Construction is the least automated industry in the world, so the automation opportunities it affords are very attractive, feels Murray Lodge, Senior Vice President, Construction Precision Automation, Topcon Positioning Systems
What is the need for automated control and navigation systems in construction?
If you step back and look at the construction industry 15-20 years ago and compare it with how construction is happening at the job site today, the basic processes remain much the same. But the harsh reality is that while all costs have gone up, contractors are typically getting paid the same as they did 15-20 years ago, taking inflation into account.
So, it is important to think about moving the earth and managing equipment more efficiently in order to make reasonable profit. This is where machine control plays a big role. Another aspect is the skill set of the operators. Traditionally, being a skilled machine operator in the construction sector has been a prestigious job. But productivity demands and the increased need for operators have played a big role in the adoption of machine control and other intelligent construction technology. Also, consider that construction tolerances are much tighter today than they were 10-15 years ago. It is important to figure out how we take the average operator and turn him into a very good one. Machine control gives them the instant knowledge of where they are grade-wise versus where they need to be, and better control of their machines. These are a couple of key reasons why machine control is needed and why it has made an impact on the bottom line of many contractors.
Technology space is increasingly moving towards solutions. What are Topcon’s solutions for an enterprise level implementation?
On the job site, we start by controlling the machines. Earlier, contractors used machine control just for finishing, but controlling the rest of the 80-90% jobs was the costliest and most difficult task for contractors. Once a contractor adopts machine control, the next thing he would want is a way to do the job even faster to increase productivity. That is why Topcon introduced the MC Squared technology, which took our machine control systems and allowed them to operate twice as fast and twice as accurate as before. That really revolutionised the finishing phase of grading, especially on dozers because these machines are difficult to control. With MC Squared, we can make the dozer grade faster, both in rough and finish grading phases.
Now, how can a company leverage the benefits of machine control and bring them into the office for more efficient management of his equipment and job sites? Using technology much like that of telematics, we know where the machine is and what is it doing; we can remotely monitor it and resolve grading problems quickly. This way, one can head off to solve problems even before they occur and also assign changes quickly.
That is where we get into the aspects of remote connectivity from an office to the job site. Topcon’s site management system, Sitelink 3D, can help manage and visualise multiple aspects remotely. A contractor can solve the problems in real time, saving cost, time and efforts of the engineer going to the construction site. With Sitelink3D, the contractor is able to tie the whole job process together by sharing digital information and using cloud-based systems. Using this solution, he can monitor productivity, send data and, in essence, monitor the entire project in real time. That is a breakthrough in construction management.
How important is the connection between design (CAD and BIM) and machine control systems in design-build-operate projects? How is Topcon facilitating this connection/integration?
We see design-build projects with massive earthwork in highway projects. Contractors who bid for the job and built the highway are also often responsible for the maintenance of those projects in long term. If they use machine automation for building the road, they are doing a better job in ensuring the quality of the road so that it lasts longer and ensures the safety and comfort of the passengers.
If I am also able to document everything in digital format while laying the utilities underground, it is very similar to doing these in a building using BIM. If there are questions, or someone needs to understand the underground utilities for repair and maintenance work, he can refer to the digital information to understand exactly where a pipe or structure is located.
The BIM segment is giving contractors the ability to know exactly how everything is documented in digital format and this ensures continuous repair, maintenance and management of the road, utility, or building well after the construction is completed by the contractor.
How are the advancements in associated technologies like laser scanning, cloud, telematics, BIM enhancing Topcon’s products and solutions? How is this facilitating the quick uptake of machine control technologies?
In the past, machine control was more focused on just the finishing aspects of the project. That is 10% of the machines at the job site. But several things have changed to make its productive advantages more widespread. One, there are other machines that are doing bulk earth moving, including big push dozers and excavators. Earlier, the cost of GPS on machine control was very expensive and contractors did not feel it was justified to put it on other machines. But now, the cost of GPS has come down and there are systems designed for high-end finishing machines which are different from the systems designed for mass earth moving. For mass excavation, low-cost GPS systems are more than capable to meet those demands.
Other vehicles on the job site can also benefit from this since even the low-cost GPS can track where the equipment is. This is a third level of very low-cost GPS that can be put on machines, which is referred to as telematics in asset management. This scenario facilitates having different levels of control on every machine. That is when the contractor really starts to get the true management control of the project.
Cloud connectivity enables contractors to have quick access to information and status without having to visit the site. Information is addictive and once contractors find out that they can readily access and use the information, it has explosive impact on the bottom line of the company. The Cloud is what is making that happen as people want information in real time.
How is the adoption of this technology worldwide?
The adoption of machine control is beginning to take off. In fact, machine control is being adopted in the agriculture industry much faster. In 1990, the control segment of agriculture business was probably less than $100 million. But today, it is a $2-billion industry. Control segment of construction business worldwide in 1990 was bigger than agriculture at about $150 million. But today, we estimate it is half of the agriculture business.
Agricultural positioning automation started off slowly, but customers quickly found that if they put different controls on the tractor — for steering the machine, spraying, fertilising, harvest monitoring – a great deal of information was available to them. This had a dramatic impact on their productivity as a farmer could also work during the nights. What earlier used to take two weeks, now takes just 4-5 days. So, this impact has ramped up the uptake of machine control in agriculture. Agriculture is high focus area for Topcon as, like construction, it is a critical industry to maintain the social and physical well being of all populations.
How are the emerging countries, where massive infrastructure projects are on, adopting this technology?
The adoption rate in those countries is not near that of developed countries, and there are several reasons for this. Firstly, because the control systems used for finishing are quite expensive. Where lower cost systems are available, the adoption has been quicker. Secondly, in many of these markets productivity is still not the biggest concern.
The cost of labour, and sometimes equipment, is not very high in many of these markets, so the perceived need for machine control is less. The third aspect is that machine control does require some expertise to implement. There are a lot of things affecting its operation such as the calibration of the sensors, base stations for GPS, data collection, communications protocols and other technical expertise that may be taken for granted in developed markets. But the good news is that now we are seeing these technical barriers in emerging countries going down much more quickly.
Considering that Topcon, together with Sokkia, is doing business worldwide, what are the prospective geographies for you with respect to machine control solutions?
Construction is the least automated industry, so the opportunities it affords are very attractive. So we are looking into every market. It was extremely difficult and almost impossible to get machine control adoption in countries where there were only a few experienced distributors. But now things are changing as original equipment manufacturers are providing more standard automation functionality from the factory. That makes it easier for us to automate the machine than it was earlier. Or, because of the new, lower-cost entry-level systems we discussed earlier, it is becoming easier to start off with the indicate system where you do not have to tie-in the hydraulics. With those capabilities, and now with the Sitelink3D connectivity, markets are opening up.
Latin America is certainly a market for growth. Asia is such a big opportunity. More infrastructure is being built there than anywhere else in the world. We definitely see machine control taking off in these countries much more quickly. We do not expect it to take 20 years to pick up as it happened in North America or Europe but in one-fourth of that time. The barriers to get into the market today are much less than what they were five years ago.