Advanced Technology Key to Economic Recovery

Mon August 03, 2009 - National Edition
C. Jason Smith

Topcon Positioning Systems allow construction equipment to be monitored from across the globe.
Topcon Positioning Systems allow construction equipment to be monitored from across the globe.



Special to CEG

Companies embracing increased productivity through technology will drive the world’s economic recovery.

That belief is what mandates top-ranked global technology companies to continue to support strong research and product development (R&D) efforts. The corporate thinking? Without a constant stream of new, innovative, around-the-corner technologies, both the company brand and market share suffer. That holds true in good times, and especially in a recessionary period.

The current economic recession provides a window of opportunity for forward-thinking companies in the construction, survey, civil engineering and agriculture markets.

In tough times, increasing productivity through the acceptance of technological breakthroughs can well be the difference in success and failure. Embracing revolutionary technology will be the difference in being competitive and trailing the competition. Taking advantage of new technologies and making conscientious and researched investments in equipment and instruments when prices are affordable on almost any budget will be the difference in simply “existing” when the economy recovers and being at a strong competitive advantage on every single job.

The economic turnaround for the United States and the global marketplace will be technology-fueled, driven by the products developed by companies that make products that will increase productivity and the customers that buy them.

This is the time to turn to new technologies for those revolutionary thinkers who pride themselves on thinking “outside the box”; it is the time for conventional thinkers who do not feel particularly comfortable taking risks to, at the very least, work to expand the “size” and “perception” of their operations “box.”

The key to any successful business is the managing of time to optimize results. Companies looking for every competitive edge constantly search for ways to save time on every phase of every job. Save time and you save money … money that drops to a company’s bottom line.

The scenario is quite simple: If you find a technology that makes your machines and people more productive, the company becomes more competitive. If you look at what technological breakthroughs can do to not only help you make it through a market slide, but exceed, or even double, the average industry productivity measurements, you will be in the driver’s seat when business turns around.

The days when getting more work done meant working overtime is past.

Need a reference point to make the connection? One word: History. The companies that emerged from the Great Depression in the 1930s strong and viable adopted emerging technologies after the economy shattered. Those extreme survivalist companies made investments in technology during a devastating economic depression to maximize productivity in every phase of their operation

The same opportunities exist today.

Too many construction instrument and product technology manufacturers tend to cut back R&D resources when business slumps. Manufacturing companies relying on technological innovations to supply world’s leading products and instruments, take the exact opposite approach: Maintain or increase R&D expenditures to create products that transition the negative effects of economic fluctuations.

Myriad global companies are not only diversifying product offering to include new market segments — expanding market footprint as competitors try to squeeze dollars used for brand identity, thereby reducing market presence — they are actually increasing R&D expenditures.

Spending money when money is tight? Develop new technology when sales are down? Does that make sense? Absolutely, if the expenditures focus on conceptualizing and designing products and technologies that have not even been thought of by customers, products the end-users will need to further enhance productivity in the future.

The objective of any company should not be to merely survive in tough times. The seeking out, testing, and acceptance of new technology drives aggressive, progressive business models for companies that refuse to accept an economic downturn as a singular reason for not putting the company into position to succeed in the marketplace.

These model companies will not be crawling when the economic turnaround happens. These companies that will be running full speed, and growing their business exponentially because they took advantage of existing opportunities.

Topcon Positioning Systems (TPS) — a global, diversified company (offering products, software and instruments in construction, survey, agriculture, GIS, telematics, and mobile control markets) is an example of a company that commits resources to extensive R&D activities.

Ray O’Connor, TPS president and CEO, said, “The fact is that technology will drive the economic recovery. If you can buy construction technology that will enable a single dozer to do the work of two 3D machine control dozers, and give you the accuracy and speed of a grader, wouldn’t you jump at that opportunity?”

That technology innovation, using hydraulic control software, inertial sensors and the GNSS receivers, is at work today at job sites around the world.

This technology provides more than 100 blade corrections per second, five times the industry average, according to O’Connor.

Some of the construction industry’s newest products are examples of the most innovative technologies for construction to be announced in the last few years as examples of what technology can do to make a good company better and a great company unbeatable.

Machinery and systems are being introduced that cut down the time it takes to grade a site. In 2008 John Deere introduced a new track dozer that weighs 32,000 lbs. (14,515 kg) and has the speed of a grader and the flotation of a crawler dozer.

Long-Distance Equipment Monitoring

Right now, there’s a construction company owner sitting at a laptop in some American office building. At his fingertips is a bevy of construction site information — oil pressure, idle time, fuel usage, maintenance records . . . even an in-cab view of the job site — on machines in South Africa. Or China. Or South America. Pick a place on the map. Put a piece of machinery in that spot. Add specific software and GNSS positioning technology like Topcon Tierra’s remote asset management system.

Voila! Real-time information on machines and job sites from virtually any place on Earth.

Many companies totally overlook or overtly ignore this all-important segment of company operations — asset management. Remote asset management is a crucial element in maximizing the machine production on every job site.

The newest advanced system on the worldwide market is Tierra, a web-based telematics service that provides real-time information on every piece of equipment. Tierra publicizes it is a unique onsite job management system that provides meticulous data to companies interested in maximizing productivity and drastically reducing unexpected and unnecessary equipment maintenance.

In periods of economic instability, smart manufacturing companies focus on two critical areas for viability: Short-term actions to hold down expenses wherever practical, and a long-term commitment to growth by pushing the development and introduction of technologies. Those actions are what sets progressive companies apart from those that are stagnating or moving backward.

There are construction companies today that are making it a common practice to go into “mothball” mode. “Mothballing” is a term that progressive companies use only as a last resort. In today’s economy, “mothballing” is “a condition of long storage (for machinery) for possible future use.” Companies who first turn to “mothballing” equipment rather than examining the possibility of increasing the productivity of every machine and every employee are asking for trouble in the near term, and setting up a scenario for failure in the future.

Opportunities Are Out There

Despite the present economic conditions, there are still new projects up for bid. The federal government is poised to undertake the most extensive public works project in this nation’s history; billions will be spent on construction projects; competition for those jobs will be fierce.

In the construction industry, will it be the survival of the fittest … or will those companies that take a calculated risk and invest in the best available technology not only survive, but also thrive?

The hardest concept to comprehend is what is already in the market is just the beginning. Think of the wildest thing you can image that will increase job site productivity, save time and man hours, is easy to learn and easier to use and could possibly create additional efficiencies in the use of heavy iron on myriad job sites around the world.

One thing is certain: The possibilities of bringing those concepts to market are already being discussed.

What’s next for the contractor? Autonomous vehicles? Well, yes, actually. There are tests being done right now on driverless agriculture equipment. An autonomous car (using advanced GNSS technology) recently crossed the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.

Today, a vehicle crossing a bridge sans driver; tomorrow, clearing a massive job site using driverless graders and dozers equipped with sub-millimeter-precision GNSS satellite information and sensors to direct their path and warn of obstructions.

Stop and consider the incredible pace at which changes in the construction world is moving. A year ago, what construction company would have envisioned a dozer that would move dirt at up to 18 miles an hour? Or a dozer that can run twice as fast as a dozer equipped with machine control technology and with the smoothness and accuracy of a grader? Or remote asset management technology that can gather assess, and real-time data on heavy iron practically any place in the world?

Engineers, scientists and dreamers will continue to push forward to create a global construction environment that continually relies less on the absolute pushing and digging power of big iron and more on advancements in technology that save time and money.

And this type of innovative thinking could not have come at a better time.

Saving time. Saving money. That’s what drives construction innovation, and those two tenets are not likely to be declared obsolete anytime soon.

If a company’s management team recognizes the need to do whatever is necessary to create a lean, efficient operation in today’s economic conditions, the first thing to check out is what technologies are available to increase productivity in their operations . . . and do whatever is necessary to obtain that technology.

In this economy, the future viability of many companies will depend on expanding on or adopting that forward-thinking philosophy.

C. Jason Smith is co-founder of Discipline and Write, a New York City-based technical writing cooperative. He can be reached at c_jason_smith@yahoo.com.