Working Smarter, Not Harder: Turning to Automation to Level the Playing Field

Réka Vasszi, communications manager
Hexagon Geosystems
Special Collaboration


Many challenges face the construction industry today, but one of the biggest is the ongoing shortage of skilled workers. It has plagued the industry for years, and it impacts nearly every aspect of the jobsite. That is especially true for a role requiring the level of experience a skilled excavator operator brings to a project.

For such a labor-driven and labor-intensive industry, the deficiency can wreak havoc on companies and their ability to complete jobs and meet their bottom line. Companies cannot source talent with the level of experience they need, and recruiting and training new team members is not an option.

The COVID-19 pandemic has further exacerbated the shortage, and, to compensate, contractors are rethinking their relationship with technology.

Contractors need certainty. They are willing to deploy new, easy-to-use solutions that enable them to lessen how long they need to complete a project and reduce the probability of mistakes. It all comes down to the bottom line. The old adage “time is money” is especially true on the jobsite today.

Technology is a professional partner that complements existing team members’ efforts, allowing them to fulfill more tasks without complicated additions.

The Civil Quarterly (TCQ), a publication from Dodge Data & Analytics, found 47% of contractors use machine control, and contractors that do so use it on 61% of their projects. Concurrently, many others are looking to go in that direction.

In the wake of COVID-19, machine control has again proven its worth on the jobsite. A more recent poll from TCQ revealed 32% contractors cite machine control as one of the most widely adopted new technologies helping them minimize negative business impacts amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Larger companies tend to use technologies such as machine control 2-to-3 times more frequently than smaller operations. However, smaller companies are often adopting these digital solutions to grow their business and effectively compete. Because technology levels the playing field, smaller companies can turn to a larger base of prospective employees. It also allows smaller companies to compete on larger projects that might otherwise require deeper experience.

The excavator is perhaps the most complex machine on the jobsite. It takes years of experience for an operator to become an expert.

Someone who is not experienced at operating a piece of equipment such as an excavator will not be as efficient moving materials around the jobsite. All too often, it requires an operator to revisit a location for additional work if they cannot complete the task correctly the first time, or the contractor must bring in an expert operator to redo the job and fix the mistakes.

Grade calculation errors are easy to make, and consider its impact on a contractor. An error could result in an entire run of pipe being dug up and re-laid at the contractor’s expense, which could easily add up to tens of thousands of dollars.

That has a real impact on a contractor’s time to completion and their budget. It can snowball to affect material overages or shortages. Or, even worse, an inexperienced operator might be more prone to striking an underground utility, which, aside from being time-consuming and costly to fix, can be deadly.

An excavator requires precision. An operator needs to control the position of the bucket and its attachments, and he or she must also manage the machine’s speed, a potentially tricky task for novice operators to pick up.

One common mistake that arises from an inexperienced operator is over digging, which has a ripple of adverse effects. Repairing an area that has been over excavated often requires testing to make sure the compaction of the dirt is correct, a potentially costly and time-consuming affair.

Automating the machine’s movements allows an inexperienced operator a lot more confidence and effectiveness with equipment movement. The only requirement of an operator using an automated system is watching where he or she is placing the bucket down on the ground.

Using automatic controls is not inherently challenging, and it is not dramatically different than operating the machine in general. It does not feature any confusing interfaces or additional panels to distract from the task at hand. In fact, the solution eliminates a layer of worry for operators, as they can complete a job with peace of mind knowing it meets a job’s requirements.

Because the solution requires less experience to operate, it enables contractors to tap into a larger pool of candidates. They no longer have to reserve specific tasks on the jobsite for a select few team members. In essence, even an employee on their first day can be as effective as a team member with years of experience.

Semi-automated excavator functionality for excavators, such as Leica Geosystems’ iXE3 3D, is a flexible and easy-to-use solution that includes tilt and tilt rotator bucket automation. It allows an operator to select auto boom control, auto bucket control, auto tilt control and autorotation control, or any combination, to suit the operator’s choice and the task at hand. It enables an operator to execute complex tasks that would be difficult to manually complete and to dig faster and more accurately to cross slope and the target design surface.

The solution reduces manual controls, increases productivity, speed and accuracy of the work, even when used by less experienced operators.

The semi-automatic configuration allows an operator to work 30% faster on a grading application than a machine equipped with a traditional machine control solution.

Automating the excavator on a jobsite increases productivity and accuracy and decreases operator fatigue and fuel consumption. A more focused and less fatigued operator is paramount to safer operations, reducing the risk of accidents and costly rework errors.

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