Data Driven. GPS isn’t making the grade. (Photo top by Tudor Hampton for ENR, Photo bottom courtesy of Komatsu
America Corp.)

The expense of hiring surveyors to stake out the cut and fill of earthwork or re-stake a site damaged by a clumsy operator used to be a big money-drainer for contractors. But as more earthmoving machines roll out of factories with global positioning systems built in, what’s left in the place of those wooden stakes is the laborious process of making site plans into machine-compatible, 3D files.

Equipment suppliers are itching to sell contractors expensive hardware, but their lack of help on the back end is leaving some customers hanging. "We need a click-and-go version," says Patrick J. Ruelle, director of business development at McAninch Corp., a large earthmoving contractor in West Des Moines, Iowa. The firm got into automatic grade control in 1999 and has since invested more than $5 million in hardware, software and dedicated staff, he says.

Lately, more original-equipment manufacturers are hitting up contractors to make the switch to automatic grade control, which carries an up-front cost as high as $100,000 per machine. But manufacturers’ latest efforts at integrating wiring and hardware into their vehicles seem to be less valuable to contractors than an immediate fix to the labor-intensive, 3D conversion work. "Other than from an aesthetic and security standpoint, I don’t see that it’s a big deal," Ruell says.

In just the past four months, three major manufacturers have launched their own styles of laser and GPS grade control options and machine designers have drawn clear battle lines on how they plan to sell their vehicles with automatic grade controls. Peoria, Ill.-based Caterpillar’s new "Accugrade" system carries Trimble technology and its own and comes installed on Cat dozers right out of the factory. Laser and GPS units previously were aftermarket items only.

On the other hand, Deere & Co., Moline, Ill., plans to release in 2006 a factory-installed wiring harness and lock box that allow users to plug and play between Trimble and Topcon controllers. Meanwhile, Komatsu America Corp., Vernon Hills., Ill., is offering Topcon retrofits at the dealer level, so users can roll up the option in a traditional financing package.

Hardware suppliers like Topcon and Trimble often refer users to consultants for data prep. But contractors are watching to see if manufacturers, too, will try to get that business.