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Based on JDLink connectivity, John Deere’s Precision Construction technology features tools to manage maintenance, coordinate assets, track utilization and boost productivity. (John Deere)

Increasing connectivity in construction

Jobsites look to overcome challenges posed by mixed fleets and proprietary telematics to achieve “one-dashboard” vision and increased machine utilization.

Wouldn’t it be great if the entire jobsite – the general contractor, subcontractors, designers, owners, equipment vendors and material suppliers – were all working in sync with the data that shifts with each condition change, progress report, change order, telematics warning and machine inspection? That the right people got the right information at the right time to make informed decisions?

This “one-dashboard” vision is much easier said than done. The journey of one equipment manager illuminates the roadblocks. Several years back, Langdon Mitchell, equipment division general manager for heavy civil contractor Morgan Corp., needed to have someone physically go machine-by-machine to update the software in his fleet.

The next big hurdle: each OEM had its own proprietary telematics portal. Like most contractors, Morgan has a mixed fleet and getting a unified fleet view from all the disparate systems was clunky and time-consuming, Mitchell said. The Spartanburg, South Carolina-based company is now using a third-party product that amalgamates the information from each brand in the company fleet, in addition to its rental equipment. “It’s become a single source of truth,” Mitchell said. “Beyond the raw telematics data, it’s allowing us to have tools to have actionable items.”

But more is needed, said Will Hipp, equipment data analyst with Morgan. “Our eventual goal is to have all the project managers on board so they can see the machines on other jobsites and identify any machines that have little utilization.”

That involves getting dynamic project schedules to match up with fleet needs so areas can be pinpointed where the company perhaps has too many or not enough machines. “That is one of the biggest tasks we have: making sure that machines are in the right place at the right time,” Mitchell said.

Jobsite connectivity is complex
This is one example of the information needs of one division of one company. Multiply those needs company wide, and then by all the entities with which that one company does business. Now add the industry at large and one realizes the complexities involved.

“It sounds pretty simple, but when you take a look at the disparate systems that GCs, subs, developers and agencies use, everybody has different formats and protocols so it’s extremely convoluted,” said Brian Juroff, senior VP of sales for positioning solutions at Topcon Positioning Group. “While jobsite connectivity is easy to define, executing it is a completely different matter. Every contractor has a different soup mix of software for office, modeling, scanning, etc. It becomes a huge hurdle.”

“There’s an immense amount of data that’s created throughout the course of a construction project,” said Patrick Stevenson, VP of product management and platform at Trimble. “Jobsite connectivity is making sure that information is transferring to the right individuals at the right moment in time so that they can more effectively do their job.”

What’s needed is a connective tissue that integrates fully with all pieces of information, creating a living, adaptive body of data. “It’s providing a digital overview of what’s happening on the site so everyone can easily make decisions,” said Kenneth Veys, portfolio manager, uptime and connectivity at Volvo Construction Equipment.

Technology provides a boost
Overall technology infrastructure advancements such as 5G networks, lidar scanning, GNSS (global navigation satellite systems) and edge computing are laying the foundation for more-effectual jobsite connectivity.

“I’ve been on jobsites in the past where at 2:30 in the afternoon you were going to lose connectivity based on satellite positioning,” said Lonnie Fritz, senior market professional at Caterpillar. “You could set your watch to it. GNSS alone has really driven improvement in accuracy and reliability.”

One of the biggest shifts is development of open-architecture software so that data from different sources can be more easily integrated. “That’s allowing a lot of contractors to embrace the concept of automating their processes,” Topcon’s Juroff said.

While jobs in more remote areas still face connectivity issues, the amount of data that now can be transmitted has grown exponentially in the world at large. There’s a wealth of data that’s waiting to be mined in a connected way, from machine telematics to design data to labor apps, said Jason Anetsberger, Komatsu’s director of customer solutions. Connected machines now can receive updated design data, report back their productivity and the shape of the terrain as they create it.

Severino Trucking of Candia, New Hampshire, went to a cloud-based model to reduce redundancy and disconnect, said Pat L’Heureux, project manager. “We have some crews that will take a project 80% of the way and then another group takes over. Everyone needs to have the same information.” Going to the cloud has been a “huge time-saver,” L’Heureux added. “I can now troubleshoot an issue in five minutes, where sometimes in the past it could take me three hours because of travel time.”

And it’s not just machines and production schedules that are part of the data mix. Trackers, specialized hardhats and smart glasses are adding location, fall alerts and biometrics information on construction workers, leading to increases in safety and labor management capabilities.

Shifting attitudes toward tech
Contractors’ attitudes toward technology implementation also have shifted, said Elwyn McLachlan, VP of Trimble’s civil solutions division. “We’ve seen a big jump in adoption of connectivity solutions,” she said, “especially now that we can push a design update out to a machine remotely instead of having to drive out to the jobsite.”

“Every year, the needle is definitely moving on the contractor technology adoption levels,” Caterpillar’s Fritz said. “There’s an increase in their belief of what technology can do to improve their operations.”

The combination of grade-control data with telematics reporting was a significant step forward, according to James Leibold, product manager of global connectivity at John Deere. “You’re not just having machines that report data, but you can remotely go into a machine and fix it,” he said.

The ability to not physically have to download job model revisions is critical, said Lyle Ballou, GPS manager for DXI Construction in Churchville, Maryland. “We are managing 65 active jobs as we speak, and we have to manage the GPS info as different crews move in and out of different jobs weekly, sometimes daily.”

DXI Construction juggles the workload for 51 different crews in three different states, which necessitates being able to instantly connect and “program” each crew for the work to be performed. “The investment we have made has eliminated not being able to work because we have to wait for stakeout, or wait for a program to be driven to a job and downloaded,” Ballou added.

One barrier to jobsite connectivity is the sheer choice of tech options out there, said Jim Bretz, connectivity services support manager at Volvo Construction Equipment. “Customers don’t know what to choose,” he said. Fears about office and field data security are also valid.

“It’s so fragmented right now with the number of solutions,” Morgan Corp.’s Mitchell agreed. “One company has a cool answer for one thing and another company has a cool answer for another thing. How do you now bring that information into the whole so you can make decisions?”

“The different solutions can be siloed, which makes it hard to have cross compatibility,” L’Heureux added. “If providers get too proprietary, it can hurt the end user.”

Construction attracting attention
“I love the attention that the industry is now getting,” said Komatsu’s Anetsberger, who is presenting a seminar on “Digital Transformation of the Jobsite” at the ConExpo-Con/Agg trade show in Las Vegas in March. “People are seeing that it’s either ripe for digital disruption or that there must be an easier way.”

Mitchell agreed: “What is exciting in our industry right now is how technology is really ramping up.” Contractors will be able to piggyback on what’s happening in the broader technology space. In addition to jobsite connectivity, these efforts also will lay the groundwork for autonomous machines.

But don’t think jobsite connectivity will solve all problems, Volvo CE’s Bretz warned. “It’s likely it will reveal more issues and create a whole new aspect of managing jobsites and machines because it opens up a lot of information that wasn’t immediately available,” he said.

“The connected jobsite concept is something I’m passionate about and I want to see grow,” L’Heureux said. “It will help with the disconnect we see daily between companies, engineers, even internally. It will create more of a community if we can share this data.”

Gregg Wartgow, contributing writer for the Association of Equipment Manufacturers (AEM), submitted this article to SAE Media. AEM produces the ConExpo-Con/Agg trade show, in 2023 taking place March 14-18 in Las Vegas. The trade group consists of more than 1,000 off-road equipment manufacturers and suppliers representing more than 200 product lines.

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