At Quantum, we want you to get the most out of your GPS machine control systems. We thought it would be helpful to reach out to our colleagues, the experts, at Komatsu, Caterpillar, Case Construction and John Deere to learn from, and share, their broad experience earned on projects worldwide.
Our expert's experiences were all similar and boiled down to four key suggestions:
Easy, right? Apparently not, or no one would have the problems these four suggestions solve. Let's take a look at each one individually and try to figure out a few ways you could make some of your problems go away.
Learn the Basics
EVERY manufacturer brought this one up multiple times. What they wanted to communicate here is that you need to know how to set up and check your GPS systems on every site. First, learn how to set up and calibrate your base/rover to the site. We've put together a blog series explaining the process. Or if you are doing a custom job and need to set up single point control, we have written up another blog post to help you out with that one, too.
Once the base station is running and accuracy verified with your rover it's time to check your machines. Use the rover to make sure the machine is reading grade accurately. If not, adjust for cutting edge wear or dig a little deeper to make sure the system is set up right and all of the sensors are working as they should. There are some basic diagnostics in all machine control systems you can use to verify the individual sensors are communicating with the system. If the machine will not connect to the base station at all, you may need to change the radio channel or fix a radio antenna that was damaged by a tree branch. These area all fairly obvious pointers, but if you don't take the time to learn the basics of how your system operates they can lead to some real, and expensive, frustrations in the field.
Too often, training consists of the dealer helping you localize your first project and some quick hands on to pick up the basic functionality of your rover or machine system. I am not sure why, probably a combination of expense and time, but this is often the limit of training acquired by many of our clients. Training this abbreviated leads to frustration and underutilization of very expensive machine control systems.
Our counterparts at Deere, Komatsu, Cat and Case all saw proper training as the keystone of successful machine control integration for any contractor. They regularly meet operators who do not understand how to interpret what the monitor is communicating to them. Simple things like adjusting offsets for concrete thickness or where the blade/bucket is reading grade need to be well understood by any operator. More advanced techniques like steering to linework or building custom surfaces can be learned once the basics are fully understood and applied. Changing linework colors is another important feature, particularly for colorblind operators.
Properly using and understanding how automatic grade control works is regularly misunderstood by poorly trained operators. They need to understand how the cutting edge tracks to the surface and where the cutting edge is reading grade. When a the blade jumps up a curb or across a v-ditch the operator needs to understand why this happened and how to adjust the system so they can do their job right. The latest excavator systems have several nuances in how to set up and use the semi-automatic features. Without good training, your operators can't optimize the efficiency of your machine control systems.
Use Good Data
Our friends at the manufacturers might not agree on everything, but they all said poor 3D models and linework are a regular contributor to disappointing machine control performance. A bad model will not meet grade and can even cause your system to "lock up" and require a restart. Those "free" models rarely meet expectations.
3D models don't leave a lot of room for interpretation. They either match the Engineer's plans or they don't. Errors like the cross slope on a road being 2% instead of 1.5% might not be obvious while you are grading. As soon as the paving contractor shows up and finds the problem you will have some expensive re-work on your hands. Another frustrating problem is "bad spots" in the models. A bad spot could be a sudden drop or spike that can cause your blade to dig in or lift up abruptly. Poor quality control from your model builder or blindly using a "free" model are when this problem usually pops up.
The remedy here is either to build a good relationship with a trusted 3D modeling company, we are partial to this one ;), or invest in the employee, software and training necessary to build the capability internally. Just remember, your finished grade can't be any better than your 3D model.
Have a Champion
The most successful contractors task one of their employees with being the GPS Champion at the company. A GPS Champion is an employee who learns the new technology, trains co-workers and even convinces them it is worth suffering through the learning curve. Your GPS Champion is the first person your team reaches out to for advice and troubleshooting. They are the person your operators and grade checkers can rely on to make them productive with the latest machine control technology.
Some companies try to rely on their GPS vendor to take on this roll. While this may be enough to get you started on the first project or two, your vendor is not in a position to answer all of the little daily questions and clear up confusion after your initial training. Your internal GPS Champion is the person that can fill that gap, answer the little questions and validate set-up and accuracy. This is a big job at first and can consume a significant amount of an employee's time for the first few projects with machine control. As the wider company learns and actually uses machine control every day the demands on your GPS Champion will slow, freeing them up for other tasks.
Who should you pick for your GPS Champion? Hint, it is probably not your best foreman or the company owner. People with heavy project management responsibilities can rarely free up the time necessary to work through the technology learning curve with your team. The Champion is usually an ambitious employee with a curious mind and the patience to teach co-workers who may not share their initial interest in the technology. You might find the right person in an unexpected place, so keep an open mind when thinking through who may be your most effective technology Champion.
Invest in Your Success
It might seem like boiling down the worldly experience of Caterpillar, John Deere, Case and Komatsu's experts to four suggestions might be over-simplifying, and maybe it is. But, what to understand here is that while every excavating company is unique they all share common growing pains when it comes to technology. By taking the four tips below and applying them to your situation quite a few frustrations and inefficiencies can be avoided. Once you get "over the hump" you will be able to confidently rely on GPS machine control to be the backbone of your grading operation.
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