Digital technology is changing expectations for construction productivity, but using it comes with a learning curve in a field alien to many contractors. In this dawning age of smart iron, construction equipment manufacturers, keen to do business with the most successful customers, have begun building unusual services to support contractors who want technology to help them wring more profit from work.
If figuring out how to use grade-control technology or payload measuring or telematics data to improve your work processes seems overwhelming, Caterpillar’s Lonnie Fritz suggests thinking like a consumer.
“Start small. Don’t go to the Moon the first time – don’t go from no grade control at all straight to automated earthmoving with a universal total station . . . unless that’s really what you need,” says the construction industries market professional. You can get up to speed fast with complex technologies when there’s money on the line. But there’s also a simple process for graduating from one level of new machine technology to the next with the help of vendors who have a stake in your success.
“Know your tolerances – what is your need for accuracy?” Fritz says. “Do your homework – what technologies are available to do what you want? Then leverage the expertise of the dealership. Ask them what’s available. Now get a demo in the iron. See it work in real life.
“At that point, maybe you look at renting a machine – maybe the one the dealer used in the demonstration. Put it on your jobsite. See how your management staff likes it, your company owners, your operators. See if it’s a good fit for the scope of work that you’re doing.
“Then consider purchasing,” Fritz says. “Any time you’re completely comfortable with it, you can always cut out any of those steps.”
Turning hardware into more-productive construction requires being able to glean actionable insights from the flood of data that connected machines produce. Caterpillar is refining what it calls Productivity Services to help construction professionals learn to manage data.
“We’ve identified three distinct levels of customer engagement,” says Tim Noon, site services consultant with Cat Productivity Services. “There’s the ‘Do It Myself’ customer: they’re seeing the data coming off the connected machines in various forms at various times.
“The new space for us that we’re really promoting is the ‘Do It With Me’ customer. Because in order to get the full benefit out of the technology they need some help along that journey. That’s where we have more of a deeper relationship. It’s not about selling them more widgets; it’s about making sure they understand the ones they have.
“Then there are customers that want to divest themselves of a lot of risk, so they want us to do it all. That’s where we get to a really deep, knitted partnership between the local dealer and that customer. Where they might be doing all the maintenance and maybe managing production for that customer – making deeper recommendations.”
Noon says the Do It With Me relationship describes the largest opportunity by far, but the specifics of how Caterpillar interacts with their technology are flexible.
“The data coming in is so new – in a lot of cases our customers have never seen this level of detail about their machines or their jobs before,” he explains. “We do have some customers who have even hired data scientists and asked us to engage with them.”
Analyzing the data smart iron produces and identifying opportunities to improve operations is a specialty at Cat Productivity Services. The personnel understand the technology and its reporting capabilities, but more importantly, they know equipment operating data and recognize when operating tweaks can improve productivity, efficiency, machine life and more.
You enlist help managing technology and data by negotiating the service with your Cat dealer. Doing it at the time of a machine purchase may produce the best deal, but the service is available any time it’s needed. And the relationship is designed to adapt to the need.
“As a customer’s business cycles, or our primary contact person moves on, we want a sustainable process that helps our customer be successful,” Noon says. “Maybe the customer builds their own expertise and the way we’ve been doing business no longer suits their needs. They want to handle more of the analysis themselves. Or maybe the next technology bubble happens and they’re going to need a deeper level of expertise from us and our dealers.
“That’s why we built the framework the way we did, so that customers are free to float to whatever level of engagement makes sense to them at the time,” Noon says.
Smart iron easily measures project-site work that until now had always been considered too difficult to measure. The data can create insights that can make construction work more profitable, and the smartest vendors you do business with are investing to help move their customers up the learning curve fastest. Don’t overlook the chance to get their help.