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Komatsu has a plan for getting around the problem of a thinning supply of capable construction employees: automation.

Thu October 22, 2015 - National Edition
Giles Lambertson

Japan apparently faces the same thinning supply of capable construction employees that threatens U.S. contractors. Komatsu has a plan for getting around the problem: automation.

Komatsu is known in this country for its heavy equipment, but Komatsu Group consists of 180 companies and among its offerings is a service called SMARTCONSTRUCTION. That unit utilizes advanced information communication and technology, including in what Komatsu is calling KOMTRAX, its automated heavy equipment system.

The company has announced it will start preparing job sites using ICT machinery—drones and driverless dozers and excavators. The drones will fly over a site and compile image data from which Komatsu can build a three-dimensional jobsite model. The data then is fed into computers on the heavy equipment, which will carve away the earth to pre-programmed specs.

Look out, Japanese heavy equipment operators, you are about to be booted from the driver’s seat. Look out, American operators, you are next! The switch to aerial surveys and computer machine operation was inevitable, of course, and by every yardstick is a leap forward in productivity. Still, when the future arrives suddenly, the disruption is chaotic to a workforce.

Hundreds of thousands of heavy equipment operators in the United States are watching this development with interest. Many of their jobs are on the line. More to the point, some younger men and women considering a career operating heavy construction equipment undoubtedly are put off by the news. Jockeying from a chair in front of a screen is not the same as rumbling along atop a machine.

In a global era, industry advances in tandem. The drones Komatsu employs on its jobsites are crafted in San Francisco; American heavy construction companies presumably are engineering ICT systems for their machinery. Large U.S. contractors feel the same workforce and productivity pressures and many will seek relief the same way—by automating.

Change happens. When it happens to you, it isn’t always a pleasant sensation. The coming decade can be an exciting one for contractors and crews, but only if they embrace the future.

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