Infrastructure development projects would boost demand for manufacturing while emerging technologies bring greater efficiency, safety, and productivity to job sites, proponents say.
By Mark Shortt
A steel welder in Wisconsin, a metal fabricator in Pennsylvania, a plastics machinist in Florida: All are among the 2.8 million Americans who lace up their boots every day to build parts for equipment like excavators, shovel loaders, and combine harvesters. The companies they work for—manufacturers of construction, mining, and agricultural equipment—contribute about $288 billion a year to the U.S. economy and support 12 percent of all U.S. manufacturing jobs, according to an economic impact report released in March by the Association of Equipment Manufacturers (AEM).
“Whether it is the welder controlling a robotic welding machine or the software engineer designing the controls for a new wheel loader, there are millions of jobs and opportunities created by the equipment manufacturing industry,” AEM said in a summary of the report on its website.
The report, “The Market Size and Economic Contributions of the Off-Highway Industry,” was produced by IHS Markit. Although it revealed job growth of nearly 10 percent for the industry over the last three years, it noted that tariffs on steel combined with the trade war with China to slow direct job growth to 1.2 percent in 2019. The construction equipment sector contracted by 0.7 percent, the report said.
Shortly after the release of the report, the COVID-19 pandemic put a chill on construction activity worldwide. Because they were deemed essential businesses, equipment manufacturers were allowed to keep their doors open and continue manufacturing. But smaller suppliers to the industry bore the brunt of the pain: An AEM member survey is reported to have shown that more than a third of respondents reported furloughing up to half of their employees.
As the COVID-19 pandemic put the brakes on construction activity in the U.S., it weakened demand for heavy equipment from the major OEMs. The OEMs, in turn, ordered fewer parts from their suppliers.
“We certainly weren’t immune to it, and neither were our customers,” said Brian Kurn, sales director at Miller Fabrication Solutions, a metal fabrication company that employs some 320 team members in western Pennsylvania. “It certainly cut back on any demand [for parts], as well as home buying and home building.”
The continuing spread of COVID-19 in the U.S. has created widespread uncertainties about the health of the construction industry and the overall economy going forward. That uncertainty is raising havoc for equipment manufacturers and contractors, AEM President Dennis Slater said in a phone interview.
“Our biggest worry is, what’s next?” Slater said. “In different sectors, it could go up or down. But people need to have certainty. Contractors aren’t involved in buying new equipment for projects if they don’t know what projects are going to be next.”
Slater acknowledged that manufacturers have done an excellent job of rising to meet the challenges of the pandemic. Many are doing better than the overall economy because they’re still working. But AEM’s survey showed that about 60 percent of them are facing a “significantly lower financial outlook at the end of the year,” he said.
“They’ve kept going, they’ve kept selling, but I think they recognize that their numbers are going to be down for the foreseeable future. It will probably be more of the same of where we are now—that 10 to 15 percent chill—until we get through the pandemic, or until we do an infrastructure investment to start to spur the economy back on.”
Despite the industry’s woes, Kurn said he’s already seeing an uptick in the construction market. Manufacturing has increased over the last three months, he noted, and the consumer index is up. Miller Fabrication Solutions is starting to see more inquiries, he said, from companies that are bringing their supply base closer to home.
“We’re seeing other opportunities as a result of COVID that are maybe due to the anxiety that some customers had with their [offshore] supply base not being able to assist them. It’s presenting opportunities to us, as well as other manufacturing entities, I’m sure, and that’s a good sign. Manufacturing in the U.S. is really positioned well for coming out of this pandemic.”
Infrastructure: A Promise Unfulfilled
The steady deterioration of America’s roads, bridges, highways, and other essential infrastructure has long been recognized. With much of it in dire need of repair, the U.S. infrastructure carries a D+ rating by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). It’s also a good starting point for a strong economic recovery, according to Slater. Major investments in the nation’s infrastructure would create a degree of market certainty that’s needed to move forward, he said.
“As we try to establish a recovery going forward, one of the areas that we have to be looking at is our infrastructure. It’s something that we talk about every year, and every campaign, but it’s a long term funding issue for federal infrastructure projects,” Slater said.
Kurn agreed that infrastructure construction projects could help spur an economic recovery. “Absolutely,” he said. “There’s huge potential there with roadways and bridges, so the infrastructure is definitely a huge opportunity. I wish I had a crystal ball to tell you when that would come to fruition.”
As the days wind down to the election, manufacturing and construction trade groups are lobbying lawmakers to commit to multi-year investments in rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure. It’s a high priority on their policy agendas because construction and modernization of roads, bridges, highways, and railways is widely seen as having potential to not only spur an economic recovery, but also lay the groundwork for longer-term economic expansion.
“Infrastructure is the backbone of America’s economy,” Slater said in an August release. “Maintaining and improving our nation’s infrastructure is how we keep the lights on in our homes and hospitals, how food travels from farmers’ fields to family dinner tables, and how first responders get to those in need.”
Proponents of rebuilding our nation’s infrastructure say it would do more than create jobs for construction workers—it would send ripple effects throughout the economy. By creating demand for construction equipment, infrastructure projects would boost demand for manufacturing services provided by machinists, welders, and fabricators who make parts for excavators, bulldozers, loaders, and other heavy equipment.
The rising demand for manufacturing would be felt throughout each product’s supply chain, from materials suppliers to providers of finishing and assembly services. Its impact would spill over into retail, dining, and other commercial establishments ready to serve growing customer bases. Opportunities for allied tradespeople who service and repair the equipment would also increase, as they would for transportation and logistics workers.
The impact of these projects would also continue to be felt long after the roads, highways, bridges, and railways are completed. That’s because manufacturers and other businesses stand to benefit from the reason the construction projects were undertaken in the first place—greater efficiencies in logistics and transportation.
The road ahead remains unclear, however, as the economic crisis has imperiled potential infrastructure projects funded by state and local governments. Slater said many state budgets are handcuffed by new costs resulting from the pandemic, at the same time that their revenues are shrinking from heavy job losses.
“We rely on the states, particularly for infrastructure projects, in spades,” he said. “They’re on a very tight rope for next year, and there’s a real problem with what the outcomes might be.”
New Technologies Emerge
If construction projects do end up laying the groundwork for an economic expansion, they may do so with the aid of technologies like autonomous, AI-guided earthmovers, electrically powered lifting equipment, and the use of data analytics to promote machine efficiency. Slater said he sees some big opportunities ahead, especially in light of the economic slowdown and the industry’s workforce issues.
“A couple of things are key here,” Slater said. “One of them is the whole world of autonomous machinery. That will be an area that’s very important to what we do. Another is the whole idea of efficiency of machines. We’re going to see a lot of data utilization.”
The interplay of sensors, GPS, and software gives contractors the data they need to determine the real-time positioning, status, and condition of their machines in the field. They can see how often they’re running, how they’re being used, how they’re working, and how much fuel they’re consuming. All of this information can help them work more efficiently on the job site, reducing the cost of jobs by 10 to 15 percent or more, Slater said.
“This [efficiency] is a big place to go, especially during a recession, because contractors won’t purchase the next set of machines unless they see better production, better efficiency markers. As we’re looking forward, data analytics, utilization, and efficiency of the work site are going to be an important part of the next generation of machines that are already being introduced out there.”
Autonomous Machinery Gains a Foothold in Construction
When contractors deploy autonomous machines to do the work traditionally performed by equipment operators, people have more opportunities to work on projects that require the human powers of critical thinking, analysis, and imagination. That’s a big part of what Built Robotics, a San Francisco-based startup, is trying to enable with its AI guidance platform.
Built Robotics started in 2016 with a mission to “build robots that help build the world.” It does this by upgrading heavy equipment with AI guidance systems that enable heavy equipment to operate fully autonomously. The company deploys these robotic systems mostly on earthmoving equipment used to build infrastructure, wind farms, and gas pipelines—“all those types of big, earthmoving projects,” said Erol Ahmed, director of communications at Built Robotics, in a phone interview.
“We initially developed our technology to help address the labor shortages and cost overruns that are plaguing the construction industry domestically,” said Noah Ready-Campbell, CEO of Built Robotics, in a company release. “But as we’ve grown, we’ve realized that those challenges are common around the world, and especially in Australia, which is the size of the U.S. but has roughly the population of Florida.”
Built’s co-founders—Campbell and Lead Robotics Engineer Andrew Liang— wanted to tackle “really difficult problems,” Ahmed said, and decided to focus on earthmoving. Construction looked promising to them, partly because so little innovation had occurred in recent years and partly because many of the tasks required—like repetitive earthmoving operations—are so well-suited to autonomy. As they explored different possibilities for construction, mining, and logistics, they realized that some of the technology trends supporting the development of self-driving cars could also be applied to bulldozers and excavators.
“We’re seeing a lot of the tech and sensors and software become a lot cheaper, and more accessible, and more built out,” Ahmed said. “It was sort of, what can we use, what technology can we apply to the construction industry? It hadn’t really seen a productivity gain in half a century.”
If you’ve ever seen equipment operators work, you know their jobs require a lot of skill. There are some who can take the cap off a bottle with a bucket tip, Ahmed said. “They have surgical precision with how they use the machine,” he said. “So, we have to also have that kind of precision with our robots.”
One of the reasons it’s difficult to achieve that precision is the type of decision making required of an equipment operator. Construction job sites are dynamic environments that require “micro and macro decision making” based on weather conditions and other variables, Ahmed said. To meet these challenges and constantly improve its technology, Built Robotics works with operators, performs testing, and analyzes copious amounts of data.
“You have to basically learn how to be a good equipment operator,” he said. “If you’re an operator, you’re constantly determining this endless flow of composition changes from bucket to bucket. You’re literally manipulating the earth you’re standing on, unlike a self-driving car, which exists on pretty defined sets of roads, with laws, rules, and regulations. Job sites are very dynamic, and so the robot has to be really intelligent around detection and sensoring and making decisions.”
Built Robotics’ AI guidance system includes software that runs on Built’s custom-built hardware, encased in a black box protective housing, Ahmed said. That gets installed on the piece of heavy equipment, converting it into an autonomous robot. It also includes cameras for safety and monitoring, as well as GPS and peripherals, like IMU sensors.
“The IMU sensors are inertial measurement units, and they determine the pitch and the tilt of the machine,” Ahmed explained. “We connect that into the hydraulic system of the equipment. This allows the piece of equipment to run autonomously, but also still maintain its full manual operation. It’s the type of installation method that keeps the machine running just as it would without the kit, so you can hop in at any time and run it manually.”
Once the AI guidance system is installed, a person known as a robotic equipment operator (REO) simply turns on the machine and performs a number of safety checks. They select a task for the robot to work on, press ‘Go,’ and the robot starts working. Once the machine is working in autonomous mode, there’s nothing the operator needs to do with the robot itself.
“The system lets the robot do its job, and then the operator can work on other tasks,” Ahmed said. “It takes years of training to become a skilled operator, and you want them to be able to do the tasks that they enjoy and that are most valuable for your business.”
Benefits of using the AI guidance system include a safer work site and increased productivity, Ahmed said.
“You have the ability to work on projects over a longer period of time, so you can do overnight operations, or stagger the shifts. This increases the productivity so you can take on more work and grow your business.”
The technology uses physical and software-based geofencing to limit the geographical area in which the equipment can operate. A physical geofence—an actual safety barrier with rope and signage—is installed to keep people away from the job site. At the same time, a software based geofence keeps the robot in its prescribed space. If the machine approaches a certain zone within the software geofence, it stops working automatically.
Ahmed said the autonomous machines don’t eliminate any jobs. Rather than automating entire jobs, they bring value to contractors by automating specific tasks on a job site. “They’ll do one thing very well, and then that’s it; they have a very narrow scope,” he said.
“If you look over the long arc of the construction industry, we have pick-axes, and wheelbarrows and shovels. Then steam power was invented, and all of a sudden, you had steam powered equipment, and that created the world of the operator. And then in the 1950s through the ’70s, we had the introduction of hydraulics, which led operators to work on bigger and bigger equipment.
“Now, we’re seeing the introduction of autonomy, which is another big shift that will allow operators to now be people who run robots. So, it adds more to their toolset and their skills as an additional type of career pathway, as well, for people entering construction.”
Built Robotics employs just under 30 people, Ahmed said, and about 80 percent of its staff are engineers. He described Built Robotics as “sort of a cross between a robotics lab and a construction company,” which he said distinguishes the company from others in this space.
“All of us, including our engineers, have been on the job site, and many of us are OSHA certified. Most of us have either trained or are getting trained in using heavy equipment. So, we’re very comfortable on the job site.”
The company is building out a training program for REOs that will consist of basic skills, including reading layouts and understanding site plans, and give them a sense of how to set up the robot, Ahmed said. Basic computer skills, a strong safety record, OSHA certification, and knowledge of construction equipment and maintenance are also necessary. And, of course, firsthand experience with operation is definitely good to have.
Ahmed said the company’s staff prides itself on working as closely with the construction industry as they can.
“We’re big advocates of being hands on and working in the field, and making something that actually helps the construction industry, making sure it’s the right product for what they need. It’s not an R&D project; it’s not a Google concept. This has to be a tool that works as great as a hammer or an excavator, or anything else on the job site. It has to get its job done. That drives most of our decision making.”
Built Robotics has received very positive feedback from users of its technology, Ahmed added.
“There’s a coolness factor, that people get excited to see the autonomy. A lot of operators see the progress, and they’re excited that construction is finally getting sort of the attention it deserves after not getting a big tech boost in such a long time.”
Engineering a Cost-Effective Shift to Electric Systems
For construction equipment and other machines that are counted on to do heavy lifting, linear actuators are indispensable components. They create push-and-pull movements in mechanisms that enable excavators to dig deep into the earth, for example. They’re also essential components in forklifts, which rely on them to lift heavy materials. In most heavy machines today, this type of straight-line motion is enabled by hydraulic linear actuation systems that are powered by diesel.
But according to RISE Robotics, a developer of electric and mechanical systems that displace hydraulics, diesel-powered hydraulic systems are “the most wasteful component in the overall motion system.” In a release citing data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, RISE said these systems produce “an estimated 55 million tons of CO2 annually in the U.S. alone.”
“As OEMs are forced to adapt their products to comply with imminent emissions regulations, the industry has struggled with the slow pace of innovation and high cost of using electricity as a power source for heavy machinery,” the company said in the release.
RISE Robotics is engineering a linear actuator that is said to enable a “cost-effective and environmentally responsible” shift from diesel to electric systems. The company received $3 million in additional funding last April to support its efforts to “drive forward the electrification and sustainability of heavy machinery.”
The additional funding will support RISE Robotics’ work with a leading forklift manufacturer to accelerate the electrification of its machinery, increasing the performance of the manufacturer’s existing electric forklifts and enabling the electrification of its larger scale machinery, which is currently diesel-fueled.
The company is open to partnering with select heavy-machinery manufacturers interested in seeing first-hand how RISE’s new mechanical motion technology could be a better alternative to the diesel-powered hydraulic systems used in most heavy machines today.
“Hybrid and electric retrofits to existing hydraulic systems are more expensive than the existing diesel systems and are much harder to control,” said Arron Acosta, CEO and co-founder of RISE Robotics, in the release. “Hydraulics are slowing and literally weighing down the adoption of electrically powered heavy machines. The RISE platform offers a completely new mechanical motion technology that makes electric-powered motor-to-movement solutions possible. It’s a game changer for any manufacturer trying to electrify its heavy machinery.”
Acosta told D2P in an emailed response that electric heavy machinery has remained unaffordable, even while unable to perform with diesel-equivalent productivity. He noted that a diesel-powered container handler—essentially a large forklift—costs about $600,000 brand new. On the other hand, a diesel-equivalent electric handler without RISE’s technology costs $1,800,00, mostly due to the 1-Mwh battery, which he called “a huge burden.”
Refuse disposal trucks also highlight the cost disparity between diesel and electric heavy machinery. Diesel versions cost $250,000; electric versions, $500,000. Another issue with the electric versions is range anxiety: Some cities that deploy fleets of electric garbage trucks have had to change their travel routes to prevent the trucks from running out of energy midway through their routes, he said.
“Engineers have been eagerly anticipating better batteries, but batteries are a symptom of the problem, not the root cause,” Acosta said. “The key component that consumes a major portion of the energy in a large forklift, and garbage trucks, is the hydraulic system.”
The RISE alternative to hydraulic cylinders is a new mechanical motion technology that is said to solve the battery issues that have hampered market acceptance of electric linear actuators.
“Built around a unique electrically-powered mechanical linear actuator, the RISE platform has all the abilities and power of hydraulics, but vastly improved efficiency and control,” the company said on its website. “At the heart of every RISE platform is a sealed, electrically powered, and digitally controlled system of steel cables and pulleys. This cable-driven actuation system offers levels of control not possible with traditional hydraulics, and far greater speed than a screw-based linear actuator.”
RISE describes its platform as industry- and application-agnostic, meaning it’s suitable for use in “any machinery or industry that relies on hydraulic movement systems.” Besides the lifting applications for which the technology is named, its applications include agricultural, heavy construction, and mining equipment.
“Most heavy machinery manufacturers have made battery electric demonstration products and have electrification initiatives,” Acosta said. “It’s a trend that the industry is pursuing early, even though most participants don’t believe it’s a worthwhile endeavor yet because the cost and performance are not yet diesel-equivalent. RISE changes that understanding with a new technology.”
Acosta said RISE is partnering with innovative collaborators—teams that want to achieve “a truly meaningful success outcome.” They must also commit to protecting RISE’s intellectual property and its fair share of the success it creates, he said.
Safety, Reliability, Quality
Design-2-Part interviewed leaders of several contract manufacturing companies that supply parts to OEMs in the construction and heavy equipment industries. When asked what requirements were most critical to OEM customers in these industries, they echoed common themes of safety, reliability, and quality.
“Certainly, safety is key,” said Miller Fabrication Solutions’ Brian Kurn. “When you’re dealing with aerial lifts, where people are going to be on those, safety is the primary goal for our OEMs and for us. So, quality has to be 100 percent, no question.”
Miller Fabrication Solutions, of Brookville, Pennsylvania, makes parts for a variety of construction equipment, including telehandler frames, turntable frames, boom arms, compaction units, and pavers. The company is vertically integrated to provide fabrication, machining, welding, powder coating, and assembly.
“We deal with mid-sized weldments on steel structures. The thickness of the steel is anywhere from a quarter inch up to 2 and-a-half inches, which is kind of our sweet spot. We can go up beyond 10 or 11 inches if needed, but our core group is anywhere from that 2-and-a-half to quarter-inch range.”
Kurn said that for applications such as material handling equipment, quality is equally important. That means making sure all welds and machined parts are up to specification. “For the parts that we deal with in the construction equipment field, dependability and assurance of safety are two of the very primary aspects that our customers are looking for,” he said.
One of Miller’s clients, Volvo Construction Equipment, needed a supplier partner that would minimize costs without sacrificing quality or increasing lead times for its metal parts. In this case, the part was a drum plate on a vibratory drum of an asphalt compaction machine. Miller’s engineers were able to reduce manufacturing costs by recommending different tolerances that didn’t compromise performance or quality.
“Volvo’s a partner that’s been extremely helpful through the process, where we’ve kind of crafted our own way, but certainly with their assistance,” Kurn said. “We work very closely with them. We visit their facility (in Shippensburg, Pennsylvania), and they come up and visit ours. They’ll make suggestions and we’ll make suggestions, and that collaboration is extremely helpful.”
Low-Friction, Wear Resistant Parts
One way that equipment manufacturers ensure the safety and reliability of their equipment is by using parts that they know won’t wear out for a certain number of years, depending on the application. AIP Precision Machining, a precision plastics machining company in Daytona Beach, Florida, specializes in producing such parts.
The company has carved out a niche in mission-critical, tight tolerance, machined parts. Some fly on airplanes, while others are used on construction, mining, and agricultural equipment, as well as fire apparatus and products within the oil and gas industry.
John MacDonald, president of AIP Precision Machining, said that wear resistance and low friction are often important requirements for parts used in heavy equipment applications like construction, mining, or oil and gas. As a company that prides itself on its expertise with materials, these are projects that AIP enjoys taking on.
“It all seems to work around wear resistance and low friction,” MacDonald said in a phone interview. “I believe it’s mainly because plastics offer such lower friction and better wear performance than metals.”
Many of the parts machined by AIP are used in applications where sliding occurs in the equipment, and a wear pad is necessary to reduce the wear of metal-to-metal components. The big advantage of the wear pad, MacDonald said, is that it creates less sliding friction. As a result, the OEM doesn’t need to use as heavy or as powerful a hydraulic or electric motor to telescope a boom and lift a load.
“Obviously, for something like an excavator, you’re using a huge motor because it has to lift the load. But imagine if you had to lift the load and overcome a low load of friction. Then you’d have to spec your motor even higher, which is just wasted energy in the long run.”
Some of the parts are made out of Nylatron, a molybdenum disulfide-filled Nylon. Others, for lower load applications, are made out of UHMWPE (ultra-high molecular weight polyethylene). Very high load applications require a composite material, CIP. “They’re all about friction reduction,” MacDonald said.
AIP Precision Machining also makes parts that go inside hydraulic transmissions for boom lifts. The part resembles a valve seat that shuts off and on. For that application, PEEK is a good material because it can handle the higher pressures of the hydraulic fluid and it lends itself well to machining. That’s important, MacDonald said, because it’s critical to create “a very good surface finish where that ball seats, so that a hydraulic leak doesn’t occur.”
“Imagine being up on one of those boom lifts, and all of a sudden, something starts to leak a little bit,” he said. “It’s also a higher temperature material, so if there ever were any overheat situations, it wouldn’t just turn into a blob of goo and fail. And it’s resistant to the hydraulic fluids and different chemicals in the application.”