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Bob Straka, Business Development Manager, Transportation, Southco.

Unmanned equipment presents new design challenges

If the last 20 years have been any indication of the speed at which the off-highway industry can and will advance, the next 20 years will be no different as next-generation machines and equipment will become even more intelligent and automated. Eventually the evolution of, and advancements in, machine intelligence will result in fewer day-to-day human operators.

The industry is moving toward an increase in the amount of onboard computer technologies incorporated into off-highway equipment design. GPS-enabled earthmoving equipment is already common on many sites for example, providing precise locations for where to dig and how deep. Over the next few years, machine intelligence is expected to gain further momentum as computer sensing and electronic controls become more advanced.

The increase in the number of electronics on off-highway equipment presents many challenges for the design engineer. Components must be able to withstand harsh environments and it can be very expensive to design the onboard systems rugged enough. At Southco, our engineering teams develop mechanical and electronic access hardware solutions for OEMs that aide in the isolation from impact of vibration, dust, debris, and moisture. When installed on the doors and panels housing the electronics, these components offer a cost-effective way of making machinery off-highway ready. For instance, Southco offers custom solutions designed with integrated thermoplastics to withstand the elements and elastomeric materials that absorb vibration, and a complete line of compression latches and hinges that assist in the compression of heavily gasketed door and panel assemblies.

As the incorporation of computers and electronics increases in off-highway equipment design, there will come a time when the operator is no longer required to physically operate the machinery. Rather than running one piece of machinery manually, the operator will instead be able to run multiple pieces of unmanned equipment from one location, simultaneously, while performing oversight and quality checks.

Without the need for an operator physically manning the equipment, the appropriate security systems must be in place to ensure expensive machinery is protected. Products like Southco’s Electronic Access Solutions offer a higher level of security and provide remote monitoring and audit trail capabilities, allowing only those authorized to have access and for the observance of panel status during service intervals. When the equipment is in the shop for maintenance for example, Electronic Access Solutions can provide technicians with data about what access panels were opened and when, to help determine any service issues affecting the equipment.

Removing the operator from the cab may also lead to the elimination of the cab itself, freeing up significant space and reducing the overall size and weight. More available space means more room for additional functionality and an increase in equipment density and equipment versatility. For example, removing the cab on a backhoe loader could result in the addition of a third piece of equipment to the machine, increasing equipment functionality and site efficiency. However, this increase in equipment density will also result in more service and maintenance panels. Quick-access fasteners, such as Southco’s DZUS Quarter-Turn product line provide easy and reliable access to any size door.

Advancing machine intelligence and an increase in electronics and onboard computers will change the way operators interact with equipment on construction sites. By incorporating rugged, cost-effective mechanical and electronic access components into off-highway equipment, design engineers can accommodate advancing technologies while meeting the functional demands of rugged, off-highway environments.

Bob Straka, Business Development Manager, Transportation, Southco, wrote this article for SAE Off-Highway Engineering.

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