Kenny Liesfeld is president of New Field, Inc., specializing in soil stabilization and site work, including earthwork for road building. He notes that the days of grade stakes, surveyors and masted technology are in the past. Instead, Liesfeld relies on state-of-the-art John Deere equipment and its SmartGrade technology to stay profitable and on task.
SmartGrade technology works using a three-dimensional grading map jobsite file that’s loaded into the machine’s onboard grade system. Integrated GNSS (global navigation satellite system) technology tells the machine where it is relative to that map or file. The excavator also has integrated inertial measurement units on the arm, boom and bucket, which guide the system and prevent overdigging. The machine itself automatically controls the boom and bucket to achieve the specified grade, typically within a very precise tolerance.
The in-cab display monitors the distance to grade in real time, and the JDLink communication system in the machine communicates data to the John Deere dealer and the manufacturer, providing alerts if there’s a problem.
SmartGrade is available on four of Deere’s product lines, says Sean Mairet, John Deere’s Product Manager – Machine Control:
- 650K, 700L, 750L, 850L, and 950K
- Motor graders
- 620GP/622GP, 670GP/672GP, 770GP/772GP, 870GP/872GP
- Deere: 210G, 350G, 470G
- Hitachi (Solution Linkage): ZAXIS210, ZAXIS350
- Compact tracked loaders (CTL)
“For bladed implements, like dozers, graders and CTL, the technology is key to keeping the blade on grade and maximizing every pass while maintaining accuracy,” he says. “On crawler dozers, Auto SmartGrade automatically adjusts the blade position to ensure maximum pushing power without slipping the tracks, preventing non-productive track wear.”
On excavators, SmartGrade is leveraged to ensure the machine doesn’t dig below target depth, minimizing or eliminating over-excavation. When in semi-autonomous mode, the implement cutting edge is controlled to create an accurate and precise finish surface that minimizes the need for extra material, Mairet adds.
Bob Meyer, Liesfield’s John Deere representative at James River Equipment, says, “Anything that’s GPS-integrated is going to help you solve problems, get through projects faster. Speed is key with the SmartGrade product. Period.”
Liesfeld also appreciates the streamlined profile of SmartGrade equipment. “We don’t have masts and antennas out there in the open, getting hit, or cables and slope sensors breaking. It’s all packaged neatly,” he says. It means less climbing around, installing and uninstalling the equipment each day. “You can literally just lock the cab of the machine and go home,” he adds.
Plus, because the sensors are fully integrated within the equipment, the grading task is much more automated, making the process highly manageable for both experienced and newer operators. In fact, even his people who are accustomed to running equipment without grade control systems find the switch to the new technology an easy adjustment. “It’s very intuitive and has a good feel to it,” Liesfeld says. “And with an integrated system, they’re not fighting the controls, always trying to hit the target grade while losing traction.”
Jake Lewis of New Field, is a grading superintendent—and also a customer of James River Equipment. Lewis’s role involves responsibility for quality control—making sure the team has the equipment they need to do the job right—and for hitting production goals.
“The old way of doing things involved continually getting off the machine to check the grade,” he says. However, that is not particularly efficient and ends up costing both time and money. New Field’s investment in John Deere SmartGrade equipment has proved to be a big hit among operators. “All of them love the technology because it helps them do their jobs better. They can put the machine on grade one time and then move on to the next task.”
Aside from making the job easier on the operators, the technology results in more up time. Lewis often has multiple machines working in unison, and each one preps the roadway for the next operation. At the end of the chain, the result is a surface that’s on grade, finished and ready for stone. However, Lewis explains, “If one machine goes down, you don’t just go park it off to the side and keep working. That one machine affects every other machine on the job.” If that happens, Lewis must react quickly.
Since he’s responsible for both quality and productivity, Lewis relies on John Deere Connected Support. Among other things, Connected Support means a John Deere dealer can view a customer's machine display remotely. This enables the dealer to diagnose issues without having to make a trip into the field.
Bob Meyer, Territory Manager, at the Ashland, Virginia, James River dealership, describes their high-tech mission control room with multiple televisions in it. “Our entire fleet of equipment—all of our customers’ machines—are being monitored at all times on an array of displays. The people in the war room are there full-time, looking for a code to pop up.”
If that happens, Meyer is notified immediately. “I get alerts on my phone and determine whether it’s something that needs attention right away. Sometimes I’ll just contact the customer directly. Other times, I’ll consult one of our experts in the field. That all happens before the customer is even aware that there’s an issue.”
As far as in-person support goes, James River has been very helpful with the training aspect of the technology, says Lewis. “They don’t just hop up in the machine and press a few buttons, then say, ‘Okay, go back to work.’ They take the time to show you how to make adjustments in the field and how to recognize if something’s not right.”
Quality Equipment, Quality Roads
“Overall, SmartGrade is a powerful technology tools that helps operators get the most out of their machines throughout the day,” says Mairet. “It leverages the design plan to help the operator get to grade as efficiently as possible by reducing rework.”
Lewis takes a lot of pride in the work he does with his Deere equipment. “A lot of construction projects only affect a certain group of people, like a building, for example. But people from all over the country drive on the roads we build, and they have to be quality,” he says. He knows he’s succeeded when he doesn’t get any feedback. “No one ever calls me to tell me how great things are.” But that’s all right with him—no news is good news. “People don’t notice the road if it’s built properly and has rideability.”
Liesfeld agrees. “It’s not every day you get to be part of something that you can share with the public. If you can do a good job of building roads—at the end of the day, you can step back and actually see what you’ve accomplished. We can always do better, think better, operate better. John Deere has that same approach.”