Grade control systems are migrating to smaller machines as end users discover the economic advantages. Tight spaces, landscaping and smaller jobs often favor the use of smaller equipment and attachments vs. larger dedicated units. Consequently, suppliers of grade control technology are offering a range of solutions that vary in sophistication, capability and price.
For instance, Trimble offers a portfolio of solutions suited for box blades and other finishing/landscaping attachments. "The solutions offered range from simple indicator light systems, plumb and tilt indication, to fully automatic blade control," says Tim Baker, segment manager - site preparation.
Likewise, Leica Geosystems claims it has an installed literally hundreds of systems on box blades. These are mainly laser-based systems. "Laser-based systems are extremely simple and easy to use," says Rich Calvird, program manager for machine control. "All the operator has to do is put the system in 'automatic' mode. Laser beacon references are easy to set up and are common on today's construction and landscaping sites, so users are ready to go in minutes."
These 2D systems are well proven. "With full automatic systems available for less than $10,000, the savings in fuel, machine time and material handling usually pay for the system within a few months, and keep on generating savings for increased profit for years afterward," says Calvird.
The advent of 3D solutions promises even more capability, but at a higher price. "The 3D systems offer greater flexibility to handle complex land contours, larger sites and multiple machines working in the same general area," says Calvird. "If the job does not have the complexity or size demands needing full 3D capability, a laser system will be more cost effective."
But 3D grade control technology is starting to become more prevalent in attachment applications. "We have so many smaller contractors who are investing in the technology because it is not only user friendly, it makes sense for them to know where they are all of the time," says Bob Highfill, 3D machine control, Topcon. For example, consider its application on a box blade. "You can send a good operator out on the job and not even have another guy with him. He knows exactly where everything is and where it needs to be."
Shane Thomas Construction, Forest Hills, CA, is a small operation that has discovered the benefits of running a dual antenna Topcon GPS system in indicate mode on its Case 570 MXT skip loader with a box blade. The skip loader has a lot of advantages over a dozer or motor grader. "It is a lot cheaper," says Shane Thomas. "A new skip loader is $60,000. And because you are on tires instead of undercarriage, the operating costs are low."
However, you need to work within its capabilities. "The skip loader is not for moving bulk dirt," says Thomas. You need to be within a foot of grade. Yet, its ability to work in tight areas with a box blade attachment is a real benefit.
"I am kind of a specialist with this tractor. I will do the ridges, the valleys and all of the stuff that would take a blade time. I take away all of the technical stuff, and [the motor grader operator] just goes for square footage," says Thomas. "On a commercial parking lot, you will have a lot of flow lines. You will have a lot of valley gutters." This is where the Topcon system has proven useful. "It shows you the cutoff points for the different sections."
Thomas recalls a recent project that was over 2 million sq. ft. There was just a motor grader and a skip loader with box blade on the site. "We were averaging about 250,000 sq. ft. a [week]," he notes. "I could do 50,000 up to 75,000 sq. ft. a day. I roughed it in so fast."
The productivity with the Topcon system has been a real benefit, along with the modifications Thomas has made to the box blade. "I took the Gannon box off of it and it has a kind of screed on it like a paving machine," he explains. "When I go to do rock, it contains all of the material. I don't have windrows. I make one pass and I am done."