The Thinking Behind All the Smart Iron - Equipment Trend
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The Thinking Behind All the Smart Iron

By Mary Sedor

Article Date: 06-01-2008
Copyright(C) 2008 Associated Equipment Distributors. All Rights Reserved.


Bringing more than convenience and competitive efficiencies, manufacturers help address a serious industry need with brainy new machines.

Somewhere on Mars, as you read this article, NASA's twin exploration rovers - Spirit and Opportunity - are collecting soil samples, snapping photos and sending all their data back to scientists at NASA to analyze.NASA's twin robot geologists are part of NASA's Mars Exploration program, a long-term effort of robotic investigation of the red planet.Back in 1969 when men first landed on the moon, the general public was glued to the TV, amazed at how quickly they were able to build the technology to win the "space race" against the now former Soviet Union. Back then, sending a fully functioning unmanned mobile lab to Mars may have seemed like a distant dream, but 35 years later it happened.Given those sci-fi-like achievements, it's not such a stretch of the imagination to consider the idea of unmanned heavy equipment. As manufacturers add advanced technology to their equipment, they are making the jobs of operators everywhere easier - perhaps even someday, obsolete.Some compact equipment can already be run without an operator in the machine. Bobcat offers a radio remote control system that allows operators to control selected Bobcat loaders. Operators can start the engine and operate the drive, lift, tilt and auxiliary hydraulic functions - all from a 1,500 foot distance. The remote controls minimize jobsite environment discomforts and improve productivity, according to Bobcat.Improving operator efficiency - and simplifying machine operation - has become more than mere competitive edge among manufacturers; contractors are facing a shortage of skilled operators, a workforce condition that seems to be contributing to the advent of smarter, more sophisticated iron that enables even novices to run equipment effectively."Where the next generation of this technology to make the operator's job more efficient begins is with onboard computers," explains Rob Brittain, product manager for Link-Belt Excavators.Link-Belt's excavators help the operator take the guesswork out of changing attachments. In the past, when an operator wanted to put a hammer or grapple on the excavator, he would have to set the pumps and pressure release valves. With LBX's onboard computers, the operator just selects the tool and the computer handles the rest - it's pre-programmed for up to 20 different auxiliary tools to change the hydraulics to the proper settings."So if the operator changes from a bucket to a hammer, you have 20 different settings programmed so that the operator can select the hammer on the monitor - it makes it easy for him to change attachments instead of having to make pump changes and control valve pressures," said Brittain.Komatsu's Komtrax telemetrics system takes that system a step further. With Komtrax, the machine transmits location, error codes, cautions, maintenance items, fuel levels and much more via wireless technology to the business owner or local equipment dealer. With the Komtrax system the contractor can monitor the machine's utilization while back in the office."If an error comes up it will transmit directly to the local distributor or the mechanic's phone via e-mail," explains Peter Robson, Komatsu excavator product manager. "Business owners can have the feeling of comfort that they are getting alerted if someone of less skill is on the machine. And if the operator isn't as effective, they can do additional job training. The tools are there to improve what everyone is doing out there on the jobsite."The Driving FactorEquipment that does more thinking for the operator is helping to address a very real and present labor concern in the construction industry.The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) is expecting an 8 percent increase in equipment operators by 2016, which translates into a need for 42,000 additional jobs. With the number of operators retiring, the lackluster image of operators and the impact of wages, the construction equipment industry is facing an uphill battle to address the severe labor shortage in the coming years.In the Associated General Contractors of America's report released this year, "Craft Worker Compensation Research," the association asked research firm FMI to analyze craft worker compensation data for the nonresidential sectors of the construction industry to determine if inadequate compensation is one of the causes of the skilled labor shortage. The report found that compensation is indeed a major factor."Without enough effort to reduce the risk (safety, work/life, job security, etc.) and provide alternative rewards (career pathing, training, perks, etc.), the overall attractiveness of the construction industry is diminishing," according to the report.Liz Elvin, director of workforce development for the AGC, whose 33,000 members mainly focus on commercial construction, says wage is just one factor. Operators have become more difficult to find due to the rate at which the workers are retiring, coupled with the declining birth rate, says Elvin."Our industry is very concerned about this as a whole," she said. "This is an issue for contractors all across the country; certainly contractors in the South and Southwest have the worst needs and certain types of construction are suffering more, but this issue affects everyone."A disconnect between the industry and schools is another reason for the shortage, says Elvin."A lot of schools have gotten away from offering a career in technical education," she said. "They've eliminated those programs or cut them back because they are trying to encourage kids to go to college. As they cut the programs there is less opportunity for young people to learn not just about construction, but about other industries that require skilled trades."Ron Hutchinson, construction equipment manager of the Midwest South region for Barrett Paving Materials Inc., agrees that the aging workforce - and finding the workers to replace them - is a key issue. Barrett Paving Materials, with locations throughout Ohio, Kentucky, Michigan, New York, Maine and Pennsylvania is a material producer (hot mix asphalt), paving and general construction company. Hutchinson served as the 2007-2008 national president of the Association of Equipment Management Professionals (AEMP)."The skilled operators we currently have started in the business in the late 1970s and are still working," he said. "We see this in all phases of our business - superintendents, engineers, estimators and mechanics. During those years the construction boon was going on and we ramped up our forces. With the amount of operators we had during those years, the recruitment and training of new operators went on hold. Now these operators are getting to the retirement age and the operators who are replacing them have not had time for on-the-job training to become a highly skilled operator."With the lack of skilled operators, Barrett Paving Materials taps its current workforce to fill the openings, either by promoting younger operators or asking employees from other crafts to step into an operator opening.Manufacturers who add cutting edge technology to their equipment allow the operators to become more proficient faster, and they make the jobs of the construction equipment managers easier, too, says Hutchinson."The industry is providing machines that are more operator-friendly," he said. "The increased use of automated machine controls via the use of GPS and/or sonic sensors has taken over the missing skills of today's operators."Hutchinson says the increased technology will only strengthen the relationship between end users and equipment dealers."With the rapid changes in technology the end users are strapped to keep up, especially with generic fleets," he said. "This will make the relationship with the dealers more important to troubleshoot these machines. The newer machines on the market now have electronic control modules that are used to monitor the machine health and alert the operator if problems occur. This not only allows us to train the operator better, but it also tells the maintenance personnel what's wrong and speeds up the repair."Electro-Hydraulic JoysticksWhen manufacturers are redesigning equipment, they complete thousands of "voice of customer" visits and contacts. For instance, Caterpillar talked to more than 4,000 customers to determine their needs on the new M Series of motor graders."We heard about the shortage and challenge contractors have to find operators," said Patrick Kearns, North America commercial division, motor grader marketing for Caterpillar. "One of the key messages we heard from our customers going forward with our M Series was that they wanted inexperienced operators to be able to run the machine as well as those with experience."The M Series' electro-hydraulic control joysticks offer many improvements from previous controls. Cat's joystick controls reduce wrist movement by 78 percent when compared with conventional levers, says Kearns. The controls allow the operators to multifunction easier and to be more productive and more comfortable throughout the workday. Before implementing the electro-hydraulic controls, there were eight levers in the cab - four on each side of the steering wheel. Now all of those functions are in two joysticks. Also, Caterpillar's M Series is the only one in the industry with a ‘return to center' button on one of the joysticks."If you look at a jobsite, really the operator of a motor grader is the most skilled operator," he said. "He's probably been on the machine for 20 or 30 years and can grade without our AccuGrade system. We had to think about how to make it easier with the operator shortage and how to change the learning curve to make the operators more efficient. Through the customer's voice and years of visiting with customers, we came up with the two electro-hydraulic joysticks."The AccuGrade system is another technological advancement for Cat. The system, which is also available on other earthmoving equipment, is a laser grade control system that allows operators to grade and fill with increased accuracy without the use of traditional stakes or grade checkers. Using advanced laser technology, machine-mounted components and an off-board laser transmitter, this state-of-the-art machine control system provides precise elevation information on an in-cab display to achieve accurate blade positioning. As a result, operators can improve their efficiency and can grade faster and in fewer passes than ever before.The AccuGrade System can significantly improve the productivity and accuracy of grading equipment - by as much as 50 percent over conventional methods. According to Cat's Web site, "with minimal training, even inexperienced operators are able to get up to speed in no time at all."Advanced Machine MonitoringKomatsu's advanced level monitoring panel in the Dash 8 (-8) excavators are very easy to use, even for an inexperienced operator, says Robson at Komatsu.Another key feature of the Dash 8 excavators is the ability with the monitor panel to work in five different working modes. The economy mode helps save up to 10 percent on fuel consumption, he said. What's unique about Komatsu's method of economy mode is that the engine speed is not reduced."With the shortage of skilled operators, business owners want to make sure operators are being the most efficient they can be on these pieces of equipment," said Robson. "It's very easy for less experienced operators to function in E-mode because the machine adjusts the engine mapping to work on hand, so the operator doesn't have to control that. The machine controls itself and remains at a fast speed. In our E-mode, a less skilled operator can run very efficiently and get maximum fuel economy. We feel very proud about our positioning with economy mode in today's environment and how simple it is for someone to use."Total Machine ControlJohn Deere has automated certain tasks and places multiple features right at the operator's fingertips through its Total Machine Control (TMC). The TMC is found as an option on the Deere 310SJ and 410J backhoe loaders, says Bob Tyler, John Deere product marketing manager.With the TMC, when the operator chooses the tool carrier option, and with the "Return-to-Carry" feature enabled, the loader will automatically lower the loader arms and rotate the loader bucket to the dig position simply by moving the loader joystick to the forward detent - the loader does the rest."Our customers let us know that the easier it is to use a machine, the faster they can get new operators up to speed," said Tyler. "Total Machine Control makes learning backhoe operation easier. At the same time, it makes the actual backhoe operation faster as well. More productive operators, whether they're new to the job or have been on it for years, helps to lessen the operator shortage with every hour they save on the job."Pro ControlCase is also moving in the direction of making everything within the operator station more intuitive, which in turn makes the equipment easier to operate.Case's Pro Control on backhoe loaders provides automatic dampening of the swing on the backhoe, explains Bill Seidel, vice president of product and brand marketing, Case Construction Equipment. When the operator swings the boom back to the trench, there's no jarring rebound or wavering. Instead, the boom makes a clean, smooth stop. This makes veteran operators more proficient and gives novice operators what feels like the benefit of years of experience, he said.The company's patented "return to travel" in wheel loaders allows the bucket to automatically drop to a preset position once the operator is finishing dumping material, so the operator can move into reverse and start the next cycle without worrying about repositioning the bucket."We pride ourselves on making our machines easy for all operators to use, whether they are new to the industry or have years of experience," said Seidel. "We focus on reliability, serviceability, fuel efficiency and sound and vibration control. Case is committed to reducing owning and operating costs, increasing uptime and providing exceptional fuel efficiency."Attracting a New GenerationWhat all of these technologies could mean for the construction equipment industry, is the ability to attract a whole new set of operators, perhaps even more women, speculates Elvin."I believe the industry appreciates the changes in technology, and I think it's a good thing in terms of attracting a nontraditional labor pool," said Elvin. "And anything that allows us to do that is appreciated."Case in Point
Operator Training Goes High TechSimulators from Caterpillar and Deere make operator training more cost effective and safer.As technology is used to increase operator productivity in heavy equipment, technology is also being used to enhance operator training.Both Caterpillar and Deere have operator simulators designed to help train the operator on the basics - from the comfort of a desk."Contractors appreciate the rise in simulators and online training," said Liz Elvin, director of workforce development for the Associated General Contractors of America (AGC). "It's very realistic, and I know the industry is very happy to rely on the simulators, not as a replacement for actual hands-on training, but certainly to supplement it and reduce some costs associated with training."Caterpillar's Virtual Training Systems provide hands-on learning without the risks and costs of traditional operator training. Software modules interface with realistic equipment controls to simulate real worksite applications and conditions. Self-study or instructor-led curriculums offer orientation, instruction, testing and feedback in a safe environment and during a convenient time frame."It's the effective, economical way for our customers to meet their qualifying requirements for beginning operators," said Larry Estep, project manager, Caterpillar Virtual Training Systems.Operator trainees progress from entry-level control orientation through complex operator and application tasks. Difficulty increases as successive modules build on skills from previous lessons. Instant feedback measures improvement.Deere introduced its excavator simulator to customers at CONEXPO/CON-AGG in March. Using either a laptop and gaming joysticks or excavator sticks and foot pedals, it incorporates eight real-world tasks, including laying pipe, managing load limits, digging a level trench and loading for transport, says Jonathon Goodney, instructional designer for Deere. Scores are calculated on a jobsite budget so students see how productivity equals money."One of our best features is the on-the-fly feedback provided regarding safety," said Goodney. "There is no tolerance for unsafe acts in our virtual jobsite. In assessment mode the lesson is ended immediately and no score is given if a safety violation occurs.""Simulation is a fantastic tool for teaching basic skills," said Estep. "The simulation teaches control familiarization and basic concepts, and they accelerate the learning curve for when the operator gets to a real machine. The operator will be comfortable and will already have experienced those basic skills on simulators."Using simulators offers many benefits, says Estep, including:
  • Removing the risk of jeopardizing the safety of others on a real machine
  • Preventing possible damage to a machine
  • Eliminating fuel usage for portions of training
  • Saving money by not taking the machine out of production
Clearly the potential cost savings of simulators play a big factor."Machine owning and operating costs, including rising fuel costs, and downtime of equipment all contribute to an expensive way of training," said Goodney. "And with rising concerns with emissions and soil stabilization issues, the simulator provides a clean way of learning."Both Goodney and Estep stress the simulators are a great addition to training, but don't replace hands-on learning."The simulators are just another tool," said Estep. "You can't just rely on the simulation to provide training. Proper training requires classroom time on theory, safety techniques and machine maintenance. What's important to remember is that we will never replace training on a machine, but having a tool like a simulator will make that training more valuable, and make the operator more prepared when he is on the machine."

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