I had the opportunity to attend two big industry events in Las Vegas early this year, World of Concrete in January and the Utility Construction Expo in February. And though the events were different in terms of their audiences and equipment, they were very similar in their emphasis on technology.
During a World of Concrete press conference, Topcon Positioning Systems President and CEO Ray O'Connor emphasized the importance of precise positioning technology and the software used to tie the information it provides to projects and equipment.
"Make no mistake," O'Connor said, "precise positioning technology will be at the forefront of construction developments in the coming years." But, he said, the revolution of the industry will be the total solution and integrating various technologies into creating that solution. "The key to the total solution package is software. If you think about it, GPS is just a sensor, like optical, imaging, inertial, etc. It is one part of the solution. Software is the driver, the difference-maker, the technology change-merchant."
O'Connor said that more people in the industry are realizing construction is really a manufacturing business. "Roads, buildings, bridges, highways, and pipelines ... all are 'manufactured.' Not only that, but every job is a custom manufacturing business, one that shapes the planet just like a sculptor shapes clay."
Making the most of technology in construction is a matter of taking engineering concepts and designs of whatever we are trying to construct/manufacture and sending it directly to the machines which house a robust computer that integrates with a hydraulic system, he said. From there, sensors on the moving parts of any machine tell the operator exactly where the blade or bucket is and what needs to be done to compensate for a precise cut or move an exact amount of dirt.
"The industry as a whole is readily embracing this burgeoning technology, and understands the importance of software breakthroughs and integration," O'Connor said. "Within five years, there's no doubt that any successful contractor in the world will use this technology and equipment. In order to compete, they'll have no choice. Every day manufacturers are fitting an ever-increasing number of machine control units to machines in the factory," O'Connor said. "We supply equipment to Komatsu, John Deere, Caterpillar, Gomaco, and many others. Almost 50 manufacturers and OEMs install our equipment at the factory. The primary driver for the technology now is for machines that place concrete and asphalt. The cumbersome method of laying that material is now moving to 3-D operations with precision Millimeter GPS technology."
Automation, which has pervaded practically every other business in the world, has been lagging behind the technology curve in the construction industry, he said, but the industry is changing quickly. "You're going to see more and more machines, especially bulldozers, motor graders and excavators, being automated quickly. It wasn't long ago that few people envisioned these massive machines ever being used for precise earthmoving work. Now, across the globe, machines outfitted with automated positioning technology are moving dirt with an accuracy of less than a centimeter."
Integrated controls create the opportunity to speed up machinery, allowing an operator to control it faster and better than anybody else can, O'Connor said. "The technology and integrated hydraulics transform a massive machine, making it nimble and quick, which increases productivity exponentially. It is a fact that under the right circumstances, with the right equipment, you can immediately boost productivity by 100 percent or more on a job site, as compared to the traditional method of staking out a job."
O'Connor noted that positioning technology like Topcon offers can track up to 20 satellites (GPS and GLONASS) at a time. And dual-constellation capabilities can create opportunities for earthmoving operators to hit vertical grading accuracies of less than a centimeter.
The final ingredient needed to carry the construction industry into fully embracing automation on the job site, he said, is the ability to accept change and make a conscious decision to adopt emerging technology.
"Initially, many construction companies were skeptical about the phenomenal results reported from job sites using integrated machine control technology. Now, many of those original skeptics are some of the most vocal supporters of the technology and the results realized," he said.
"It all boils down to three central questions: Can I save time on the job? Can I increase productivity on every job? Will it drop more money to my bottom line? The answer all three of those questions is a resounding 'Yes!'"