If my experiences in Scotland were a snapshot of a current contemplation, the weekend following the Scotland trip was a journey back in time: for the first time since 2008, I attended a construction equipment show. The difference: this one, the largest of its sort in the world, was in Munich instead of Las Vegas.
So far, posts I’ve written here would suggest that my industrial interests lie primarily with commercial aviation, but a second interest that doesn’t play second fiddle by any stretch of the imagination is construction equipment. It’s a long-seated passion that has been dormant for nearly a decade due to my current work, which has little — if anything — to do with earthmoving. Bauma (a shortening of “Baumaschinen,” or construction equipment), like Conexpo, occurs every three years with 2016 being one of its show years, which in my dissociation from the industry I didn’t realize until January. A good deal of its exhibition space is indoors, but outdoors areas give manufacturers an opportunity to showcase new products or equipment agility, or interview winners of operator competitions. Yes, those exist.
After a week of decent weather in Munich, rain did return, but it wasn’t just the weather that kept me inside. Nearly after a decade of not having any interaction with Caterpillar employees or equipment, I finally got to rekindle the flame that arguably sparked my engineering aspirations.
The current heavy equipment industry is interesting in that it is undergoing a transformation. The same trend toward automation and electronics that has been reshaping the automotive world has also begun in construction equipment, and Caterpillar is one of the manufacturers leading the pack. Though there are always mechanical optimizations to be made, fuel efficiency increases are no longer only related to the best hydraulic system or most economical engine. Increasing use of GPS and telematics is beginning to drive improvements in productivity; Cat’s 336F XE on center display showed all three capabilities. The vertical post just behind the cab is a GPS receiver that can, for instance, set the maximum depth the machine is permitted to dig or alert the operator when the bucket is flat.
Construction equipment was once famed for its brute durability. It was an industry notorious for putting steel in place of cables and sensors and for over-engineered structures. When a single pass of a D11 can dig a hole the size of a house basement, strength and robustness are without question important factors on the list of design criteria. The classic linkage mechanism for a wheel loader has always been a Z-bar linkage, but here, on a design that has existed virtually unchanged for more than half a century, engineers fitted a sensor simply to detect bucket position. With an optimized geometry for work tool visibility and for maximum loading forces, the new design on M-series small wheel loaders couples yesterday’s strength with tomorrow’s intelligence by allowing the hydraulics to control the parallelism of the work tool, thereby reducing material spillage and making the operator’s job just a little bit easier.
The increased push toward reliance on electrical components is not due only to productivity or fuel efficiency targets, however. As skilled labor becomes scarcer, there is an additional pressure to find the most effective way to train operators safely and thoroughly, while simultaneously arming sales teams with tools to influence purchasing decisions without the need to transport machines from jobsite to jobsite. Caterpillar has teamed up with various suppliers of virtual reality products to open up a world beyond what kicking the tires could ever have allowed: 3D models of equipments and jobsites to train potential customers, service technicians, and its employees on best practices and machine features. As long as the lines to climb up machines were, I never saw the line to test out the virtual reality goggles get shorter in the two days I was at bauma.
Late last year, I described to a friend how I was perplexed at Caterpillar’s stance on equipment design, even as my own company embraces Industry 4.0. I wasn’t sure how to interpret the adoption of electronic brains to replace hardware, especially when other manufacturers seemed to be making strides in increasing machine performance and productivity and uptime. But a comment by Caterpillar’s CEO explained the untapped potential of making machines smarter and not just stronger: we joke about how slowly construction projects evolve, but consider the number of parked machines at most jobsite. Somewhere on the jobsite is bound to be a machine sitting idle, so a natural question is how to improve that “downtime.” The answer, as is the case with cars and with manufacturing, is to make the machines smarter. Today’s earthmovers can no doubt move material more efficiently than ever, but equipped with sensors and other data-gathering technology, machine developers also have the ability to pinpoint root causes of machine inoperation time.
I’d estimate that half my time spent at the show was in front of various Caterpillar machines and talking to various Cat reps. My first impression of the show: holy cow, there are a lot of visitors who care about construction equipment. They came from all over the world and spoke multiple languages. Twice I translated between French or English and German between a customer and a Cat rep. They were interested in fuel economy, cab features, and machine quality. They wanted to know how a model compared to another in terms of performance. Nevertheless, on massive TVs right in the middle of the stand and in view of the 6015B excavator, Caterpillar was showcasing a connected-workplace technology. Some visitors took the time to check it out; others, realizing it wasn’t as interesting as reality TV, glanced at it and walked off. The “numbers” of tomorrow’s equipment won’t just be about lift capacities or torques or speeds or fuel consumption; it’ll be about effective fleet management, equipment tailored to the needs and capabilities of its operators, and worksites that permit machines to communicate with one another.
This blog post was probably the most difficult one I’ve written in a long time. I’m not familiar with the earthmoving industry like I used to be, and data analytics of equipment ownership even less so, which makes commenting on their relevance a bit disjointed. But as I walked around the show I was reminded that no matter what the brand, type of machine, or level of technology, it is construction equipment that builds the infrastructure that every other industry then depends on. It’s a powerful responsibility: everything we do today, from sitting at home to streaming down a runway, was built on the shoulders of machines not so unlike those on display during that week in April. Attending the show was an appropriately-timed reminder that who we are and the situation we find ourselves in today was shaped in the past, sometimes by forces we don’t fully recognize or appreciate at the time.