"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 (ARO)."
That experience suggests grade control for dozers – systems that automate blade positioning guided by GPS or laser – 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 a dozer's grade control are about 1 to 6 percent 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 versus five or six without grade control systems – they can easily be 30, 40, 50 percent 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 job site."
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 easier and less expensively.
"All of our Cat track-type tractor models (from model D3 to D10) come standard with electro-hydraulic 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 Cat's 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 two-dimensional and three-dimensional grade control systems with no welding or opening of hydraulic circuits," says Schmidtgall. "It targets the final components of a working AccuGrade system to be fully installed on a machine in four hours or less."
Cat validates AccuGrade ARO for use with its own AccuGrade systems. But systems from Cat's partner in grade-control and telematic solutions, Trimble, also work on the ARO without modification.
"The ARO doesn't have any roadblocks to prevent use of Topcon and Leica systems, but the mounts and harness connections may not be the same for their sensors, displays or radios," says Schmidtgall.
"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," says 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," says Schwieters. "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."
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 builds sensors and other grade-control network hardware that typically gets added to a machine directly into the machine's essential hydraulic and electronic infrastructure.
The complete Komatsu intelligent Machine Control 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 machine'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.
Intelligent Machine Control is brand new, displayed on a D61EX/PX-23 dozer at bauma 2013. Komatsu also has conventional grade-control-ready packages to support installation of both Topcon and Trimble equipment on its dozers.
The D51-22, D61-23, and D65-17 dozer models 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. And there are grade-control-ready options for remaining Komatsu dozers up to 354 horsepower.
"Grade-control-ready kits are developed and tested to make grade control systems 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."
John Deere offers grade-control-ready options for Topcon, Trimble, and Leica from the factory for its dozers up to 210 hp, as well as the unique 764 High Speed Dozer. And Moline formed a strategic alliance with Topcon to sell and support Topcon's high-speed 3D-MC2 grade control solutions on select Deere dozers.
"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 factory-ready options.
"The factory has included the hard-to-install components and any weldments, so the dealer just has to install the electronic components," says Cat's 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.
"Typically, the ARO install saves at least five labor hours."