Big Iron, Attachments, and Technology Come of Age

By Cameron Clark, Earthmoving Director, Trimble Civil Construction

For many highway and heavy contractors, it’s not only the machines used on-site that drive project productivity – it’s also the attachments.

From buckets, hammers, and cutters to rippers, brooms, and grabbers, these heavy equipment accessories are designed to enhance the use of big (and little) iron while driving productivity and efficiency.

When these attachments are tied to grade control systems, the flexibility and productivity possibilities take another exponential leap forward. In fact, grade control technology is opening up new opportunities for contractors of all sizes – particularly small heavy civil construction firms, enabling greater versatility – and therefore, more service capabilities – on machines from excavators to skid steers.

Excavator Edge

Excavators are easily the highest volume machine on any site development jobsite – and surprising to some, one of the best pieces of equipment to operate with grade control, according to Tom Gardocki, better known as the Dirt Ninja.

A Caterpillar 316F Excavator with an Engcon EC226 tiltrotator. (Photo courtesy of The Dirt Ninja)

Gardocki, and co-owner Craig Hammel, founded Londonderry, New Hampshire-based New Era Excavation in 2015. The small excavation company of four focuses on high-end residential and small commercial grading, excavation, and utility installation in Southern New Hampshire and Northern Massachusetts. The company owns four excavators, two Engcon tiltrotators, and multiple attachments – as well as the Trimble Earthworks Grade Control Platform.

Gardocki says, “We’re a small company, so our success is all about efficiency on the jobsite. That’s where tiltrotators and technology come into play. The tiltrotator cuts down on the number of other machines we need on site to complete a project and the grade control technology assures precision and speed.”

New Era Excavation has been using Earthworks 2-D since around 2013. Today, all four of the company’s excavators are equipped with the 2-D Earthworks system – though Gardocki has recently invested in two full 3-D systems. “We have frost rippers, plate compactors, grapples, we have it all,” he says.

When asked about how attachments and technology come together, Gardocki points to the grade beam attachment as an example. “When this grading bar is attached to the tiltrotator and linked to Earthworks, we can finish topsoil or gravel surfaces with all the correct pitches using the excavator. We don’t need any other pieces of equipment.”

A Komatsu PC360 Excavator with an Engcon coupler and an Indecco HP10,000 hammer (Photo courtesy of The Dirt Ninja)

Gardocki says one of his favorite tech features is the Earthworks ‘Autos’ functionality. “We can enter cross slopes in the Earthworks system (e.g., 0 percent, 45 percent), and the grade control technology holds the bucket throughout the process to that grade slope. It takes the guesswork out of the workflow and again limits the pieces of equipment we need onsite. This might seem like a small thing, but the efficiency benefits add up pretty quick.”

In the old days, he says, he would have needed a dozer to clean up after the excavator – now the excavator does it all. 

“The beautiful thing is that all these attachments get coupled up to the Earthworks system in less than a minute,” he says. “I have a big hydraulic excavator with a quick oil coupler that we equipped with a 10,000-pound class hammer that we can couple and un-couple from the machine in 30 seconds (rather than 10 to 20 minutes) because the hydraulic hoses hook up in the coupler automatically. We save time and money, and never over or under hammer grade – it’s all done exactly to spec.”

When asked about the cost of investment, Gardocki believes that contractors should focus more on how much they can save. “We estimate that our 2-D machine control system paid for itself in less than a year in labor costs and the reduction of rework,” he says.

Christian Yanes, President of Steelwrist North America, a leading tiltrotator manufacturer, also notes, “We believe that it’s all about turning the excavator into a tool carrier. There’s no reason an excavator can’t unload trucks, dig holes, and finish a site to grade – and grade control technology makes that entire process faster, safer and more accurate.” 

Yanes also points to the fact that all tiltrotator manufacturers work to the Symmetrical Quick Couplers (S-type) open industry standard for excavator quick couplers. He says, “So all attachments are compatible with different machines. There are a lot of pros to tying grade control technology to your attachments.”

Enabling Efficiency

More maneuverable skid steer and compact track loaders equipped with box blades and grading attachments that are designed for fine grading are ideal vehicles for technology, as well. As contractors know, even small amounts of error in these applications can be costly. Technology in the way of grade control systems just makes sense on fine grading attachments for the exact same reasons it makes sense on dozers, excavators, and graders. 

Machine control technology helps make tiltrotator attachments even more versatile by increasing accuracy, efficiency, and overall ease of use on challenging projects. (Photo courtesy of Trimble)

Applications such as site prep and concrete placement, in particular, benefit from the speed and accuracy that grade control provides, while also expanding capabilities.

Recently Trimble was working with WC Sherry Company Inc. in Ohio, an excavation firm that does a lot of site prep for indoor buildings. Crews typically use a John Deere 750 Dozer and a skid steer with a bucket, without grade control technology. For this particular job, WC Sherry subcontracted out the indoor site prep to LK & Sons Excavating, a long-time beta customer for Trimble Earthworks GO!, an easy-to-use and install machine control system that works with Android or iOS devices. For this job, LK & Sons Excavating used an ATI grade control-ready PD-Series box blade with Earthworks GO! and did the job in a fraction of the time that would have been required using conventional methods – and with better and more accurate results.

So amazed by the ease, accuracy and speed, WC Sherry has since bought a PD-Series box blade and Earthworks GO!

WC Sherry is not alone. With technology, forward-thinking contractors are finding that they can use compact track loaders and other small machines in applications that traditionally called for a larger piece of equipment. In other cases, contractors are looking to leverage the same technology that they’ve adopted for the larger machines to smaller machines. They want the same flexibility they’ve had with GNSS with the accuracy of a total station.

There’s no doubt that attachments increase the versatility and efficiency of traditional construction equipment on the jobsite, providing immediate ROI. With the added functionality provided by machine control and other technology solutions, attachments may just be the perfect tool for any heavy civil trade. 

This material appears in the May 2021 issues of the ACP Magazines:

California Builder & EngineerConstructionConstruction DigestConstruction NewsConstructioneer,Dixie ContractorMichigan Contractor & BuilderMidwest ContractorNew England ConstructionPacific Builder & EngineerRocky Mountain ConstructionTexas ContractorWestern Builder