Could Automated Earthmoving Equipment Ease the Labor Shortage?

With the labor supply getting tighter, will it be construction equipment manufacturers to the rescue?

The construction labor shortage is impossible to ignore. Even though the industry added 11,000 jobs in May according an Associated General Contractors of America, analysis, average weekly hours per employee are at an all-time high because there are still not enough workers.

So contractors, including those specializing in highway work, limp along, sometimes resorting to using skeleton crews or delaying certain projects, all while trying to decide if they should lift wages to attract more workers.  

Worker shortages — in particular, shortages of heavy equipment operators — will only get worse if the nation embarks on the Trump administration’s proposed $1 trillion spending plan for infrastructure projects.

These is where automated earthmoving machines could play a role.

First up are machines that assist operators in doing their jobs. For example, newer models of graders and excavators have 3D grade control technology. It gives the operator real-time grading data (via an in-cab display) that allows operations in low-visibility conditions and eliminates the need for staking and manual grade-checking.

Not only do the software and sensors of these grade control systems make the job of operators easier and improve accuracy and productivity, but they also allow operators who haven't had the time or opportunity to build up their skills to get working sooner than they otherwise could.

Then there’s the prospect of driverless, or autonomous, equipment. The technology is still in the research phase. Volvo, for example, is testing a prototype autonomous wheel loader. But manufacturers such as Caterpillar and Komatsu have created semi-autonomous machines including excavators and bulldozers that can execute with super-human precision because of features such as machine learning, remote control and 3D-modeling capabilities.

Komatsu has used its Intelligent Machine Control (IMC) technology in its D61i-23 bulldozer since 2013. The machine's blades are automatically controlled according to 3D CAD design drawings, including coordinates. The company’s IMC systems are now compatible with drones, which can generate 3D maps of site conditions.  The maps, in turn, are combined with 3D models of the finished site plans — which allows the equipment to operate unmanned while performing the site work. The bulldozer can be used for rough grading and finish grading.

The construction industry has not been fast to adopt new technology in the past, but with semi-autonomous and remote-controlled machines, contractors have a chance to boost productivity and possibly offset the problem of having too few experienced operators and too many novices.