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In this, the third roundtable meeting in World Highways’ series of Connected Construction discussions, Guy Woodford discusses the implications of developments in artificial intelligence (AI) and machine control with world-class experts in their field. Find out what Elwyn McLachlan, vice president of Civil Solutions at Trimble, Murray Lodge, senior vice president and general manager of Construction at Topcon Positioning Group, and Magnus Thibblin, vice president Heavy Construction at Hexagon Geosystems have to say about how you should be positioning your company for a successful future.
September 1, 2023
By Guy Woodford
Get paid faster for your work by being efficient, optimised, and careful with resources … get connected now


Q: Following the latest editions of Bauma and ConExpo-Con/Agg there is much interest in issues such as interoperability between major suppliers and the extent to which building information modelling (BIM) can be extended to smaller projects. What is happening, and what do you think will happen in the future regarding the role of automation in terms of data optimisation and site safety? Looking first at the issue of interoperability, what’s the state of play at the moment?

Elwyn: Trimble is very engaged in the current ISO [the International Organisation for Standardization] (ISO 15143-4) work. Our representatives on the committee tell me that the work is going very well and we are certainly optimistic that it will be the key to interoperability between different technology vendors. There is a high level of customer interest in this. We have large customers who run different machine-control technologies across their fleets, and they are pushing hard for the industry to cooperate and collaborate. And where our customers go, we go!  We certainly support that.

Murray: As Elwyn said, our customers are asking for it so we’ve also been involved in that ISO. There are actually three different pieces they are focusing on. The first is the file format so you have a common file format that everybody can use. Then a common communication. The last one would be the RTK [Real-time kinematic positioning] format. Each of us may use these a little differently. Sometimes there are some proprietary issues, so working through those things is a challenge. The OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) are all engaged. As far as John Deere, Caterpillar, Volvo etc., everybody’s in on it because they see the progression. The belief is that, maybe by the end of this calendar year, there will be a standard in place but work is ongoing because you’ve got so many different entities. It’s progressing and we will eventually get there.

Magnus Thibblin, Vice President Heavy Construction at Hexagon Geosystems; 
Elwyn McLachlan, Vice President of Civil Solutions at Trimble; 
Murray Lodge, Senior Vice President and General Manager of Construction for Topcon Positioning Group


Q: What are the main challenges?

Magnus: ISO is helping us to drive this. It’s to help the customers. That is our main focus – to make sure we make it easy and simple for them. But all of us have companies in which we are trying to make the ecosystem work and make sure that it functions. That is the good thing about the ISO standardisation – it’s not requiring us to change things internally. It is basically doing this externally with cloud connections, because we all have a long history of different formats. It doesn’t matter who we are talking about. For us to change things internally would be a huge task – it’s something that is almost impossible but the function of the cloud set-up is brilliant. That is something that will drive the business and make sure the OEMs are completely connected into this. The industry, as a whole, has been needing this for a long time. I checked the status and everything is going in the right direction. I think the tests are going fine so, yes, it is a good thing for the industry and forr all of us, including the customers.


Q: What are the key advantages of this technical integration for customers?

Murray: When you start looking at technology – certainly new technologies – it typically starts in the aftermarket. OEMs are looking for consistency, low price, reliability and performance. So, to take a lot of chances is not something an OEM wants to do. Therefore, a lot of technology starts in the aftermarket and then as adoption increases, the users start to say, ‘Hey, you know what, I’m using it, I want to use it all the time but I want this to come from the factory’. So, the OEMs then start to make that move and the whole process takes a long time. Where we are now, technology has a tremendous impact on the success or the productivity of a customer on a job. It used to be that it was all about the machine. In reality, the technology can have as much, or actually more, impact than just the machine itself. The OEMs are certainly embracing it and once an OEM is on board, it truly validates the technology. The OEMs can then really manage their workflow a lot better. When John Deere took it on, they had the ability to control things all the way through. So, it really works when the OEMs get in there and take on the technology. It makes the acceptance much greater. The market for us is so large and the adoption, at this point in time, is so low so it’s good for overall business.

Elwyn: I would say that no-one understands more about the performance of a machine than the OEMs. They are the experts in how that machine operates and how it performs. I see the collaboration between machine OEMs and technology vendors, like ourselves, as a win-win, the best of both worlds for the industry. Obviously, we at Trimble have been involved in this with Caterpillar for more than 20 years now. There is a long-standing relationship of putting together experts in machine performance with experts in technology to get the best performance out of the machine, and this is increasing through that joint venture, through that relationship. This is not just with Caterpillar but we are seeing with other OEMs as well more and more of that kind of core technology with sensors coming from the factory. I think that is a win for the industry. When we see that the OEMs have such a long history of putting together really high-quality componentry and integrating that componentry tightly, then we can all benefit from that. The key for me is that, as they put more of those sensors on the machine, we have open interfaces that allow the technology componentry - the user interface, if you will - to leverage those integrated sensors and components, so that we really bring the best of both worlds to bear.

Magnus: It’s hard to be innovative enough here. You won’t always be, so don’t worry. The good thing is that it is easier to get the different solutions to market, and also the different levels. You could argue that 2D should be standard on most machines today, at least grading function machines. 3D, depending on the machine types, is becoming more available on the OEM side, which is great but as an aftermarket and a technology provider, we do have a very significant part in this. We are driving different technology that the OEMs are partnering to get, which is the way it should be. We should also look at how the tech on the machines can be upgradable for the next generations because we are probably standing in front of yet another technology shift. I’m assuming that won’t be far away from now. Collaboration is the key to making sure that we are talking and working together.  Then we can elevate the technology to the next level and help adoption because we all have the same goal in helping the customer to be more productive. We want them to utilise technology to gain as much as they can for their company. There are many advantages for the OEM in terms of collaboration.

Q: To what extent can BIM be used in smaller projects? What are the benefits and challenges for customers and what sort of timescale are we looking at here?

Magnus: BIM has been around for quite a while but it’s actually a new term. There is already the possibility for smaller companies to have that kind of ecosystem. The bigger the companies get, the more complex their ecosystem becomes so the smaller the company, the easier it is. However, it is always a change when you bring in new technology but all of us have solutions today. There are also third-party solutions which can get close. Do all of their field units have solutions that can communicate? Yes, but I recommend that many of them start in a smaller ecosystem and then build in required complexity.

Murray: Large contractors working on big projects use BIM from the planning stage to the design and maintenance of the building. For smaller contractors, a slimmed-down version is out there.  We are all developing simpler systems so that somebody can take our tools and go out and create their own design. They can then create a model, put it in their machine, do the work and validate it. So essentially, they are creating a digital twin. They are documenting what they have built, as the larger contractors are, but without the additional resources and costs. While it doesn’t produce all the extra data, it reproduces what is key for those smaller contractors. It’s got to be a good bang for their buck, so to speak. It has to pay off. There is no point investing in the full-on BIM system if it’s not suited to your project or your application.

Elwyn: I think we’re seeing more BIM requirements from some of the public road authorities – the DoTs [Departments of Transportation] here in the US, Highways UK, Norwegian Public Roads – some of these progressive entities that are experimenting with and driving more requirements for BIM-based workflows or BIM-based data delivery. What’s interesting is, thinking about the landscape of civil construction projects, road projects in particular, there are more small road projects than there are big new highway builds. So, there are lots of small intersection remodels, overpass redesigns, and so on. As we see these regulatory bodies requiring BIM workflows, I think that is really driving smaller contractors to experiment, to learn about and get more comfortable with this way of working. People are now coming into the industry with a BIM way of thinking. They are what I call BIM native. Those of us here today come from a CAD base, and in many cases, a PDF-based background, but the [BIM natives] are driving this new technology.  So, we are having to upgrade our solutions and capabilities to make it easier to use BIM models from start to finish.

Q: What are the barriers to further adoption of autonomous machines?

Murray: It is difficult to get skilled operators who are up to speed but there are other factors that make adoption practical. Performance has to improve. Any technology starts off slow and has hiccups here and there so you have to push to get it going. Regarding safety, regulations are a big barrier, not just on construction sites but also with cars. Look at the automobile industry. In 2007 Tesla said by 2012 they would have fully autonomous cars on the road. Here we are, 11 years later, and they’re still trying to do it. The government is really going to have to step in. There have got to be some regulation changes, addressing liability issues.  There is no doubt autonomy is coming for tasks in hazardous areas, or for just mundane, repetitive tasks.

Magnus: Legislation is a key pillar, as is safety awareness. We already have different autonomous solutions out there and the next step will be fully autonomous applications. It could be something like the roller that comes first. In terms of legislation and safety, governments have a huge role. Safety solutions have to be built into job tenders. Sadly, they are still discounting that side of tenders even though we all know how dangerous construction sites can be.

Elwyn: Our customers really want to try our autonomous solutions but it’s about safety and the industry labour shortage. The promise of autonomy is pretty huge. We showcased autonomous technologies at our 2022 Dimensions User conference. Just last month we deployed a fully autonomous compactor on a large hydro dam project in British Columbia, Canada. It’s part of a test programme. It’s not ready yet but we have had more than 40 hours of operation and it’s very exciting. We have learned a lot from using a real customer site. It’s not just about the task in hand, it’s also about how you instruct a machine to do the task and what happens when it has finished. From video footage I have seen, this fully autonomous compactor is a huge leap forward for us.

Q: For how much longer will you be testing and are you going to release any formal results?

Elwyn: The test in Canada was the start of a customer-involved testing programme. Given the safety concerns around autonomy, this is not your usual six weeks of beta testing and then an out-to-market kind of project. Let’s be very clear. We are expecting to test on customer sites during the next 18 months but I will tell you, we have customers beating down our door to participate in that testing. There is a lot of industry interest, which is great.

Q: Obviously this technology generates vast amounts of data. How can customers utilise it in real time to optimise work sites, results and use of scare resources?

Magnus: The question is what we do with the data and how we use it to help customer decision-making. It’s about the carbon footprint, but also about quality. When you know where you are in the model at any time, you are following spec and when you follow spec, the asset lives longer. It’s about making it easier for the customer to be guided by this tangible data.

Q: When will instant data be available in the operator cab to improve machine control and operability?

Murray: That is happening today.  Machines are connected to the office so that data can pass back and forth. At the next level, there has to be connectivity between all parties. If you can eliminate rework, you can minimise your carbon footprint. If you are connected in real time the schedule can be automatically updated and keep everything on track.

Q: Is there a sense of trying to empower the customer and the machine operator so they can make quicker decisions themselves based on accurate real-time information?

Elwyn: It’s very much about empowering people with information to do just that. I always tell new Trimble people that you have to go on to a construction site to really understand the complexity of the different tasks. We need to be able to help people by throwing up a red flag on screen to say something is not right or that this machine is not performing as well as expected. We are not making the kind of progress that we expected. How do we give them the tools to ‘double-click’ and find out why that machine is not as productive as expected? Is it a problem with the operator or an issue with the machine or with the design? There is a huge opportunity in construction to optimise the whole process through using data to empower people. Sustainability and reduced carbon output are tied up with reducing the need for rework, identifying problems early on so that you don’t have to take up all of the asphalt and start over. It is also very much about optimising materials usage. So much waste in the industry comes from materials that spoil or materials that aren’t laid per the specification. There is huge potential for all of us to impact the industry positively in this regard.

Q: What are the key benefits of the latest machine-control technologies in terms of site safety?

Elwyn: It’s a no-brainer. The fewer people you have moving around the machine, the safer the site. We have seen this from the very early days of this technology but it is an almost unintended or unexpected consequence of it. I hear this whenever I go out on sites. It is a huge time-saver but, more importantly, has a huge safety impact. That is a key reason for our investments in autonomy – removing people from dangerous situations. Referring to the Canadian project, the contractor was anxious to try autonomy for exactly that reason - to remove people from potentially dangerous situations.

Magnus: We are working hard to make sure we have sensors on machines. This is where collaboration comes in. We have to make sure we can standardise certain things to be able to communicate with those sensors. Sometimes we are putting additional sensors on, even though the sensors are there, right? Legislation is a driver here, too. Without legislation, it’s going to take longer. I am concerned that we are not seeing enough interest from legislators. Even people working on larger projects are not putting in the effort here because it’s not a check mark. This is one of the most important steps we need to sort out.

Murray: Safety is always in the top two or three items for our customers. The sensors can be used to create bubbles around the machine. We can put safety systems in place before we get to these fully autonomous vehicles on a job site. It’s got to be a push from more than just the three of us, or the equipment manufacturers, to get there.

Q: What role will AI play in machine-control technology?

Magnus: We are focusing on collaboration. AI is a supporting function to data capture and safety issues. We are all looking at it in different ways. Hexagon is working on this across the different divisions – manufacturing or heavy construction mining. We will collaborate much more internally to make sure AI is getting to where it needs to be. The customer needs to have connected ecosystems.

Murray:  We need to continue to educate the market. Current usage is very low. A lot of people are old-school so continual education is key to adoption. From the government side, there is really no incentive to invest in these technologies. Some countries in Europe, and Japan, did a full-on push to encourage contractors. They gave them money to invest in the technology because you have got to change the mindset. When people start to use it, they see success and then build on that. That has to come from government. They have got to offer incentives, not disincentives, to do a better job, in a shorter timeframe, or with reduced carbon output. That is a key thing we need to work on. With AI, there is a lot of potential and a lot of unknowns but you can analyse the data and manage things better with it and it will start to take the load off some tasks. It’s a buzzword now but AI is here an it is definitely going to be a key piece of all three of our companies down the road.

Q: What are the next steps for leading suppliers on machine control?

Elwyn: Here at Trimble, we talk about the bid to build process, starting with how you estimate a job and trying to close that loop and optimise the execution of the job against the estimate. It’s really about efficiency, optimisation and careful use of resources. That’s a big focus for us - connecting all those pieces together. Helping contractors get paid faster is important for the industry as well. Another key area for us is empowering small contractors via this technology so we focus on simpler solutions that are easier to install and to learn. AI is tied into our data strategy - how we can mine, analyse and identify what is likely to happen as a result of analysing what has happened in the past. Then we can prescribe alternative solutions. We have got some really interesting projects underway to test this.

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