Topcon: A revolution in construction technology’s coming

The construction equipment industry is at a turning point. Topcon’s senior leaders believe that we are about to see a huge surge in the adoption of new construction technologies. The time is ripe as a new, younger and more tech-savvy generation comes to the fore. Governments could save billions, and where does the smartphone fit in?
July 7, 2021 4 mins Read
By Pete Kennedy
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Jamie Williamson has seen the construction industry undergo a transformation before, and he believes he’s about to see one again.

Two-person surveying teams, “where one individual is looking through the instrument and the other is walking,” were on every jobsite in the 1980s.

Back then, Williamson, now an executive vice president at Topcon Positioning Group in Livermore, California, watched the duos work with interest. The irony was that he was keenly aware that a system that could be operated by just one person was already on the market … a system that was also more accurate and required half the labour.

Topcon2And yet, two-person crews continued to traipse through construction projects. Williamson remembers thinking that it wouldn’t be long before the one-person system took over. “In a couple years, everyone is going to have one of those things,” he predicted.

He was right. Some 40 years later, about 40,000 of these one-man systems are sold annually. “That’s on top of the systems that are already out there,” he said.

Yes, it’s true, everyone now has “one of those things”.

Williamson believes the industry is about to experience another transformation: the widespread adoption of machine control systems and the advanced project management tools that go with them. “Eventually every jobsite in the world will be using that technology,” he said.

Two other Topcon leaders, Murray Lodge, senior vice president, and Ulrich Hermanski, executive vice president, agree with their colleague. Combined, the three have nearly a century of experience with construction technology.

Now, years of laying the groundwork are about to pay off with dramatic increases in utilisation of machine control and management, the three believe. In addition, new applications are being found for geopositioning technology, which uses satellites and ground stations to monitor construction progress – and to provide essential quality control efforts, among many other benefits.

A revolution is underway, and here are the reasons why Topcon’s top three think the industry is on the brink of a mass adoption of these new technologies.

Machine control adoption is near

The rumblings of a significant uptick in acceptance of machine control – automated systems that precisely position construction equipment and help operators accurately control machine movement – began two or three years ago. “The smartphone was the main driver,” Williamson said. “It started the demystification process.”There are other forces at work. OEMs now deliver machines from the factory with integrated machine control systems, making access easier. After-market solutions have improved as well.

Topcon3And then there is cost. Prices for the technology are falling, primarily because hardware components are mass produced and available off the shelf. Creative financing and attractive lease and subscription plans have also lowered costs.

In addition, there is a growing realisation among businesses that the technology is needed to compete.

“We are now at the cusp of where people ‘get it,’” Lodge said. “Now, you’re getting where people realise, ‘If I don’t have it, I can’t compete.’”

All three agree the opportunities are incredible. “If you look at the industry, we have 500,000 to a million machines out in the marketplace that have no type of grade control,” Williamson said.

As an industry, sales of grade control systems are in the low tens of thousands per year. “If you look at that, and compare the adoption to the one-person levelling system, that same evolution is going to happen,” he said.

The planets are aligning.

Small contractors are ready to make a big splash

Smaller contractors – and smaller machines – offer an even greater opportunity.

Hundreds of thousands of compact track loaders and mini-excavators are produced in Europe and North America every year. “If you compare that to the number of larger dozers and excavators, it dwarfs it,” Williamson said.

To this point, cost has primarily limited the number of smaller contractors who leverage the machine control technology. Until recently, it could cost almost as much as the smaller machine, Lodge said. But that has changed.

Topcon4“As the price continues to come down, that part of the pyramid with all the smaller machines, the smaller contractors, will explode over the next five years,” Williamson said. “It’s a huge opportunity and likely to be one of our biggest growth areas.”

Owners of smaller machines are starting to understand the return-on-investment opportunities. “If you can put something on a dozer that doubles its capacity, it has a much bigger impact on the capabilities of that small company,” Williamson said.

 A more technologically savvy younger generation will also ease the transition.

“They’re not afraid of technology,” whether they are the machines’ owners or the operators, Williamson said. “The older generation was. Even if the owners were progressive, they feared their operators wouldn’t use it if they bought it.

“The younger generation, they can’t live without it. It’s not, ‘Should I get it?’ It’s … ‘I have to get it.’”

On-site verification has arrived

On-site verification, which monitors progress and quality in real time, is becoming increasingly important for roadbuilding and vertical construction. It is a very new process, and one with considerable promise. It uses geopositioning technology to connect the office and the field instantaneously.

“From a knowledge standpoint, people are looking for answers right away,” Lodge said.

Such data will have a significant impact on quality and the avoidance of costly rework. It is also likely to be another adoption catalyst.

“Imagine you are constructing a large building with a steel structure and after two weeks, you find out something was wrong during the earlier production,” Hermanski said. “It takes enormous cost – and enormous effort – to correct that.”

Previous verification consisted of bringing a team in once every week – or two weeks, or month – to scan all the progress. The team members returned to the office, processed the data and compared it against the plans.

Topcon5Finding a discrepancy was a big problem. “Then you needed to go back and correct the problems and measure the changes,” Hermanksi said. In extreme situations, that could mean breaking up concrete or bringing down steel.

On-site verification prevents such problems. Geopositioning devices utilise satellites and ground stations to provide measurements, while a scanner offers instant comparisons.

“You are scanning as you build,” Hermanski said. “You can compare it with the plans immediately – on the site. Whatever needs to be corrected can be done in that moment, before you go to the next step.”

A timely response can be a big cost-saver. For example, corrections can be made to concrete before it hardens.

While Hermanski’s discussion focuses on building construction, the same process – and benefits – apply to roads and grading. In the past, a contractor might evaluate a job every few weeks. The problems uncovered could be devastating and lead to costly rework and overtime.

“Oops – a month in we made this mistake,” Williamson said.

The verification helps with scheduling, too. “With the data that’s available today, I can know this afternoon how much dirt I moved this morning,” Williamson said. “I can know if this project is ahead of schedule, or behind.”

Today’s tighter deadlines make the verification all the more critical, Lodge said. “Back in the day, a contractor might say, ‘OK, this is going to take us five months’ – and halfway through he might look around and realise he’s not on schedule,” he said.

“You can’t do that anymore. You have timelines you have to meet. You have all these subs that have to fit within it.”

Documentation is another benefit. Contractors have records of the quality and timeliness of the work.

The autonomous movement is gaining steam

“In the next one to two years, an autonomous roller will be available and working on a jobsite – not as a test, but as a functioning part of a jobsite,” Hermanski said.

He expects the asphalt compactor to be the machine that breaks the barrier.

“A roller works in a limited area,” Hermanski said. “It’s not driving around somewhere. It’s simple to control and to protect.” A compactor essentially moves backward and forward, and automatic shutoffs can help ensure safety.

Topcon6Dozers and graders are more difficult to control autonomously because they work in less confined areas. Excavators have more variables and moving parts. “On an open construction site, it’s not as easy as people think,” Hermanski said.

Does the market really want to eliminate the use of an operator in favour of autonomous machines? Hermanski said yes – at least in some cases. “With rollers and trucks, those are the lowest skill levels you have,” he said. “These are hard jobs to fill.”

Paving would be another candidate for autonomous operation, with one big caveat. “On a paver, you need to make a decision now that has an influence in 20 to 30 metres, so that makes it harder,” he said.

The first working autonomous roller will be retrofitted with controls, Hermanski said. As the concept becomes more well-received, look for machines to be specifically built for autonomous operation.

“We have to change our way of thinking,” he said. “We are making what we already have autonomous. We need to develop different types of machines – not to simply make the machines we already have run automatically.”

Governments can save staggering sums

Governments are slowly but surely – make that very slowly – starting to adopt the technology and include it in the roadbuilding process, in one form or another.

The biggest opportunities lie with use of 3D milling and paving, Lodge said. Key is the implementation of variable depth milling and paving methods and real-time quality control systems. In the long run, projects are completed sooner, quality is improved and road life extended. All these benefits add up to considerable cost savings.

“For their money, if we’re getting 10 projects, can we improve and get 11?” Lodge asked. “Can we get 14 – for the same amount of money?”

That’s considerable value. Lodge also said it’s realistic if 3D planning is used. There are transportation agencies that have taken such steps – “and a whole lot who haven’t,” Lodge noted, as agencies are sometimes slow to adopt new approaches.

Still, the benefits could be substantial enough to drive acceptance.

“It’s not just that the contractor was able to save $300,000 on one project,” Lodge said. When you look at a wider scope, “that $300,000 turns into $300 million … which then turns into $3 billion.”

The level of detail is critical to the 3D concept. Previously, a survey crew walked the pavement with a stick and every seven metres took an elevation – on the centreline, the midpoint of the lane and the right shoulder.

“With 3D, you can do the survey in a matter of hours, versus days or weeks, and it’s much more accurate,” Williamson said. The data is gathered by crew members simply driving down the targeted road. “Then they create a 3D model of what the current surface looks like – ruts included – down to a couple of millimetres of precision ,” Williamson said.

They have information for every millimetre of the road, compared with every seven metres the old way.

The detailed 3D design and variable milling to precise heights removes more material in the bumps and less in the dips to leave a smooth surface and consistent depth for the paver. The 3D approach makes the machines smarter and more aware of the surface they’re working on.

Topcon7The smarter machines improve smoothness to such a degree that years can be tacked onto road life. Big dollars are saved on the jobsite, too, as material usage is much more efficient.

“It’s a game changer,” Williamson said.

And it will take a game changer to move government agencies. Lodge said that the paving industry uses 2D technology on about 80% of roadbuilding projects. “If you’re talking about 3D adoption, it goes down to about a half of a percent,” he said.

That usage rate makes it seem that adoption is a long way down the road. But the Topcon experts expect it to grow quickly because of the staggering improvements that can be made with the 3D process. The technology adds efficiencies, quality and cost savings during dozing, grading, soil compaction, paving and asphalt compaction. It also ties into the plant and material transport.

Green benefits

The technology makes operations greener, too… in seemingly countless ways.

An efficient paver burns less fuel, as do efficient mills and compactors. Minimising material usage preserves natural resources. It also means less mix has to be produced, reducing fuel burn and emissions at the plant. Less material has to be hauled to the jobsite, preventing the emissions that go with it.

Smooth roads last longer because they don’t have bumps that get pounded by heavy vehicles. That longer life adds up to incredible savings when road systems of the world – or even a local jurisdiction – are considered. The smooth roads also prevent vehicle damage, which has green benefits of its own, such as extended life of auto parts.

And yes, the technology can contribute a great deal to the other kind of green – money. It’s not unusual for customers to double their production, depending on the machine type and application.

“You’re burning less fuel and controlling materials to low single-digit percentages for overruns,” Williamson said. The technology provides efficiencies at every stage of the building process. That means enormous savings in fuel, emissions and natural resource utilisation.

“It’s a societal benefit that we haven’t pushed enough as an industry, and we need to,” Williamson said. “It saves taxpayers money. It saves our planet.”

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