Trimble is fostering the construction industry’s pivot towards digitisation by driving productivity, sustainability, next generation talent and autonomy with its portfolio of cutting-edge construction technology.
The construction industry is fast becoming a technology-rich environment. Data collection, machine control systems, building information modelling, artificial intelligence (AI) and virtual reality are now terms used widely by all facets of the sector, though the technology transition has been a long-winded and incremental process. Technology providers like Trimble have been fundamental in steering the construction industry in the right direction.
The emerging digital ecosystem is a hotbed of opportunity for owners and construction professionals alike. Many technology-enabled solutions in the construction space today – and likely for the near future – are largely focused on task automation or the use of technology to automate routine tasks such as digging trenches or compacting surfaces.
Cameron Clark has worked at Trimble for 23 years from both its New Zealand and US offices. As the company’s Earthmoving Industry Director, he is responsible for Trimble’s machine control solutions for all contractors in the earthmoving industry, including the Trimble Earthworks line of machine control systems for dozers, excavators, motor graders and compaction, as well as for compact equipment including skid steers, mini excavators and track loaders.
Automation is already changing the way construction companies operate by making it easier to do more work with fewer people, he says, and by making the job of equipment operators safer and more enjoyable.
“Today, we are automating tasks like steering a soil compactor, or positioning the blade or bucket of an excavator according to plan, both of which make it much easier for an operator to complete this work faster, easier and with greater accuracy,” says Clark. “It also makes it easier to find workers for these jobs because contractors can now hire people with less experience and still get the results they would traditionally have needed a more experienced operator for.”
In its 2022 Future of Building report, the Association of Equipment Manufacturers calls the pathway towards autonomous machinery and the move to ‘situational automation’ one of the top 10 key trends that could “dramatically change the way construction companies operate in North America” over the next 10 years.
Already, automated operations help contractors greatly improve productivity, manage labour shortages, use materials more efficiently and deliver higher quality, more sustainable projects. For future-looking pioneers looking for transformative results, automation is the foundation for future autonomous jobsites. Task automation, says Clark, along with connectivity and the real-time data exchange between different systems, is an essential piece of the construction’s Industry 4.0 evolution – and the industry is rife with impressive examples.
“The road to autonomy is long and winding,” says Clark. “At Trimble we are ultimately focused on connecting and automating entire construction workflows – including gathering important data from the jobsite and seamlessly sharing information back and forth between the field and the office.”
“We believe this is where construction companies will really benefit in terms of better, faster and more accurate bidding, resource management, and overall decision-making.”
The one-to-many shift
One of the most prevalent examples of task automation in today’s environment is automated machine control. Introduced over 20 years ago, these systems are a familiar tool on jobsites around the world, facilitating the automatic control of blades and buckets with 3D models and global navigation satellite systems (GNSS). Ahead of its time, Trimble’s journey towards autonomy spans decades. Its automated machine control technologies have helped countless contractors realise double digit improvements in productivity and gain almost immediate value.
The increased adoption of automation technologies has led to manufacturers working more closely with technology providers like Trimble to equip machines with the technology directly from the factory.
But machine control is one small piece of the task automation puzzle, and manufacturers and technology firms are expanding those boundaries every day. For instance, Trimble’s horizontal steering control system for soil compactors is able to perform repetitive functions of multiple passes over a project with greater accuracy than a human operator, while giving the operator override control.
“The convergence of key technologies is enabling the industry to accelerate towards both automating tasks and, perhaps more importantly, optimising the site management and machine workgroups,” says Clark.
At its user conference, Trimble demonstrated an autonomous Link-Belt 220 excavator, a remote-controlled Komatsu D51PX bulldozer and an autonomous Dynapac CA2500 compactor – all working in unison to execute a project. The excavator travelled to a designated spot and dug a trench. Nearby, an operator remotely operated a semi-autonomous bulldozer to automate the blade, keep it at the desired elevation and steer the machine. Finally, a fully autonomous compactor was sent a “mission plan” with boundary lines and the optimum compaction level which, using its path planning software, created an optimal methodology to complete the task as efficiently as possible. Also, all of the equipment was equipped with safety sensors to stop if an obstacle enters its work path.
Although these emerging technology solutions show great promise for the future, says Clark, making them jobsite-ready and bringing them into the mainstream will require some additional work.
Interpreting the way forward
While much of the task automation focus in recent years has been on relatively straightforward activities that require human oversight and direction, the next level of task automated solutions will be considerably smarter, thanks to advanced perception solutions, communication systems, edge computing and path planning.
These automated systems will be more robust, more flexible and smarter, says Clark, so as to handle different situations, to conceptualise patterns and processes and ‘learn’ behaviours such as avoiding obstacles that humans do automatically. AI and machine learning are integral pieces of this progression.
AI allows for the perception of the environment the machines operate in, which will play a role in optimisation of the site, for example making recommendations about task sequencing.
Contractors will be able to optimise various site operations, says Clark, from equipment selection to material logistic, in ways yet to be considered.
Right now, for example, the Spot quadrupedal robot that Trimble and Boston Dynamics equipped with scanning capabilities for data capture on construction sites is taught by a human how to navigate safely through a site when operating autonomously.
“Someday, Spot will be taught a safe path through a site management solution – and eventually, entirely on its own with just a mission plan,” says Clark. “To achieve that goal, however, the industry must turn real-time data into real-time information to optimise and coordinate the workgroups of machines and the site, which goes well beyond task-based point solutions.”
AI will play a key role in being able to transform vast amounts of data into information and insights for contractors, says Clark, including better predicting, bidding and estimating the costs of new jobs based on previous jobs.
“Another example is how AI can help drive simulations scenarios to keep your job on track with unplanned events,” explains Clark. “We all know the dynamic nature of construction – AI can be used here to help provide insights and recommendations to contractors to get back on track or stay on track.”
For instance, Trimble currently uses AI in the scalable processing of point clouds to understand the semantic contents of scans of things like roads, buildings and beams.
The industry can reduce workforce challenges by increasing the degree of task automation on a jobsite. “It’s just a matter of putting more intelligence into solutions to further optimise project delivery and productivity,” says Clark. “In fact, task automation could be a workforce shortage equaliser, as it not only reduces the labour requirements on a job but reshapes the perception of the construction industry beyond boots and hardhats to one that invites digital creativity.”
There was a time when people worried that robotics, autonomy and other technologies posed a risk to jobs, says Clark, but those days are long gone. “The fact is that today, there are more construction jobs than people to do the work, and contractors are looking for ways to do more work with fewer people,” he says. “Without a doubt, technology is also opening up new jobs and opportunities for the next generation of talent, most of whom grew up using technology.”
“For younger workers, learning construction technology and finding ways to expand the use of it are second nature, which is already leading to career opportunities and growth for many of the customers we work with.”
While it may seem obvious to many, moving to task oriented and semi-autonomous solutions can have a direct improvement on productivity – and sustainability. The construction ecosystem is directly or indirectly responsible for almost 40 per cent of global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from fuel combustion and 25 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions overall, many hundreds of million tonnes of waste, and 14.5 per cent of particulate matter in big cities, according to the McKinsey & Company report Call for Action: Seizing the Decarbonization Opportunity in Construction.
Task automation, says Clark, can significantly improve these numbers. “We have known anecdotally that our automation solutions improve sustainability by increasing operator efficiency and productivity, and by decreasing rework that leads to wasted material, fuel and other resources,” he says.
Recently, Trimble embarked on a field test to quantify the sustainability gains of task automation, starting with the Horizontal Steering Control functionality for the Trimble Earthworks Grade Control Platform for Soil Compactors. Trimble scientifically compared fuel use, time spent and overall carbon reduction benefits that can be realised using automated solutions.
The cumulative results of all trials (20 automated/20 manual) found that the use of assisted steering compared to manual steering led to a threefold savings: average time reduction of 43.8 minutes (29.4 per cent), average reduction of fuel consumption of 1.65 gallons (26.46 per cent), and potential carbon savings as much as 39 per cent.
As nearly every forward-thinking company has set sustainability goals, says Clark, these are numbers to build on. That said, achieving the most ambitious sustainability goals and improving productivity and efficiency in measurable ways will require the construction industry to look towards more intelligent solutions. Task automation sets a foundation for digital twins, smart robots, and the autonomous jobsite – solutions that will drive even greater improvements in productivity, improve operating margins, attract new talent and set the stage for continued progress on the path towards autonomy.
“The most important factor in this technology being successful comes down to our very well respected and capable SITECH distribution partners in Australia,” says Clark. “These partners are dedicated to delivering and supporting technology solutions into the construction industry, which is absolutely critical to the market adoption of new technology.”
Trimble has positioned itself as one of the leaders in the field of construction technology, and Clark says the company will continue to innovate and push the boundaries on what is possible.
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