While GPS technology on heavy machinery such as tracked dozers and excavators is nothing new — early adopters started using this technology in the early 2000s — the number of civil contractors using this technology in the last five years has nearly doubled.
These days, you would be hard-pressed to drive by a major earthwork operation without seeing the GPS masts on the heavy machinery.
In the next five years, this technology will be as common as a hydraulic pump on these types of machines. So, what are these systems being used for, what’s the appeal and what can we expect from them over the next few years?
Contrary to the typical use of a GPS system, these devices aren’t guiding machine operators with turn-by-turn directions to get them where they need to go. A GPS system on a bulldozer or excavator is reading the terrain and feeding information that will increase time savings and efficiencies and cut back on machine wear.
In grading, for example, while a typical bulldozer operator not using GPS might make three passes over an area to achieve a target grade, a GPS device helps achieve this is one pass. The bulldozer achieves target grade quickly, the operator sees where he is on the job and mistakes are reduced exponentially. A single pass means wear and tear on a vehicle is significantly less, and when your money is in your machine, less maintenance means cost-savings and a longer life for your equipment.
GPS also saves time and money when laying out a site. Rather than paying a surveyor to stake a site by hand and taking time to research a site before excavating, the GPS tells how much to cut and fill — and where — without measuring. It knows where to move the soil material and the most efficient way to do it.
Using a 3-D model of the site with finished surfaces, placed concrete and floors, the GPS knows every elevation for every inch of a site. These models change in real-time, so if one element changes that could cause potential problems, the problem and its possible solutions are displayed.
A June 2011 report from NDP Consulting Group reported the annual benefits of precision GPS to U.S. civil engineering, construction and surveying was $32 billion in terms of labor costs. The savings are felt across the board. The price of using a GPS-equipped bulldozer is more expensive, but the time it takes to finish the job is cut almost in half.
This technology is no longer simply a nice perk. More and more projects are requiring it, and companies can’t even propose on a project if they can’t provide the technology and a plan to use it. The Federal Aviation Administration requires it on airport runways due to accuracy of the grade.
The introduction of GPS is changing the way those entering the industry are, or need to be, educated. Those entering the workforce right now started their careers using this technology and don’t have the skills to complete the job if the system goes down. And, as the future indicates job sites without workers and autonomous vehicles moving earth, the workforce will need to have more advanced skills and knowledge about this and other technologies to be successful.
GPS technology means a more modern worksite, more accurate information for surveying and estimating, and a decrease in costly rework. It allows operators to see where they once couldn’t and cuts project times. It’s a technology that is not only a valuable tool, but also a stepping stone into the future of how construction sites eventually will be run.