Systems Integration at Factory Saves Contractors Time, Hassles

Although there have been many successful applications of global positioning systems (GPS) technology to the machine control and guidance (MC&G) systems used in graders and other precision earth-moving machines, part of the technology's story has always been that the GPS systems are typically added after they leave the equipment manufacturer's facility. Caterpillar Inc. is changing all that by rolling out new lines of earthmoving equipment with factory-installed GPS and other advanced MC&G technologies.

As GPS-enabled machines continue to gain acceptance and expand in terms of the number of successful applications, demand for all machines, aftermarket and factory-installed, is growing. In Minnesota, for example, at the Department of Transportation, 80% of grading jobs for the state's 2006 projects are bid with some type of MC&G, according to Lou Barrett, the Transportation Program Supervisor. She says the state even encourages use of GPS-enabled equipment by providing base stations and digital 3-D models of the state's grading projects.

Caterpillar is by no means new to GPS. The company has nearly 100 GPS patents in the MC&G space, which have been filed over the past 10 years.

What makes Caterpillar's new generation of machines different is what happened to them long before they left the factory, when a small army of the company's engineers poured over ever detail of hydraulic, electronic, and other machine systems that enable the MC&G, then integrated those systems in ways that are optimal for the different types of machinery into which the are manufactured. "It's not a one-size-fits-all approach," says David Pinaire, Productivity Solutions Manager at Caterpillar.

Part of this story about performing the design and systems integration work in house is just now emerging further downstream as contractors and dealers are beginning to see differences among the two types of machines. As the new GPS-enabled machines designed by Caterpillar engineers now begin making their way off the assembly lines and out into the field with what's called the AccuGrade Ready Option (ARO), they are working side by side with after-market MC&G machines. Dealers and operators that maintain the machines are beginning to notice differences in equipment reliability.

Feedback from the field Chris Goss at Hoffman Construction (Black River Falls, WI) has purchased Caterpillar ARO graders and other Caterpillar machines with factory-installed GPS systems. He has also purchased machines with aftermarket, GPS-enabled MC&G systems. He believes that, for contractors, the systems work with similar accuracy and productivity. "They are very comparable systems," says Goss.

But what's not comparable is how dealers feel about servicing the two types of machinery.

As the MC&G specialist for Ring Power, a Caterpillar dealer throughout Florida, Greg Hasty talks with many contractors about their equipment. "For contractors, there's a big difference between servicing a grader that has a factory-installed MC&G system versus one that's been retro-engineered by a third party."

Hasty recalls a recent example of a third-party MC&G installation. "The person told the customer the problem with his machine was the alternator and then sent him to us," explains Hasty. "But when we sent our service team out to the site, the alternator checked out fine. Now, the contractor has to waste more time going back to the third-party." He adds that with a factory-installed MC&G system, at least the customer knows who to call with a problem.

Another difference Hasty sees with a factory-installed MC&G system is the integration of electronics with hydraulics. He points out that Caterpillar's ARO has several quick-disconnects built into the machine, so it's easier for him to mix different tools a contractor may want to include, such as GPS-, laser-, and ultrasonic-based technologies that help guide the graders in different circumstances.

Travis Adair is a GPS specialist from Altorfer Cat (Cedar Rapids, IA). He works on graders, tractors, backhoes, and other equipment. As the GPS specialist at the dealership, Adair sees a big difference between machines that have factory-installed GPS systems and ones that were installed as an aftermarket product.

"We used to have to weld plates onto the dozer blades, and then do the wiring. The whole process would usually add up to about three days of downtime for a contractor," explains Adair. "The factory-installed units are plug-and-play, so now it's just a couple of hours to get it all ready."

Caterpillar's plug-and-play components include the GPS mast, the receiver, and the display box. "Putting the receiver on the mast requires no tools," notes Adair. "And if something isn't working right, we just unplug it and plug in a new one."

Adair appreciates Caterpillar's factory-installed GPS unit on several levels. "In addition to cutting installation time for us, we have to stock fewer parts, only essential stuff now," says Adair. "It's also easier for the mechanics servicing the equipment," he explains. "They plug into the Cat ET system to diagnose electrical and electronic issues."

Mike Hasslbauer from Empire Machinery (Meza, AZ) has several reasons he prefers machines with factory installed and integrated MC&G systems. "They come ready to go, so you don't have to haul them into the shop," he says. And like Adair, he also likes the ability to troubleshoot the machines with Cat ET. "It's convenient to plug into the machine and see the all firmware for sensors and other components," he notes.

Mike Lavato from ML2 Earthwork in Phoenix, AZ says that as a contractor he also prefers factory-installed systems. "The factory-installed GPS systems have sealed electro-hydraulic valves. When retro-engineering a MC&G system recently, we had to break those valve seals from the factory, which resulted in on-going hydraulic fluid leaks."

What makes factory-installed different? To make AccuGrade ARO Machines convenient to set up, operate, and service, engineers at Caterpillar carefully designed many components and sub-systems into the machines using 6 Sigma quality programs, before the machines every started down the manufacturing stream. The integration of electrical, electronic, hydraulic, communication, and GPS systems by many different engineering specialists at Caterpillar is critical to creating the automatic blade control systems, but it also is important when it's time to service the machines.

System integration that goes into Caterpillar's ARO machines includes the on-board electronics and hydraulics systems, all of which have been optimized for specific machines by Caterpillar engineers that collaborate with other Caterpillar engineers. Following quality program guidelines, the control systems are integrated into the machine hydraulics for maximum consistency, performance, and reliability. Caterpillar engineers test and validate each different product line on proving grounds and in physical test areas under extreme conditions that might include large changes in temperature, vibration, shock, and voltage. Operation and service manuals are then written based upon maximizing equipment reliability and safety given the results of the tests and collaboration with other engineers.

On the electronics side, MC&G controls are integrated into the machine controls and levers for reliable operation and precise control. Custom-engineered power modules provide clean, filtered DC power to system components. Wiring harnesses and cables are routed during assembly at the factory, when it's easier to install such devices for improved wear protection and better reliability.

Systems integration within Caterpillar's engineering departments also includes the Controller Area Network (CAN), which give the machines their plug-and-play capability. It allows components to be quickly and easily added to or removed from machines. The use of common connectors and standardized components also provide a flexible system design that can be upgraded later.

The integration of multiple systems into the machine cabs and control interfaces increases the operators' ease of use and ergonomic comfort. Systems integration also has ramifications for safety. Caterpillar machines include a safety interlock (park brake, system health, idle time) functions to increase safety. The safety interlock feature is built in for added protection during automated operation.

For dealers and contractors, this new generation of advanced machines will have long-term and far-reaching ramifications for equipment service, especially as Caterpillar continues to roll out new lines of graders, backhoe loaders, bulldozers, and other product lines equipped with GPS, sonic, laser, and other MC&G technologies. Contractors will also have to consider the supply and demand of the trained technicians and personnel that are needed to support their MC&G machines.

For more information on AccuGrade ARO, visit