Machine control technology round table discussion with Leica Geosystems, Topcon and Trimble

In this, the first in a series of top-level roundtable discussions led by World Highways, editor Mike Woof and editorial director Geoff Hadwick talk machine control technology with three world-class experts from Leica Geosystems, part of Hexagon, Topcon and Trimble. Find out what these key opinion leaders are thinking on six vitally important topics. Let them help you stay ahead of the game.
January 4, 2022
L-R: Magnus Thibblin, Jamie Williamson, and Scott Crozier
L-R: Magnus Thibblin, Jamie Williamson, and Scott Crozier

Magnus Thibblin
My name is Magnus Thibblin, president of the machine control division at Hexagon. I work at Leica Geosystems and I have worked in the Hexagon group for almost 15 years. I've done different kinds of jobs during this journey, and now I'm based in Denmark. I lead the group’s machine control division.

Jamie Williamson
I'm Jamie Williamson. I've been with Topcon for a little over 25 years and in the positioning and machine control industry for nearly 40 years.  I'm an executive vice president responsible for our Positioning Business Unit, which includes all of our surveying and construction business.

Scott Crozier
I’m Scott Crozier, vice president and general manager of Trimble’s civil construction field systems business - our machine control and construction surveying portfolios. I've been with Trimble for 23 years, starting as a mechanical engineer out of our Christchurch, New Zealand office, and now based in Westminster, Colorado.

The construction sector has a poor record on productivity and is noted for its conservative approach to new technologies. So how best can technology companies approach these issues?

Magnus: I think we can start by mentioning some of the contractors' challenges. We know that they are hunting for skilled workers and it's hard to find them. We think a lot about workflows to make sure that it's easy for the customer to understand what the purpose is and what the end-goal is. And one of the more important ones would be to make it easy to adopt. You need to make sure that you think about the customer's ecosystem. I also think we need to support the customer to actually adopt this as fast as possible, which could be with training, remote training. All of us, I assume, are working hard to make sure we can do this remotely.

Roundtable1Jamie: I would echo the things that Magnus said, and maybe add a couple of things, really from our perspective. I think all of us here in the roundtable would agree, once a customer adopts the technology, they never go back. One of the big challenges is educating the government agencies, ministries of transport, DOTs, the people that are writing the specifications and creating the bids and so on. Education is a big part of it. We also, and I'm sure the other guys are doing this as well, have a very active programme with universities and educational institutions to help move this technology into the educational experience. So … we're helping to train that new workforce that's getting into the business. And then I would also just add that one of the other barriers to adoption in the past has been the level of capital to buy machine control systems. What used to be $80,000 is now down to maybe $40,000 or $50,000 per system.

Scott: Magnus and Jamie both touched on pretty much all of my points here. It’s phenomenal to see that we're all thinking along the same lines. Both Magnus and Jamie touched on the education of the bodies that set some of the specifications and standards. It really is critical that we all work together on this. I think also the openness of the data flows, the workflows, the interoperability of the solutions is critical. There is a scenario at the moment where, if you have multiple different types of technologies, it can be making life pretty difficult for the users of the solutions. Training the current workforce and, more importantly, the next generation of the workforce that's coming through is therefore very important.

Something that we also can do is make the technology simpler, or more intuitive to use. We do have complex solutions, when you're using digital solutions, it's a change in process from what you're doing today to what you'd need to be doing with the digital solutions. So making sure that that change is as intuitive as possible to reduce downtime and frustration, I think are key to success.

The COVID-19 pandemic brought a need for social distancing to ensure health onsite. So to what extent has the adoption of digital working enabled projects to be worked safely through the pandemic?

Jamie: The fact that the construction work, much of it is done outdoors, particularly for site preparation, road building, that type of work, lent itself to safe working conditions with respect to the pandemic. And I also think even for the indoor building construction, there are very few tasks or workflows where it requires tight grouping of humans for long periods that would potentially expose each other. And then of course the existing adoption and then the increased adoption of the digital job site management, whether it be applications that are contained on the phone, on a tablet, on the desktop, in the cloud. It enabled a lot of remote communication for the project managers and the different stakeholders on the job.

Scott: The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the transition within our industries to be more remote. And everyone raced to look for tools to support that kind of remote operation and collecting data in ways without having to be onsite. So it brought about an acceleration of adoption of these tools. We've seen a big increase in the opportunity to use as-built data for remote inspection. Things like drones are becoming regular tools onsite to capture as much data as possible. We saw all that accelerate to remotely collect rich data onsite. I would also say something that's stood out for me, which actually started at ConExpo in 2020, just as the pandemic was hitting, was this interest in autonomous solutions, and remote operation. COVID-19 has accelerated that interest. We've seen increased investment in automated and remote control technologies in the construction industry.

Roundtable2Magnus: I think that a key issue that I keep on coming back to is that if it's a crisis or disruption, that clearly has driven innovation or adoption much faster. And I think we all know that this business has been quite conservative, and all of us have been in it for a long time. But I think, if you look at it, I also want to go back and think, what did we learn? I was very concerned at that time, how would we handle this situation? I was thinking, "It shouldn't be that hard to get the rest of the things working for our customers." So what I've seen is, as many of the others have said already, an increase in adoption of cloud solutions. And that increased to make data transfer simple. Remote support has been brilliant. And then I would say that machine control overall has adopted faster in many, many regions where we didn't think it would be so fast.

What benefits can machine control technology deliver for an industry in which there is a shortage of labour, an ageing workforce, and of less highly skilled and experienced operators?

Scott: A couple of these are obvious, but I'll touch on them and then I'm sure Jamie and Magnus can fill in some other elements. First of all, we all know that machine control helps new or less skilled operators get productive quickly. What I wanted to touch on was one company in California struggling to get operators. And they started to hire high school leavers. The technology attracted them to this construction company, but the technology also enabled them to be productive from the early stages with a little bit of training. Another one, a large contractor this time out on the east coast of the US here was struggling to find some operators, had a number of large projects going on at the moment. So the labour shortage is real, and just getting access to capable or qualified operators was tough. He recently hired a couple of people that he thought had potential. Two weeks ago, they were making sandwiches at Subway, now they're operating machines. It's not just the technology that enables them to operate the machine, it's got to come with coaching and training as well. So … we're seeing that at the basic level, enabling more people to be productive with machines. The one area where we need to improve upon, I guess, is the level of intelligence that comes from an experienced operator and provide that in the machine. What we're seeing is data collection being used to help improve the performance of current operators. And finally, I just want to touch on one last point here. We've seen that machine control technology improves the lifestyle for operators. It reduces cognitive load.     And so when they go home from work at night, they're not completely wiped out from concentrating all day.

Magnus: Yes, I think we need to get these young people in. I mean, they are used to iPhones and everything else. So the digital reality is what they're used to. When we look at machine control, I think we are helping them to get into this job as well. It becomes more interesting. And I also think we all know that if you have machine control, you're helping a good operator to be an excellent operator.

Jamie: I would agree with what the guys had to say, and maybe add a couple of extra things. With respect to the benefits of the technology, shortage of skilled labour becomes an issue for the contractors in being able to execute jobs. I know a local contractor who is a buddy of mine, he can't take on any more work. There is work available, but he is maxed out. He can't find additional labour. And so his business is constrained due to that fact. When I talk about education, another one of our challenges and opportunities is to educate the younger workforce to the fact that, "Hey, there is serious high technology in our industry. In construction and you can go and have a career and do exciting things, whether you're on the engineering side or the application side. It's a fantastic career, a multi-trillion dollar industry." And when we're talking about benefits to the customer, by utilising the technology where everyone's connected, the machine can get to grade on its own. You’ve got benefits to the customer where he's managed materials better, has eliminated dependencies on surveyors or third parties to come and provide grade management. So you've given workers in the field freedom to get the work done without having to wait on someone else. When you look at the benefits of utilising machine control or any of these workflow solutions that our companies are producing, it means less fuel burned, less maintenance on equipment, more efficiency and you're getting to grade in fewer passes.

What is the impact on the ability to work efficiently or cost- effectively from introducing machine control technology?

Magnus: There are so many, but I will home in on a few. Machine operators can work more efficiently and have better access to information. Site safety is also increased because people need to spend less time near machines. Environmental.targets and sustainability are also easier due to higher efficiency. I think what we're looking at is going from machine control to site solutions. We are connecting things, which means we're not just having machine-controlled solutions separated from the surveying solutions. We are connecting everything into one platform and making it available through our cloud solution.

Jamie: Again, as we can continue to get higher and higher adoption, the more individuals or companies on a jobsite or in a fleet that can be equipped with the technology will provide a linear relationship to the benefits on that job. You might have a customer with, say, a fleet of 10 machines. And they may only have control systems on two of those machines and may be thinking, "Well, I don't want to spend any extra money to outfit five or six of my 10 machines. I'm going to do just these two and I'm going to utilise them for finish grade." Because finish grade is where the bulk of the money is made. If you come down from clearing a site to your subgrade, if that base material's been balanced, all I need to do is trim material off the top in order to get to my paving surface. That machine can work so much more efficiently, so much more at a higher quality level than if that surface has not been prepared with machine control technology.

Roundtable3So again, working on the price, the training of the operators, all of those elements enabling higher adoption will get better jobsite management. As Magnus said, the data is being collected now on the machines and on the job, and that data can be turned into information once and you get more and more participation from the fleet. And then of course that has implications for the customer to understand in real time. Because there may be a bottleneck in the overall schedule. Or, "I'm ahead of schedule. And I can take this machine instead of having it parked out here sitting doing nothing for a week. I can get the flatbed over, move it to a second jobsite where I may be behind, or I want to get ahead and be able to utilise those assets to the maximum possible."

Scott: The five key benefits we see are a high-quality, faster, safer, greener and more efficient outcome. There's no doubt about the improvement that the technologies have on efficiency and sustainability. There are tools that can used to optimise machine utilisation so that you further improve the efficiency. And like Jamie was saying, there's a long way to go to improve the adoption and that will drive further efficiencies. We talk about safety. Magnus has touched on this as well. For many areas, many projects, safety is becoming a bigger thing. There's no doubt that machine control technology enables safety onsite. And I think what we're going to see is increased safety elements built into the machine control technologies as well, personnel detection and machine detection.

How does the latest technology allow an entire fleet and workforce to be connected in real time to a 3D virtual realisation of the entire project, and what benefits does this deliver?

Jamie: The connectivity is here today. I think in all the systems being put into the marketplace today, the customer at least has the option to get connected to the cloud. Probably the most common usage of it is for data transfer. Data transfer is a key element and works very effectively. And then the other thing to mention is remote support. Having the service technician connect and communicate with that operator in the seat of his machine or at an office location anywhere in the world provides an unbelievable element of support for cost-effectiveness.Because as we all know, uptime and production is the lifeblood of our customers. I mean, even, in the old days it would be, "I've got a problem. I'll have to get my technician to come to the job site." If you're in a metropolitan area, it could be an hour, or it could be two hours. If you're out in the middle of Australia, it could be an eight-hour drive or a flight to get to that customer. And if his job is down, he's losing money. It's a big thing. Probably over 85% of our support requirements are non-hardware related. It's either application training that someone doesn't necessarily understand how to do the application, or they got into a setting in one of the control boxes and changed something. One of the things we see is, whether you're talking about using Microsoft PowerPoint or Excel or something, you can use the basic functionality of it and get by and do what you need to do, but if you dig deeper, the additional applications, the benefits that can be derived from the tools and the workflows can increase. And we'll see that with experienced operators. They think of things. Once they understand what the tool can do, they think of ways to use it that we may have never even thought of ourselves.

Scott: For me, this is the most exciting area. The next opportunity the industry has is around connectivity, real-time data collection and flow from field to office and the 3D virtual realisation of the entire project or the model. We've seen in the last few years, the richness and resolution and capability of the models and as-built models increase significantly. And I think virtual construction tools that can be used to understand problems that might occur before they happen are starting to bring real value. I think that the simulation tools created through the richness of the models provide a big improvement. There's no doubt about quality tracking as well, making sure things are built right. We're seeing this starting to be adopted or driven by DOTs, different legal bodies and even requiring that projects are built and delivered to a level of quality.

Roundtable4The augmented reality technologies coming into play now really help with the simulation, which is driven by the richness and improved resolution of the models. We're seeing that come into play, not only in the office, but in the field so that people can grasp what the project is going to look like before it's been built. And, although it has been touched on a number of times now, remote support enables increased levels of adoption of technology in industry. Having people to go out and support on the ground is required at times, but if we can remove 85% of those calls and have them managed over the phone, we're in better shape.

Magnus: I think what everything comes down to is being on the same page. And you shouldn't have to worry about rework or other things that could normally happen. It's the cloud tool that gives contractors this power and freedom to control their machines and staff onsite to be on the same page, to have the right data. And, as Jamie said, we don't know all the things they're doing. We are trying to make sure that we listen and do the right sort of tools for them.

So all of these things are streaming into one thing, but I just want to finalise by saying, it's not just cloud, as we know it, you also have to think about sometimes being disconnected onsite. That means that you don't have a cloud to connect to. Then you need to still have an "onsite cloud" you can call it, or a site premise to make sure that you can connect units as well.

Where will the construction industry go next for digital transformation?

Scott: This is exciting plus rewarding. We've been through a transformation from where we were using stakes and string lines to what I would call the digital transformation … where we put a digital model in machines. The next transformation in my view is much larger. It's moving to a complete solution where we focus on optimising and automating processes, not just the task and the machine control. And this transformation's enabled through all the big buzzwords we've been talking about for some time, big data, artificial intelligence, machine learning, augmented reality, simulation. But this next transformation doesn't happen, not with just the combination of those technologies. So this really requires either an industry standard, or a solution to deliver a true industry platform. Once you've got that, then you can start to have things like design packages being optimised upfront for how construction could or would be done at the time of constructing. So with this industry platform, we have the ability to truly optimise designs upfront and deliver all the improvements and efficiencies.

Magnus: This is not a very straightforward question, and there’s no straightforward answer. I think what we're looking at is a sort of road to autonomy. We also are starting to build in safety aspects into our solutions, which we call personal alert and collision avoidance, that could be one part of this journey. Then I think we are also looking into semi-automatic solutions as well, depending on the machine. Some machines we have already done semi-auto and auto on for quite a while, but let's take the excavator as an example. Then after that, you have to think, how do you go and protect the vehicles around? Then you need to have vehicle intervention as well. And then you need to think about remote control because you need to have the pieces along the way to make sure that you can actually get to full autonomy.

And, even though it was mentioned before, we have a responsibility to work together on certain things such as file formats. But we also need to work with OEMs because we are not the only ones in this. We need to work together with the rest in the industry to get to this future that we are all aiming for.

Jamie: I would agree with what both Scott and Magnus had to say on this subject. And I think, certainly, that the end game and where we're going, we will arrive where we all see it going. And so I think there are several interim steps that will continue to evolve to get to that final arrival at, whether it be full autonomy or a complete workflow and process connectivity and control. One of the buzzwords at the moment is digital twins and documenting and defining what got built compared to the initial design. I mean even building a single family house, you get the plans of what the residence is supposed to be. And after the first two weeks change orders appear and things change.

Roundtable5And so one of the exciting things that we all see is with the data collection tools, being able to document what is happening on the jobsite and keeping a record of that as the project progresses. This will become a massive benefit, not only to the contractor during construction, but to the owner once the asset is completed. Because whether it's a building that's got a 50- or 100-year life or a road that's got a 10- or 20-year life, having the documentation from a QA perspective, from a maintenance perspective, being able to deliver a digital twin to operate that asset over its life will become a bigger benefit and will become more common across our industry.

One other example I would share with you. It's possible today for a concrete contractor doing a floor in a high rise building, while the concrete is still wet, to scan the surface of that floor. And while the concrete trucks are still there and the finishing crew is still there, determine whether that floor is within specification in real time. If it's not within specification, they can do the modification and fix the problem right then and there, not have to wait three months later when the next subcontractor comes in and realises: "Oh, this anchor bolt was in the wrong position or the floor flatness is not going to be effective for us.”

So having real-time data collection scanning ability and clash detection tools, all that type of digital representation of the design becomes more and more valuable as time goes on.

And then lastly, I would say it is having easier and easier exchange of information from the jobsite. As we all know, there are many, many tools out there. And one of the big challenges is how do we bring all of the outputs of those different tools into one umbrella that can basically communicate across platforms to enable basically one ecosystem for the customer.

Is there anything anyone might like to add at the end? Is there anything you might want to say on an important area we haven’t covered?

Jamie: Magnus hit on it. We're not in this alone. The OEMs, particularly the tier one OEMs are having a significant impact. Number one: the fact that they now have offerings for grade control coming from the factory has helped enable the adoption in the marketplace. Number two: they also are looking for help for the positioning technologies across platforms because most customers, I'd say probably 99% of them, have mixed fleets. So, the easier we can make it for the Topcon system to work on a Trimble job site or Trimble system on a Topcon or Leica site, to have a seamless workflow, the better. So that whatever that customer's heavy equipment choice is, he can easily pull up to the job site, turn on his machine and go to work.

Roundtable6Scott: I was going to say, Jamie, maybe just building on that, as we progress with the transformation to more and more automation, then we're going to need open platforms from the OEMs as well so that a contractor's preference of autonomous technologies can apply across a mixed fleet of machines as well. I think that's the extension of what we're building on at the moment with the ISO standard that you just need to make sure that's a follow on through and without that, we lack something. It's a journey, as Magnus mentioned. There's a lot of people that just think you're going to turn up with an autonomous machine or autonomous construction site. That's just not going to happen.

Magnus: All of us are in the same group. And I think everyone thinks the same, and that is our aim. We need to make it so that our customers don’t have to struggle with different data formats.

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