How Digital Technology is Empowering Machine Operators

“When we drive past other sites and see wooden posts sticking out the ground it looks archaic. We don’t use profiles anymore.” Rob Hacker, Senior Engineer, Conlon.

It’s a common gripe for engineering surveyors, site foremen - or ‘gangers’ - and, ultimately, machine operators: hours are spent inserting precision profile boards for drainage, pipelines or road construction, only for a machine to track over them. This painstaking work needs to be repeated, often requiring an engineering surveyor to return to site.

It holds up work, takes time and costs money.

For Rob this problem is a thing of the past. “I used to frequently spend hours in the car a day, driving between jobs, then getting a call from a contract manager screaming at me to return to a site to profile it again because a dumper had destroyed the batons.

“No more - everything we do is GPS controlled now and the benefits are huge.”

Operating an excavator is a skilled job. The beauty of applying digital technology to the heavy construction industry - and specifically for machine operators - is that it builds on driver skills to improve efficiency.

“I have trained nearly 30 drivers on Leica’s kit and every single one of them has got it pretty quickly,” says Rob. “Then they start asking what else it can do - they’re pretty impressed!”

This digital equipment allows site foremen and drivers to view the same information at the same time.

Drivers have a screen in their cab, while foremen use a lightweight handheld tablet. Engineering surveyors build the models and the technology uses GPS to show the grades, meaning drivers can see the required height, widths and depths on the screen in the cab, allowing them to work with greater speed and accuracy.

Armed with a Leica tablet, a foreman can walk along the road under construction and, with the push of a button, see how much earth needs to be cut or filled at any given point. It means the foreman can stand next to the machine operator and both can check their screens and see the same data, agreeing the exact depth the machine needs to go to.

The principle is the same as using a traveller, but the speed and accuracy is enhanced. It means the educated guess work needed when using profile boards and travellers is a distant memory.

"The work is definitely more accurate since using GPS. Levelling a road with a traveller is difficult - you have to line it up with two horizontal pieces of wood, and if you go up or down the height changes,” says Rob. “It’s quite a skill, and unless you’re really experienced at using a traveller you will always be compromising accuracy.”

If estimators advise that a road is 900ml deep, for example, and that a certain amount of stone is therefore required, there is always a risk that a driver will dig too deep if relying on a traveller. With GPS, the depth is set.

The benefits are multiple. When digging footings, drivers no longer have to adhere to spray lines. Trench lines on the screen in the cab show exactly where the machine needs to dig.

Health and safety is also improved, eliminating the need for a worker to stand in the road spraying markings, potentially in the way of a machine.

“Excavator drivers use a setting on their Leica panels called a ‘void zone’, says Rob. “As soon as the bucket goes out of the trench lines it alerts you, meaning you maintain accuracy. And it’s a lot easier than walking along a string line and spraying it - that’s hard!”

Using digital technology adds peace of mind. Engineering surveyors create models for the roads under construction and can make any necessary offsets from the base station in the office. The data is uploaded onto the kit of the ganger and the driver, removing the need for the engineering surveyor to visit the site.

It’s fast and precise.

Transparency of information across the project team is key too, because everyone has access to the same data. “You no longer have different groups referring to different sets of drawings,” says Rob. “If gangers and drivers can see what they’re working towards rather than just being told, it makes it far easier to understand.

“The more knowledge people have, the better they work.”

It is one of many examples of the way in which heavy construction is integrating digital working in an intuitive way.

The kit is designed with the end user in mind, addressing common pain points and enhancing efficiency. Training is often carried out on the job, with drivers being talked through everything from how to turn on the tablets and how to navigate the menu to how to create surface models, for example.

“I have found that after as little as a week people get the hang of it and they want more,” says Rob. “They can quickly see the difference it makes, and most are keen to know how else the technology can help them to do their job.”

At Conlon, a dedicated training centre is currently being created which will feature two simulators to train drivers on using the kit. “On the job training works but having that additional time and space to talk people through the kit without being on a busy site will make it even easier. The operators can ‘virtually’ drive around the site and get a real feel for it before applying it for real.”

Technology is empowering machine operators, allowing them to concentrate on their core skills and deliver an even higher standard of work, faster and more accurately.

As Rob says, “People knocking pins out, losing lines, tracking over lines, having to wait around, contract managers getting stressed out - this kit overcomes a lot of that inefficiency and frustration.

“Digital has transformed the way we work.”

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