accuracy of plus/minus 3cm using Komatsu PC228-10 and Hyundai HX220-L excavators using the three methods. They then familiarized themselves with the location and function of the excavator controls and autos trigger, software interface and receiver. After a five-minute warm-up, with instructions from the moderator, operators got to work. 

Once the trials were complete, a facilitator took measurements along the length of the trench and found that all operators met the required performance specifications. As predicted, novice operators saw the best performance with automatics, while intermediate and expert operators saw consistent performance across all methods. 

That said, a performance time difference became clearly visible at all experience levels. The average of all operators – novice to expert – showed an almost 43% improvement with guidance-only grade control across the board and almost 52% improvement with automatics over conventional methods.

Novice operators averaged almost 50% faster with guidance-only versus conventional methods and more than 62% faster with automatics versus conventional methods, indicating that while lacking the experience of an expert operator, guidance and automatics improved their ability to get jobs done faster with accuracy. 

Intermediate operators were around 27% faster with guidance-only versus conventional methods and over 38% faster with automatics versus conventional methods. 

Expert operators were the fastest and most accurate, on average completing the project in 9 minutes and 56 seconds with conventional methods. Nothing replaces time in the seat.

The study numbers indicated that guidance—and particularly automatics capabilities—make a very good operator better and enable less skilled operators to perform close to intermediate and expert operators with comparable accuracy. As one of the expert operators noted, “Automatics could make a huge difference in production and accuracy, reducing costs and eliminating grade checking while putting less wear on the equipment.”

The study also indicates that machine control and autonomous solutions can help owners and operators build a qualified, quality workforce—an ability that could give any company a leg up in today’s workforce-challenged environment. 

Performance Proof

Machine control—specifically grade control technology—and emerging autonomous operations are fast becoming integral to the construction industry, particularly in site work. In today’s market, a contractor of any size can gain almost immediate value in productivity and addressing the labor challenges, while setting themselves up to take advantage of future autonomous capabilities. 

For instance, a mid-size family-owned environmental and heavy civil contractor that specializes in public work projects, road and site developments for public entities, and large earthwork projects for utility and solid waste companies, estimates that surveyor and field crews saved three days of time each on a recent job—at least 40 hours—by using excavator automatics to dig to a prescribed design elevation. The surveying manager noted that machine control eliminated the need for a grade checker in many cases because the company was able to reallocate resources more effectively and increase productivity anywhere from 50% to 100% on certain job tasks.

As the level of functionality automated on excavators and other site work equipment increases, more opportunities arise—though the benefits require some planning, investment and workflow transformation. 

For contractors of all sizes, adopting grade control technology is the first essential building block to making the most of machine control automatics and, down the road, truly autonomous operations. 

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