Microprocessor-based controls are breaking new ground in the construction equipment landscape and shattering design criteria like a bulldozer in a china shop.
"We probably use 10 times more electronic components than we did a decade ago," says David Wachter, an engineer and manager at CAT Electronics. "People don't think of Caterpillar as a designer of electronic controls, but many of the 800 engineers at CAT Electronics do just that."
At Caterpillar, the application of electronics provides the key to machine productivity and uptime for equipment operators. Regulatory requirements for safety and emissions, combined with the customer demand for increased productivity and lower operating costs, drive electronics design.
Today's construction equipment applies all available data and capabilities to what Wachter calls information products. "In the earthmoving world, information products control the way that machines are guided and controlled," he says. Guidance is accomplished though the use of global positioning system (GPS) technologies combined with 3D, computer-generated terrain and job profiles.
Wachter explains that previously when a contractor broke ground on a new project, the site could require three or more manual surveys by a team of engineers until the terrain was at grade. "Today, 3D images produced with GPS and lasers usually mean the land is surveyed once before excavation starts and once after to confirm it is level."
When information on a particular terrain is combined with a "smart machine," Wachter says that contractors achieve up to a 30% productivity advantage through increased accuracy and efficiency. "They can even be productive during night operation because operators now primarily look at computer screens instead of out the cab windows at survey stakes."
At Case Construction Equipment, electronics also lead to productivity gains from equipment that works smarter. "Our use of electronics has significantly increased in the last five years, especially on the big equipment," says Case's VP of engineering, Richard Hall. "Generally speaking, the bigger the machine, the greater the improvements electronics enable."
One area where electronic controls increase the productivity of Case equipment is fuel consumption. "For example, you can pre-program a repetitive dump or excavation motion and minimize the power needed from our electronically controlled engine for carrying out the task," says Hall.
The new electronics enable the company's new fleet-management system that uses GPS satellites, cellular-phone technology, and the Internet to provide owners with the position, battery voltage, and hour-meter readings on their equipment.
Case equipment owners access information on equipment via a password-protected Internet site that provides reports and mapping options. Equipment is managed from the contractor's desktop computer.
FleetLink provides automatic tracking of maintenance intervals, reducing the time that equipment managers need for this task. The system consists of an antenna and a small control box containing a GPS receiver and a cellular telephone transmitter.
"Today's operators, which we dubbed the Nintendo generation, are more comfortable with joysticks and electronic controls," says Hall. "That means you'll see even more automation of machine control and predictive maintenance in the future."
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