From surveying to automation: The evolution of machine control systems

John Lawrence, Product Manager for Site Technology Solutions at SMT GB, takes us on a trip through time, sharing how the machine control landscape has evolved in Great Britain and how SMT GB, as an original equipment distributor (OED), is supporting its customers to leverage this technology.

Machine control systems have taken the UK by storm in recent years. They’ve changed the game for earthmoving and construction contractors, bringing new levels of productivity, efficiency, and precision, plus contributing to greater sustainability. While these systems may feel relatively new, however, the same technological principles have been around for a long time in site surveying. 

John Lawrence, Product Manager for Site Technology Solutions at SMT GB.

In fact, that’s where my career began. I spent 10 years working with land surveying equipment before becoming a support application engineer for machine control systems around four years ago.  I joined SMT GB specifically as a product manager for Dig Assist, Volvo Construction Equipment’s own machine control solution for excavators.

Back in the day, land surveying meant someone behind a tripod watching another person with a stick, moving about the site. Now, robotic optical instruments automate all the tracking. This shift means greater accuracy, fewer people on a potentially hazardous site, and fewer salaries to pay. 

Machine control systems simply took that survey toolkit – GPS, a screen, and data – and brought it to construction equipment. So now, instead of a person pacing around with strings, lines, and spray paint, machine operators get all the site 

design information they need directly on a screen in the cab, preventing costly or dangerous mistakes like digging too deep.

 SMT GB, as the authorised dealer for Volvo Construction Equipment in Great Britain, offers excavators equipped with Dig Assist, the manufacturer’s proprietary machine control system designed specifically for excavators.

The trickle-down effect

Construction contractors are now beginning to experience the benefits of digitalisation and automation, but our government is pushing for it too. Public bodies, such as the National Highways Plant Engagement Council, want machine control systems in their construction projects. Looking at the big picture, the National Highways (formerly Highways England) Connected and Autonomous Plant (CAP) Roadmap to 2035 lays out plans for smarter, automated construction throughout the UK by 2035, in which machine control systems play a significant part.

Why this push? Two big reasons: safety and productivity. The government wants to reduce the risk of injury to workers on construction sites by having fewer staff on the ground, close to machinery. Plus, ONS statistics point to construction lagging behind other sectors in productivity. With machine control systems, projects wrap up faster and with less disturbance to the public. Automation also contributes to mitigating environmental impact and the labour shortage and skills gap.

As a human machine interface (HMI), machine control systems aren’t fully automated, but they are an important steppingstone. As a step up from the Volvo Dig Assist machine control system, for example, Volvo Active Control automates some of the boom and bucket movements to improve excavation efficiency. The sensors and processes that form part of machine control systems will be an enabler for further automation in the future.

As well as automating certain movements, Volvo Active Control provides operators with the ability to set depth and height limits as well as a swing fence. 

As public bodies back these systems, there’s a trickle-down effect from the Tier 1 contractors to the rest of the industry, which has led to an incredible surge in demand over the past year. At SMT GB, we have been offering Volvo Co-Pilot with Dig Assist for a while, which is an integrated machine control system from the Volvo factory that stays on the excavator as it is sold. 

Factory fit versus retrofit

Dig Assist is an impressive system, offering so many customer benefits. However, we understand that it may not be suitable for everyone, particularly considering that Great Britain primarily operates as a hiring market. Here, equipment is rented for project durations, aligning with a focus on operational expenses (OpEx). Given this preference to minimise upfront capital expenditures (CapEx), retrofit systems provide customers with the flexibility to move systems between machines and get more longer-term value from their investments. 

The retrofit market for machine control systems is also very well established in Great Britain. Retrofit machine control systems first appeared on bulldozers and motor graders about 20 years ago. Fast-forward to today, and contractors are running these systems on all sorts of equipment from different manufacturers. We recognise that many customers have mixed fleets and appreciate the convenience of standardisation in their systems.

Given this landscape, it comes as no surprise that customers buying a Volvo excavator from us in Great Britain often ask if we can work with a third-party provider, such as Leica, Trimble or Topcon to include a retrofit solution. That’s why we’ve become an official dealer for Unicontrol machine control systems. 

A new partnership

Unicontrol is a fairly new player in the industry, founded in Denmark in 2018 with a mission to create a simple, user-friendly 3D machine control system that seamlessly fits into contractors’ existing routines. The technology is agnostic, using the same machine files and hardware, so it can work with any machine. Theoretically, you could even move it between different types of machines within a fleet.

So if a customer decides to buy a Volvo excavator from SMT GB, we can now deliver it ready to use with a Unicontrol machine control system. We’ll install the hardware, set up the software and ensure its precision. Plus, we’ll provide ongoing support and offer a comprehensive warranty. In Great Britain, our competitors typically offer warranties only for parts, but our packages cover both parts and labour.

Unicontrol offers customers a flexible machine control system that they can move between machines once the job is complete.

We proudly unveiled our partnership with Unicontrol in January 2023, becoming the brand’s third dealer in Great Britain, as well as its only national and OED dealer. Before making the announcement, however, we thoroughly tested the waters behind the scenes to ensure we could truly deliver an outstanding solution. Back in Autumn 2022, we approached a select group of strategic customers across different regions of Great Britain, who were already using machine control systems extensively in their fleets and invited them to put the Unicontrol system and our service support to the test.

The response was beyond our expectations. The system seamlessly integrated into their existing workflows, earning praises from their teams for its user-friendliness. Now, we eagerly anticipate the data results over the long term. Our next step is to extend the use of this technology to owner-operator customers. While this leap might seem daunting, the benefits are significant, and we want them to experience them too.

Our commitment to our customers is unwavering – we’re dedicated to meeting their needs and assisting them in optimising their operations. Together, as we forge ahead, offering a choice of machine control system solutions backed by reliable service support, we’re creating a safer, more productive, and more sustainable future for the construction industry in Great Britain.

Please visit the SMT GB website to learn more about Volvo Co-Pilot with Dig Assist (factory fit) or Unicontrol(retrofit).