Digitalisation of Construction Equipment Industry
MIlton D'Silva explains how Digitalisation is the way forward for the burgeoning construction equipment industry.
The Liebherr R9800 series is one of the largest and most powerful excavators in the world. Image source: Liebherr
Construction is big business globally. According to Oxford Economics, the world's foremost independent economic advisory firm, the size of the construction market amounted to USD 6.4 trillion in 2020, and it is expected to reach 14.4 trillion in 2030. Construction activity, according to some studies, is also responsible for up to 50% of climate change. Apart from being energy intensive, it also has other associated aspects like landfills and air, water and noise pollution. Estimates suggest the construction sector is responsible for 39% of energy and process-related carbon dioxide emissions. With rapid urbanisation a continuous phenomenon, it is little wonder the industry is growing phenomenally and at the same time struggling to be better organised and exploit the available technological resources to its advantage. The construction equipment industry, which is not highly organised and hence lacks cohesion in its various activities, also has enormous possibilities for implementing digitalisation to optimise operations.
Over the last two decades, Building Information Modeling (BIM) has become a prominent and essential tool for modernisation of the construction industry. BIM is a process of creating a digital representation of a physical asset via the 3D model. It allows the tracking and monitoring of an asset throughout its existence, from initial design to construction, operations, maintenance and beyond, to the end of the life cycle. Various teams involved in a project can collaborate on drafting plans, share information, and monitor project costs using BIM. This goes beyond the use of traditional CAD models that are often operated in silos, bringing transparency by getting all the stakeholders on board, making project management easier and more streamlined. First conceptualised in the 1970s, high costs and limited availability of the software restricted the use of this technology. By the mid-1990s, technology was sufficiently advanced and commercial software readily available and easily accessible for the process of creating and analysing 3D digital models. Today BIM is revolutionising the construction industry by how the stakeholders share information and manage the workflows.
Within the construction industry, equipment and machinery forms a significant chunk. Informed estimates suggest that construction machinery and equipment account for almost 15-30% of the project cost. A recent research report by Spherical Insights & Consulting, a well known market research and industry consulting firm, states the global construction equipment market size was valued at USD 186.56 billion in 2022 and is expected to reach USD 337.06 billion by 2032. Comparative reports by other agencies also arrive at similar figures with some variation. According to a study by the Freedonia Group, global demand for construction machinery is forecast to expand 6.1% annually to $317 billion in 2027. The numbers involved are huge, and so is the potential for change, to make a positive impact by minimising the negative effects of construction and promoting sustainability.
Komatsu unveiled its 20-tonne class all-electric hydraulic excavator PC210E at Bauma 2022. Image source: Bauma
There are several categories within the construction equipment based on the application. These categories include earth-moving equipment, earth-compacting equipment, hauling equipment, hoisting equipment, conveying equipment, aggregate production equipment, equipment used in concrete construction and pile-driving equipment. Within each category there are various types of equipment employed for specific purposes that include, but are not limited to: Excavators, Backhoes, Dragline Excavators, Bulldozers, Graders, Skid-Steer Loaders, Wheel Tractor Scrapers, Trenchers, Loaders, Tower Cranes, Pavers, Compactors, Telehandlers, Feller Bunchers, Dump Trucks, Pile Boring Machines, Pile Driving Machines, Tunnel Boring Machines, etc.
Major manufacturers of construction equipment are large multinational groups like Sany, Manitou BF, Zoomlion, John Deere, Komatsu, HIAB, Escorts Limited, CNH Industrial N.V., Sumitomo Heavy Industries Ltd, Terex Corporation, Kobelco Construction Machinery Co Ltd, Liebherr-International Deutschland GmbH, Hidromek, Hyundai Heavy Industries, Ingersoll Rand, J C Bamford Excavators Ltd, New Holland, Track Marshall, Caterpillar, Hitachi Construction Machinery Co Ltd, Volvo Construction Equipment (Volvo CE), Xuzhou Construction Machinery Group (XCMG) and several others.
This equipment varies in sizes from small pavers and compact excavators to huge tunnel boring machines (TBMs) and large mining excavators. The engine horsepower ranges from 20HP to 200HP and the individual equipment weight is often in excess of 100 tonnes. Apart from the regular range, there are some huge monster machines also designed and fabricated for special projects, especially in mining and large infrastructure works. The Liebherr R9800 series, for example, is one of the largest and most powerful excavators in the world. Weighing a whopping 880 tonnes, this giant of a machine is powered by a 4,000 hp engine rated at 1800 rpm!
The new R 950 Tunnel-E electric crawler excavator from Liebherr-France SAS. Image source: Liebherr
The drivers of digitalisation
One of the main drivers for digitalisation of construction equipment is the environmental impact of the machinery, mostly powered by heavy diesel engines. These machines, classified as non-road mobile machinery (NRMM), significantly contribute to air pollution by emitting carbon oxide (CO), hydrocarbons (HC), nitrogen oxides (NOx), and particulate matter. The emissions from NRMM are far worse than regular road vehicles as unlike the latter, they do not have stringent emission control measures in place. Apart from air pollution, the other significant direct pollution due to construction equipment is noise, especially in the urban environment. These are the factors that are pushing for electrification of construction equipment. Given the increasing pressure of climate change regulations across the world, the move away from traditional diesel powered equipment to electric or hybrid drive trains is imminent.
The other driver, perhaps even more significant, is the optimised use of the equipment, and streamlining of the maintenance activities to eliminate downtime. Construction equipment is often spread across large areas of the same site and also across different sites within the same region. Given the high capital cost of the equipment, any idle time spent by the equipment adds to the overall project cost. The construction equipment industry is a late starter when it comes to digitisation and digitalisation. The focus has traditionally been equipment centric, concerned more about fuel efficiency and other operating parameters. There were no attempts at data gathering and analyses with a holistic approach. With the benefits of digitalisation demonstrated by the manufacturing and process industries, there is now a growing demand for connected equipment in the construction industry with a data-based approach for better operation and monitoring of equipment and complete control over the fleet.
In addition to electrification and greater use of data, there is a third driver which is distribution of equipment including rentals. This will in part be also impacted by the two factors elaborated above. Data driven transparency will help achieve greater uptime, productivity and product efficiency with the sharing of this information widely. This will in turn lead to creation of e-platforms that would connect construction companies and related businesses to machine rental companies that would ultimately benefit the users.
SANY presented 21 new products at Bauma 2022. Image source: SANY Europe
Electrification of construction equipment
Goaded by stricter emission regulations, the construction equipment industry had started using alternate fuels like CNG and hydrogen and hybrid diesel electric drivetrains for a while now. In fact hybrid drivetrains have been in use for almost 20 years. The diesel-electric hybrid enables a large equipment to run with a downsized diesel engine in combination with generator and batteries that provide electrical power to the wheels, tracks and hydraulics. With battery options for handheld tools and lower horsepower machines like lawn mowers being around for years, it was time to scale up the applications to bigger equipment. Leading manufacturers like Komatsu, John Deere and Caterpillar all had successful hybrid offerings operating in the field. But as more and more OEMs began to launch all-electric models, the focus started to shift away from hybrids. Today, dozens of manufacturers have all electric models especially in the compact excavators segment. Companies like Volvo CE, XCMG, Sany, John Deere, Komatsu, CASE, Caterpillar, Manitou, Hyundai, Doosan/Develon, among others have a range of models launched in recent months.
In 2019 Volvo CE became the first construction equipment manufacturer to commit to going fully electric on two full ranges of compact equipment. The company launched the first two models at Bauma 2019 in Munich, Germany and today these are available in many markets worldwide. The electric ECR25 compact excavator and L25 compact wheel loader run on lithium-ion batteries and have zero exhaust emissions. They also have significantly lower noise levels, reduced energy costs, improved efficiency and less maintenance requirements compared with their conventional counterparts. Since then, the company has rapidly moved on to mid-sized equipment in line with its commitment. According to a McKinsey study, battery electric equipment (BEV) is superior in performance to ICE equipment in several aspects including better maneuverability and drivability, with instant torque and independent wheel control, and significant synergy potential with automation and connectivity.
Apart from BEV, there are also options for connecting the equipment directly to the main power supply. At the 2022 edition of Bauma construction technology fair, Liebherr-France SAS showcased its new R 950 Tunnel-E electric crawler excavator that boasts a variety of technologies, with more and more solutions for all its construction machines. The R 950 Tunnel-E, a new iteration of the R 950 Tunnel launched in a diesel version in 2015, features an electric power system that can be connected to the power supply directly with its own cable or via an optional cable reel. For greater flexibility, a battery-powered travel kit is available as an option, to ensure improved temporary mobility without a cable connection to the mains.
However, not everyone agrees that total electrification of construction equipment is the answer, given the many practical difficulties. A VDMA spokesperson responding to a request for the association's viewpoint, maintains that in addition to economic aspects, climate protection requirements determine current events, characterised by decarbonisation and digitalisation. They are the key drivers in the construction industry. The official view is: “When you talk about decarbonising a construction machine, you are usually talking about its drive. If you talk about electrification in this regard, you have to consider at the same time how the required electricity will get to the construction site. This is the crux of the matter, because this is where the planners and the contracting authorities – often municipalities – are called upon. The scenario of an electrified construction site is only realistic if they ensure at the planning stage that the necessary power lines are laid first to ensure a sufficient power supply.”
VDMA believes it would be important to put the production of synthetic fuels (eFuels) at the top of the political agenda in sun-rich countries. Shipping and aviation are the biggest drivers here, as they require high energy density and have to travel long distances in one piece. The same applies to powerful construction machinery. The advantage is that existing combustion engines can be fuelled with eFuels. During the combustion process, only as much carbon dioxide is released as was previously chemically bound in the manufacturing process, so this process is CO2 -neutral. No additional greenhouse gases are produced. “The ‘VDMA Construction – Equipment and Plant Engineering’ therefore rejects a fundamental ban on combustion engines for construction machinery. However, the prerequisite is that the required eFuels are produced with green energy so that the calculation works out,” asserts the spokesperson.
Hitachi ZX55U-6EB – the first zero-emission five-tonne battery-powered excavator in Europe. Image source: Hitachi Construction Machinery
The road to digitalisation
At Bauma 2022 last October and more recently at the CONEXPO-CON/AGG 2023 show in the USA in March 2023, it was obvious digitalisation is now the buzzword for the construction machinery industry. More and more machinery is now equipped with a broad range of sensors and communication interfaces. The data that is produced is analysed to check the performance of the equipment and its various parameters like fuel consumption, location, running and idle time, by monitoring entire fleets via telematics. Together, this facilitates automation of work processes and leads to better deployment of personnel and machines at a time when skilled operators are in short supply.
The inference is obvious – the entire construction ecosystem right from concept and planning to execution and completion is increasingly becoming more and more digitised. Prominent among the trends that were seen emerging at both these mega events are:
- Internet of Things (IoT) enabled devices – For remote monitoring, predictive maintenance
- Augmented/Virtual Reality (AR/VR) – For real-time visualisation, training, and troubleshooting
- Digital Twins – Together with BIM, creating virtual replica for performance monitoring and analysis
- Robotics and Automation – Efficient and precise equipment assembly and handling, and drones for better site surveillance
- Condition Monitoring & Predictive Analytics – Data-driven maintenance, reducing downtime
- Data Analytics & Cloud Computing – Centralised data storage, collaboration, and scalability
- Blockchain – Enhanced supply chain transparency and traceability, and
- Connected Solutions – Better organised fleet management.
With BIM gradually being widely adopted by the construction industry, pressure is mounting on equipment manufacturers to offer advanced, digitised equipment that will fit into the new scheme of things. BIM is expected to evolve into a lean model for the construction industry with its own version of just-in-time delivery of materials and works with cost saving potential of up to 20%. The equipment manufacturers will have to contribute to this effort with digitalisation.
Machines in Construction – The VDMA Initiative
Construction machinery manufacturers in the VDMA Construction (German Construction Machinery and Building Material Plants Association) and construction companies in the HDB (German Construction Industry Federation) founded the new working group, ‘Machines in Construction 4.0’ (MiC 4.0) at bauma 2019. At the recent bauma in 2022, the MiC 4.0 working group reported remarkable success. Over the past two years, the team succeeded in developing an open, manufacturer-independent data interface that can be used to map all relevant use cases for communication between accessory equipment and construction machinery. The MiC 4.0 BUS simplifies controlling excavator equipment such as buckets, claws and hammers. Additional operating components and displays that are commonly used today are no longer required. The new data interface makes it possible to even use complex tools and equipment through “plug-and-work” — that is, without complicated conversions.
“Our goal is to develop a uniform, cross-manufacturer, machinery-independent and data-law-compliant digital communications form for the entire construction process,” said Dirk Siewert, Head of Civil Engineering and Construction Machinery Technology at HDB, during a presentation at bauma 2022. According to Siewert, 105 members from seven countries are currently involved in around 30 working groups that are tackling the overarching topics of machinery data, data law, system architecture and human-machine interfaces. Any interested company involved in the digitisation of construction sites can become a member. “One special aspect of MiC 4.0 is that competitors are collaborating on the topic for the higher aim of benefiting customers,” emphasized Thomas Zitterbart, Head of the accessory equipment product line at Liebherr Hydraulikbagger GmbH, in his presentation.
Volvo CE continues to lead the industry toward a more sustainable future. Image source: Volvo CE
Presented here are some of the recent developments at a few of the leading companies in the construction equipment industry, representing the global manufacturers.
SANY Heavy Industry
SANY Heavy Industry, one of the leading Chinese companies with a global footprint – SANY products are available in more than 180 countries and regions worldwide – is utilising a number of emerging technologies including artificial intelligence, big data, and IoT to enhance its operational and service capabilities. With effective use of real-time operational equipment data, fault parameters and engineers’ maintenance knowledge, SANY Group has created digital models of all kinds of equipment, services and other related parties to continuously improve the corresponding service response and quality. At Bauma 2022, the company was the largest Chinese exhibitor and presented 21 new products.
SANY now runs 46 Lighthouse factories around the world, and its drilling machinery factory in Beijing and No.18 workshop in Changsha, the biggest intelligent factory in Asia, have been recognised as “the world’s most advanced factories” by Davos World Economic Forum, and the only two Lighthouse factories in the heavy machinery industry worldwide.
Hitachi Construction Machinery
Hitachi Construction Machinery, armed with a global workforce and lineup of industry leading construction machinery and solutions, envisions a construction site that is capable of improving safety and productivity autonomously through the mutual exchange of data about people, machinery and construction environment. According to a report on the company by GlobalData, Hitachi is using advanced data analytics to improve the performance of its construction equipment. It uses proprietary simulation techniques during development stages to improve the accuracy of assessment of product prototypes on various parameters including durability, safety, and performance. The high precision analysis technique simulates diverse conditions. The analysis of simulation results helps in calculating the fatigue damage of construction machinery under different conditions and enables the company to enhance its product development procedures.
Hitachi has been involved in several strategic technology partnerships and collaborations, technology developments and roll outs, and technology acquisitions over the past few years. For instance, Hitachi launched the ConSite Health Check Up app for diagnosing the condition of construction machinery using AI. ConSite Health Check Up app uses AI to help technicians assess and detect abnormalities in the sound of construction machinery using their smartphones. The app is also complemented by a technology that diagnoses conditions of the construction machinery based on its mechanical characteristics.
A visitor at CONEXPO-CON/AGG 2023 event operates a remote controlled equipment. Image source: Caterpillar
Deere & Company, popularly referred to as John Deere, is one of the largest manufacturers of agricultural and construction equipment in the world. Deere has been focusing on streamlining its end-to-end construction site operations through process automation. It has been investing and implementing digital technologies, such as AI, cloud, autonomous vehicles, IoT, drones and analytics to improve equipment efficiency and job site operations. Deere’s digital transformation starts from product designs and continues all the way through supporting the customers.
As early as in 2012, the company had launched JDLink, a mobile telematics application that allows farmers and contractors to monitor and manage their equipment fleets. In early 2016, John Deere launched a new telematics interface for JDLink with easy-to-use tools to manage the equipment with a visually attractive dashboard. Customers can see all the important metrics like red alerts, machines with zero hours, machines with the highest idle and machines that are being over or underutilised. This subscription-based app helps streamline equipment maintenance management and documentation of owning and operating costs, leading to increased profits and improved productivity. One of the significant highlights of the JDLink app is that its modems connect machines for fast data transfer and brings connectivity to the entire fleet regardless of equipment brand or age.
Hans Liebherr developed the first mobile tower crane in 1949, and this development became synonymous with the birth of the Liebherr company. With a history of over seven decades, this German-Swiss multinational equipment manufacturer consists of over 130 companies organised into 11 divisions: earthmoving, mining, mobile cranes, tower cranes, concrete technology, maritime cranes, aerospace and transportation systems, machine tools and automation systems, domestic appliances, and components.
The Liebherr Group has over 30 years of experience in electric driven machines and is also at the forefront of the digitalisation curve. Whether it is IoT, machine learning, automation, mobile apps or cloud applications – digital solutions from Liebherr cover a wide range. Liebherr-EMtec GmbH, main company of the sector of movement of earths of the Group Liebherr, drives digitisation forward together with its customers. In the course of the digitisation strategy Liebherr-Emtec not only develops smart earthmoving machines and material handlers as well as attachments but aims to link these directly with the customer's production process. The solution should connect manufacturers, service partners and operators on one platform. With the aim of being a central interface in order to ensure a high level of availability and operating efficiency as well as short communication channels. The special feature of the solution is that machines from other manufacturers can also be included and managed in the application in the future. Third-party machines are integrated via standard interfaces, whereas attachments from other manufacturers are integrated via specific trackers.
The Hitachi ZX210LC-7 uses Leica Geosystems machine control technology to increase efficiency on the jobsite. Image source: Hitachi Construction Machinery
Volvo Construction Equipment
Part of the Volvo Group that was founded in 1832 in Sweden, Volvo Construction Equipment is among the world’s leading manufacturers of articulated haulers and wheel loaders, and one of the world’s foremost manufacturers of excavation equipment, road development machines and compact construction equipment. As a total-solution provider, Volvo CE also offers servicing, financing, used equipment, rental and other related services.
Volvo CE embarked on the path to connectivity since the launch of its first machine with an on-board computer in 1997, which was followed by the creation of MATRIS, a machine diagnosis and analysis tool the following year. Starting in 2006, CareTrack telematics system allowed machines to be connected and this was then complemented by Volvo ACTIVE CARE in 2017, a service that introduced proactive and predictive monitoring through the use of Uptime Centres.
At the CONEXPO-CON/AGG 2023 show earlier this year, Volvo CE presented an immersive platform of strength and innovation alongside Volvo Penta, Volvo Trucks and Volvo Financial Services. Several products were featured that have benefits beyond job sites as Volvo CE continues to lead the industry toward a more sustainable future. They included zero-emission electric machines, charging solutions, an articulated hauler made using fossil-free steel, technology that can improve operator efficiency, jobsite safety and reduce fuel consumption, and much more. “Change can create challenges, but it also creates opportunities,” said Melker Jernberg, President of Volvo CE.
With 2022 sales and revenues of US$59.4 billion, Caterpillar Inc., is the world’s leading manufacturer of construction and mining equipment, off-highway diesel and natural gas engines, industrial gas turbines and diesel-electric locomotives. For nearly 100 years, the company has been helping customers build a better, more sustainable world.
Caterpillar’s digital transformation journey began in the year 2013 at a time when its traditional businesses were on a downward curve. Alarmed by the trend, Caterpillar’s leadership team channelised the company’s efforts around digital-centricity as a principal way to drive future growth. The company followed a focused, long-term digital strategy, based on building a common technology platform and data architecture for connecting all of its equipment, as well as a series of applications aimed at making its products smarter and helping customers improve productivity and safety.
Today, virtually all new machines come with connective capabilities built in, and the company has also developed digital solutions for non-connected assets. Cat Inspect, for example, is a popular tool for connected and non-connected assets alike, enabling users to download and perform step-by-step equipment inspections.
Digitalisation is the way forward for the burgeoning construction equipment industry. Although a late starter to adopt the technologies unleashed by Industry 4.0, the construction equipment manufacturers are now making the right decisions for course correction. Self driving trucks and autonomous heavy machinery is gradually making inroads into the sector where safety is always a critical factor. These developments augur well for the industry with the potential to reduce costs and speed up project completion times. Above all, it will contribute positively to the global efforts towards net zero targets.