There is something about Irish eyes that breaks people into song. Ray O’Connor’s vision of the industry may not call for anything a capella, but the tone he uses certainly demands attention. O’Connor, a native of Ireland who is the president and CEO of Topcon Positioning Systems, Livermore, Calif., had time to offer his insight on the future of machine automation.
Question: You have stated that construction is the world’s last major manufacturing industry that has not been automated. How so?
Ray O’Connor: The construction business is really a manufacturing business where roads, buildings, bridges, highways, pipelines, etc., are manufactured. But further, construction is a custom-manufacturing business—an art form, really. Not every road is the same, not every bridge is the same. In construction, we are machining the planet, using bulldozers, motor graders, excavators and other types of machines to literally change the face of the earth.
Construction machines are not that different from a milling machine or a lathe in a manufacturing facility. About 50 or more years ago, engineers were taking measuring instruments and putting them onto lathes and automating those machines. They were taking designs of the product and sending it directly to the machine.
The measuring instruments implemented into the machine not only allowed it to machine the part automatically, but it removed the necessity of a very highly skilled operator on every single machine. That operator then became more of a manager than a very highly skilled laborer with unique abilities.
The same thing is happening in construction and at an accelerated rate. Every day, all around the world, contractors are utilizing the design of whatever we are trying to do, using the engineering file and sending the pertinent information to the machine. A computer integrates into the hydraulics of the machine and we put sensors on the moving parts of the machine so we can compensate and we can know where the machine is, where it’s supposed to be and what it’s supposed to do at all times. And it becomes a precise machine tool.
Who would ever imagine that a bulldozer could become a precise machine tool? A motor grader—precise machine tool? That’s exactly what’s happening. Companies used global positioning systems (GPS) as an enabling technology to take this around-the-corner technology into mainstream construction work. Topcon added Glonass signals to the equation more than six years ago to increase accuracy and uptime and dependability. GPS plus Glonass allows contractors to automate multiple machines on the jobsite, from the same design, using GNSS sensors to automate the machines. That’s a savings in time and manpower and is more productive. That translates into a more profitable business.
That’s what you’ve seen in the past five or six years. That business segment has grown triple-digit growth year to year—for the past four or five years—for us and other companies.
Q: Automation is coming. How will the industry change in that area in the next five to 10 years?
RO: Without a doubt, within five years, any major construction or highway project that’s done anywhere in the world can’t be done without automated equipment. If you don’t have the technology and don’t plan on using the technology, bottom line: You can’t compete. This technology increases productivity exponentially. Some people will say it’s only 50% or 75%, like that’s a bad thing. Even if it is only 50% or 75%, you can’t compete if you don’t have the equipment.
But I know that if a contractor is doing fine grading on any earthmoving project, this technology can increase productivity by more than 100%. You can do the job in half the amount of time it would normally take.
You can’t bid competitively if you don’t have that advantage. It’s just not possible.
Q: How long do you think it will be before OEMs are putting this equipment virtually as standard on graders, bulldozers, excavators, pavers, etc?
RO: You’re already starting to see some of the major manufacturers moving into that arena. Topcon supplies equipment to Komatsu, John Deere, Caterpillar and GOMACO, plus many others. We have a list of about 50 manufacturers and OEMs that we supply our equipment to and that install it at the factory. The primary driver of that movement now is the real fine machines that place concrete and the asphalt. At that all-important finish level, it’s like the final layer of paint or wallpaper. At that state, they have to fix all the problems. And those machines have been automated for a long time.
We’re the dominant player in that business and have been for many years. In the paving industry in the U.S., for example, Topcon has 90% of all the controls that go on machines.
That work is still mainly two-dimensional, but that’s moving rapidly to three-dimensional now with Millimeter GPS.
But you’re going to see more and more machines with this automation, like bulldozers or motor graders. When they’re used for fine grading, it’s possible to get the job completed inside of a centimeter.
Years ago, we made a conscious decision not to be tied to one OEM. We wanted options. We wanted to have our controls. We’re experts in measurement technology and positioning technology and controlling machines, and our goal is to have our equipment as the core of machine-control technology of every single applicable machine and not just a single brand.
Our plan is to stay focused on bringing the new technology to every possible machine by every possible manufacturer. There is so much emerging technology within this business—how to position these machines, how we speed them up so they are able to grade faster and more accurately—that you don’t want to be hampered by trying to meet the requirements of a single company.
Q: How much trouble is it to install precise machine control on machines today?
RO: We are not far away from the time when machine control comes standard on dozers, graders or excavators, plus other machines. Adding a control system is very easy. To put a paving control system on a paver, for example, takes 10 minutes. You just plug it in. OEMs are today making machines so you can just plug machine-control systems in. You don’t need welders or have to take bolts, piping and hydraulics off a machine to hook up a machine control system.
The easier the upgrades or installations are, the faster the technology will be accepted.
Q: Are partnerships important in this fast-changing industry?
RO: If they are the right partnerships. Five years ago, Topcon formed a joint-venture company with Sauer Danfoss, the largest supplier of electrohydraulic equipment in the world. They are a $1.7 billion company, and they supply all the OEMs. That’s what Sauer Danfoss does—sells the controls and the integrated solutions for controlling the machines to all the off-road equipment manufacturers. They have a global sales force of 600, plus 26 manufacturing service facilities around the world.
At Topcon, we knew we needed to take our positioning control products [and] tightly integrate them with the electrohydraulics that go on the machine. Right now, we put a control system on machines. Sauer Danfoss is putting the electronics right on the hydraulics today. So then, why can’t my algorithms run right on the electronics that are on the hydraulics and forget having to have this extra box that needs to be installed, needs to be repaired, needs to be maintained and costs a lot of money?
What we’ve been able to do is tightly integrate our machine control with the Sauer Danfoss electrohydraulic controls, and that’s allowed us to dominate the OEM business with a 46% share.
Q: Will you give us more information about Topcon and Sauer Danfoss?
RO: It’s a 50-50 joint venture. The nice thing about integrating the guy who’s writing the algorithm control for the hydraulic spool and the guy who’s writing the algorithm control to control the blade is that they are now talking to each other. The whole process is very deeply integrated, so you can achieve the highest possible performance. By integrating controls, you can speed up a machine and increase productivity by 100% on a jobsite from the traditional method of staking out a job.
Speeding the machine up allows an operator to control it faster and quicker than anybody else can. That has a tremendous impact on the ability to readily accept the next generation of technology.
What’s even more phenomenal is the speed and development of the technology is moving. It’s like lightning.
Machine manufacturers and contractors need to be up to date on what’s happening in the marketplace. For example, what happens if the machines of another company can operate at twice the speed? In that situation, the first company then has the viable risk of losing some machine sales, and they won’t do that. When you’re talking about sales, at the end of the day, they’re going to look at the Topcon system, or whatever system, because if it works better, faster, smarter, then go ahead and put it on.
Competition, regardless of where it comes from, is a great motivator to us. Our goal is to make sure that our equipment performs at twice the speed and twice the accuracy of our competitors.
Q: In terms of operators, worldwide, there are operator shortages now. Are we looking at operator-free worksites within five to 10 years?
RO: On some timetable, absolutely. Some companies operate autonomous machines today. Whether it becomes a reality on a large scale in the future is another matter. The aviation industry has drones operating today. Due to safety issues, we’re still not there in the construction industry, with all the sensors we have to put on a machine to replicate the human sensors. To be able to see, to be able to touch, to be able to feel . . .
However, there’s no doubt the first application of autonomous vehicles is in dangerous sites—nuclear waste facilities, in areas where you have volcanoes or poisonous gases—and we’re doing that today, controlling when, where and how the machine operates on a particular site. On many oil fires, you need an autonomous machine to go in and eliminate the wellhead or tie off the wellhead.
The first place you’re going to see true jobsite machine automation as the norm is agriculture, because in that business you have tractors and you’re out in the middle of a field.
In that scenario you won’t need as many sensors as you would need in the construction industry.
It’s coming, but on a large scale it’s still down the road.
Q: So it’s more about the skills you can give to unskilled operators or inexperienced operators?
RO: You’ve got to have a great skill set to be able to operate a big machine and shape the earth into millimeter-level accuracy.
But the skill set at the top of the pyramid is getting smaller and smaller. And who wants to operate a machine 50 years of their life? It’s very tough physically on your body. So the ability to recruit and maintain skilled operators is decreasing. The new technology and equipment allows you to turn unskilled operators into fine-grade machine operators very, very quickly.
It’s not going to take away the operator that has the intuitiveness to manage a jobsite situation because you still have to manage the material in front of the machine and the productivity of the overall machine. Those skilled operators will become better and more focused on managing the actual machine and will still be in high demand.
Meanwhile, every day we continue to work to make equipment that will improve the machine’s performance.
Q: How were you able to secure access to Glonass technology so early in the game?
RO: We have a unique position. All our GPS development is done in Russia.
We have 170 engineers in Moscow, so we have some insight into the whole program, signal structures and everything else. That’s a unique advantage for us.
Q: So to what degree do you think the forthcoming Galileo network will impact the construction business?
RO: It’s not just Galileo. Improvements in GPS are also coming. New satellites will be going up because GPS is the oldest structure, so it’s the one that needs the most repairs. Glonass is relatively new so all the satellites are relatively new. They’ve been rebuilding their constellation over the last five years, and Russia launched six new ones in 2007.
Galileo, at some point, is a constellation that’ll be coming into play. And the Chinese have just launched a satellite for its planned Compass system. Any satellites that are using ranging technology, measuring technology from satellites are important for the future of the business, because you’ve got to have a minimum of five satellites in view in order to get a dynamic measurement.
More satellites mean better coverage and less downtime even in an urban jungle or heavy forest canopy . . . if you have equipment that can receive the most signals.
That’s where G3 technology comes in. Topcon announced G3 (GPS, Glonass and Galileo) in 2006. Right now, our products pick up GPS and Glonass. We didn’t stop there. Our advanced technology can already pick up test signals from the Galileo and Compass constellations.
In a real-world scenario I can’t see a customer buying a product that isn’t a proven technology over a non-proven technology. And realistically, why would a customer not buy technology that already has built in the ability to receive all the future signals?
With Topcon’s technology, you actually pick the satellites you want to use in the situation that gives the best result. You may not necessarily use all the satellites your equipment can see. That’s an automated response built into the Topcon receivers.
What all this means is that positioning accuracy will improve and availability of signals will improve. Galileo and Compass will do nothing but help the industry and the adoption of the technology.
Q: What’s the bottom line?
RO: The construction business is chang[ing] rapidly. Plan on learning all you can about the technological changes—what is available now, what technology is coming down the road and how can you upgrade quickly and easily, what gives the most benefits for the money—and make the investments necessary that will keep you competitive today and in the future.