Construction equipment machine control vendors are making their products more affordable and accessible, and based on anecdotal accounts from contractors, are finding rapid adoption in light commercial and residential settings.
New entrants in the market have sought to shave cost and complexity off of machine control by offering machine guidance solutions that provide an indication of where to dig based on a model but no blade or bucket control—akin to CAT Grade with 2D but as an aftermarket solution. Not to be outflanked, a new offering from Trimble delivers a similar minimalist approach, but also offers contractors a path to step up to a more fully featured Trimble automation solution.
“This is machine guidance, and we are not automating the operation of the machine but are offering visual indicators for the operator,” Trimble Civil Construction Product Manager Jack Young said on the launch of the product at CONEXPO-CON/AGG 2023. “But not only can the contractor continue to use this system after upgrading into our automation solution, but we are offering a stepping stone into the more advanced technology. It is extremely buildable and very good. So it is not a dead end.”
Tommi Kauppinen, vice president of technology at Leica Geosystems’ machine control division, suggested his group, which is part of Hexagon, had focused on enabling adoption not just by launching products aimed at a broader market but by helping contractors assault the learning curve.
“We've invested in how-to videos that focus on the functional aspects of our features and a new, state-of-the-art training facility at our headquarters in Denmark,” Kauppinen said. “This facility is dedicated to facilitating on-machine training, allowing our users to gain hands-on experience with our solutions. By providing immersive and practical training sessions, we aim to equip our customers with the skills necessary to optimize their utilization of our products in real-world scenarios. We have also simplified our software, making it even more user-friendly. We understand that ease of use is paramount for our customers, and our team of experts has worked to refine the interface and streamline the user experience.”
What Contractors Say About Grade Control
Efforts to make grade control affordable and accessible to diverse types of contractors seems to be working, according to accounts. Will Copp, principal of Knox Concrete Contractors, a commercial contractor with locations in Knoxville, Tenn., swears by the technology.
“I have found that using grade control on equipment is an absolute game changer in the construction industry,” Knox said. “The technology has revolutionized the way we approach projects by providing accurate and efficient grading solutions. By utilizing sensors and GPS systems, our machines are able to determine their exact location and adjust accordingly to match the desired slope or elevation of the project site. This not only saves time but also reduces material waste and ensures precise results."
Grade control also allows them to work in challenging terrain with ease while maintaining high levels of productivity.
"Overall, incorporating this technology into our workflow has greatly improved our efficiency and accuracy on all types of construction projects,” he said.
For Austin Iron Fences Co-Owner John Ward, grade control technology is an essential tool for achieving accurate and efficient results. The Austin, Texas-based contractor completes security projects, including technology-enabled gates and fences.
"With the help of advanced sensors and GPS systems, contractors can now monitor and adjust their machinery's position in real-time to ensure they are working at the exact level required by the project specifications," he said. "This not only improves accuracy but also increases productivity by reducing the need for manual adjustments or rework. The feature allows us to work smarter, not harder, saving time, money and minimizing errors. Whether we're grading land for a new construction site or laying down asphalt on a highway project, grade control technology has become an invaluable asset in improving our workflow efficiency and delivering high-quality results to our clients every time.”
In Seattle, meanwhile, SEA Concrete Contractors co-owner Daniel Sarrero relies on grade control to execute residential and commercial concrete jobs ranging from concrete slab foundations, driveways, patios, sidewalks and more around the Seattle area.
“As a contractor who utilizes grade control technology on my equipment, I am constantly impressed by the precision and accuracy it offers,” Sarrero said. “This innovative tool allows me to ensure that every aspect of a project is completed with the utmost attention to detail, from grading roads and excavation sites to laying foundations for buildings. The keyword plays a crucial role in this process as it enables me to set specific parameters for each job, ensuring that my machines operate within precise boundaries. With just a few clicks on my computer or mobile device, I can program my equipment to achieve millimeter-level accuracy—an impossible feat without this advanced technology. It saves time and increases efficiency on projects.”
Contractors working in a number of disciplines—even security contractors, are finding grade control an attractive investment, perhaps because operators are spending a smaller fraction of their time on the machine and become more efficient than a more experienced and dedicated operating engineer.
“I’ve found that using grade control technology is an essential tool for achieving accurate and efficient results,” Ward said. The Austin, Texas-based contractor complete security projects including technology-enabled gates and fences. “With the help of advanced sensors and GPS systems, contractors can now monitor and adjust their machinery's position in real-time to ensure they are working at the exact level required by the project specifications. This not only improves accuracy but also increases productivity by reducing the need for manual adjustments or rework. The feature allows us to work smarter, not harder, saving time, money and minimizing errors. Whether we're grading land for a new construction site or laying down asphalt on a highway project, grade control technology has become an invaluable asset in improving our workflow efficiency and delivering high-quality results to our clients every time.”
Grade Control Evolution
Even as the technology has become indispensable, vendors are not sitting still and continue to invest in adding value to the products. Grade control is, for instance, being augmented by horizontal steering control for the machine itself. It is also a popular option on widely-used equipment classes like compact skid steers and compact track loaders.