The Dozer Option You Can't Profit Without

Contrary to what you might assume, the economic downturn had little impact on the growing implementation of grade control technology. “There has been steady growth in the adoption of grade control systems on our track-type tractors and motor graders since the downturn in 2009,” says Scott Schmidtgall, technology business development manager at Caterpillar. “We definitely see customers ordering a higher percentage of machines with AccuGrade Attachment Ready Options.”

This suggests that grade control for dozers is not just paying for itself, but boosting profits in a hurry. In a recession, a $15,000 or $20,000 investment in grade control for a 100- to 125-hp tractor has to send money to a contractor’s bottom line right away. Prices to automate dozer operation are about 1% to 6% of the dozer’s cost, depending on the size and cost of the tractor.

Experience is proving fast payback. “A D5 or D6 sized dozer with GPS can get to grade in three passes vs. five or six without grade control systems. They can easily be 30%, 40%, 50% more productive,” says Tony Vanneman, product marketing manager for construction products at Topcon. “And the material savings can be really significant. If you can cut the range of allowable dimensions in your favor, that’s a lot of stone, asphalt or concrete you can save across a jobsite.”

“Customers are seeing the value of GPS grade control as a tool to help them save money, with reduced staking costs and fuel use, minimizing the amount of base materials needed and reduced undercarriage wear, to name a few benefits,” agrees Ron Schwieters, product marketing at Komatsu America. “Customers are also seeing they need these GPS systems to be able to compete with fellow contractors and win jobs.

“In most cases, the operator can run the machine at higher ground speeds compared to manual operation. You can also set grade offsets using the monitor, so the machine can cut the maximum amount during each pass,” he continues. “The operator can see the job plan on the screen and this valuable real-time operator feedback makes him instinctively more efficient. Getting the job done right the first time is a significant performance advantage.”

Plug-and-play Eases Installation

Equipment manufacturers echo this value proposition. And as customer demand for the systems has risen, the OEMs have invested in ways to automate dozer grade controls more easily and with less expense.

Take Caterpillar, for example. “All of our Cat track-type tractor models (from model D3 to D10) come standard with electrohydraulic systems with a connector for grade control systems to plug into,” says Schmidtgall. “This makes installation of the grade control system much easier and less complicated, as they don’t have to invade the machine’s hydraulic systems or cut into its wiring harness.”

Caterpillar also offers an Attachment Ready Option (ARO) on the D3 to D10 dozers to simplify installation of its AccuGrade automatic grade controls. “The ARO consists of both structural and electrical elements that enable dealers to bolt on and plug in AccuGrade components (display/control box, data radio, receivers, etc.) for both 2D and 3D grade control systems with no welding or opening of hydraulic circuits,” Schmidtgall explains. “It targets the final components of a working AccuGrade system to be fully installed on a machine in four hours or less.”

Caterpillar validates the ARO for use with its own AccuGrade systems. But systems from Trimble, Caterpillar’s partner in grade control and telematic solutions, also work on the ARO without modification. “The ARO doesn’t have any roadblocks to prevent use of Topcon and Leica systems,” says Schmidtgall, “but the mounts and harness connections may not be the same for their sensors, displays or radios.”

This spring, Komatsu teamed up with Topcon to announce what appears to be a new level of factory-installed grade control. The new intelligent Machine Control (iMC) builds sensors and other grade control network hardware — which typically get added to a machine — directly into the machine’s essential hydraulic and electronic infrastructure.

The complete iMC system includes an improved GNSS receiver and control box and a GNSS antenna. The antenna that you would normally find on top of a mast attached to the dozer blade is located on top of the cab for improved protection and accurate as-built data collection, regardless of the position of the blade.

Sensors integral to the dozer’s hydraulic cylinders communicate blade position to the controller, and the system changes blade position through the machine’s electronically controlled hydraulic system.

With Sitelink3D, Topcon’s communications management system, dozing progress can be sent to the site manager, and updated design data can be exchanged with the controller on the dozer wirelessly.

While the iMC is brand new — displayed for the first time on a D61EX/PX-23 dozer at bauma 2013 — Komatsu also has conventional grade control-ready packages. The D51-22, D61-23 and D65-17 dozers come with what Komatsu calls an “enhanced provision for Topcon”; only a bolt-on field kit is required to prep the unit to accept a Topcon system. An optional Trimble package also exists for these models. Plus, there are grade control-ready options for the remaining Komatsu dozers up to 354 hp.

“Grade control-ready kits are developed and tested to make grade control system installation simple, quick and durable,” says Schwieters. “These packages significantly decrease hydraulic work, fabrication and disruption of the original condition of the machine compared to dealer installation.”

Advantages of Factory Ready

John Deere offers grade control-ready options from the factory for Topcon, Trimble and Leica on dozers up to 210 hp, as well as the unique 764 High Speed Dozer. The company also formed a strategic alliance with Topcon to sell and support Topcon’s high-speed 3D-MC2 grade control solutions on select Deere models.

“Purchasing a grade control-ready dozer from the factory will allow customers to experience faster delivery, receive a consistently high level of quality and benefit from expanded customer support to maximize productivity and uptime and reduce daily operating costs,” says Jon Gilbeck, crawler dozer global marketing manager at John Deere. “With growing demand for dozers with grade control, resale values of grade control-ready dozers are enhanced.

“Demand for dozers with grade control is growing due to productivity gains and a contractor’s ability to more accurately calculate input costs, which saves money and increases profit margins,” says Gilbeck. “John Deere customers continue to better understand the advantages of dozers with grade control, and we continue to see a higher adoption rate of this technology year-over-year on crawler dozers.”

You can fit grade control systems to dozers in the aftermarket. But there are advantages to using a factory-ready option.

“The factory has included the hard-to-install components and any weldments, so the dealer just has to install the electronic components,” says Schmidtgall. “There’s better accuracy, more consistent installs, the same warranty as the machine and Cat product support. You get components strategically placed in prime locations for maximum performance, cost and reliability.

“Consistent installs save installation and support time. Grade control is integrated into joystick buttons and in-dash displays,” he adds. “Typically, the ARO install saves at least five labor hours.”