In today’s contracting environment, use of technology in equipment operation can make a big impact on a crew’s productivity given the challenges contractors face in hiring and retaining skilled operators. Over the last several years, key innovations have combined to make equipment for water, sewer, gas, power and telecommunications infrastructure simpler to operate – meaning that companies can still achieve high productivity levels even with less experienced operators. To get a sense of how technology is impacting utility construction, we talked with Ed Savage, product manager for Vermeer.
With the launch of Vermeer’s RTX1250i2 and XTS1250i2 ride-on tractors, which are capable of running attachments including trenchers, rock saws and plows, the company combines a suite of technology that is helping contractors in the field.
“The ‘i2’ represents intelligence and interchangeability. Intelligent features enable them to self-identify the attachments the machine is using, which eases control adjustments. And, the interchangeability of attachments has been eased, which reduces the amount of time to switch out attachments,” Savage said.
The purpose behind the launch is to help to get operators up to speed quickly. “We’re trying to make equipment that is easy to train people on and which requires less user inputs,” he said. “What that does is shorten the training curve. It makes it so that you can get a less experienced operator up to speed quicker and still be productive with the piece of equipment.”
One of the key features of the machines is what Vermeer calls the “Productivity Zone.” This feature identifies the ideal engine rpm operating range and automatically adjusts the ground speed to maintain peak performance in that range, optimizing machine production.
Monitoring the engine’s rpm, “i2” Auto Plunge technology automatically reduces the rate of plunge for a trencher or rockwheel attachment so the rpm does not drop too far, reducing engine stalls.
“One of the most difficult things when you are starting a trench is that initial plunge cut,” Savage said. “You are plunging down into the dirt. Sometimes there are rocks or tree roots involved, and it is easy to stall out the digger chain, so then you have to lift up or re-engage the chain and start again. So, Auto Plunge is always looking at that optimal rpm range so that if it starts pulling down the engine, it eases up. This helps automate the process and takes the user inputs out of the equation. Basically, the machine is thinking for the operator.”
Monitoring the engine’s rpm while trenching in challenging ground conditions, the TrenchSense electronic control system helps prevent engine stall by automatically pausing the tractor’s forward creep if the rpm drops or the trencher chain stops.
“This is kind of similar to Auto Plunge in that if you are digging and hit a rock or tree root, it will automatically stop forward movement of the machine, back up a small amount, get the digger chain moving again and start forward motion again with the trencher,” Savage explained. “Again, it is taking the human element out of the equation and letting automation take over, which adds to the productivity and shortens the training curve.”
To reduce fuel consumption during operation, this machine is equipped with the EcoIdle engine control system, which automatically lowers the engine’s speed to an idle if the tractor has not been active for 15 seconds.
These technologies combined are essential in today’s competitive hiring market. “It’s the same across all of the markets we serve. It’s a struggle to find, train and retain labor,” Savage said. “So, if you have high turnover, shortening the training curve is key so you can get operators up to speed while still being productive.”
When a contractor purchases a new machine, Vermeer dealers provide training based on the experience level of the operator, so that they are comfortable using the machine when they take it to the jobsite.
Of course, new technology only helps if the machine itself is operating a peak capacity. That means maintaining your equipment is vital. “You need to fully understand the maintenance requirement of the machines to get the best return on investment,” Savage added. “Typical routine maintenance includes keeping the machine lubricated, and changing air and fuel filters. Equipment is a big investment, so it is time well spent to understand the maintenance.”
Also key to success is knowing the ground conditions that you typically encounter or may encounter on future jobs to ensure that the attachments are well suited to that ground. “If you are running a trencher, for example, it is critical to have the right type of cutting teeth for the ground to maximize productivity.”
Similarly, understanding the size of cable or pipe to be installed, as well as the depth, helps zero-in on the right combination of machine and attachments a contractor needs. “A Rock saw, for example, typically cuts shallower and narrower than a trencher, whereas a trencher is capable of cutting wider and deeper, so understanding what you need to accomplish is key to understanding your optimal equipment setup. Vibratory plows cut a narrow slot and require less surface restoration, so we are seeing a lot of use in some of the fiber optic installations.”
When purchasing a machine, there are several options to consider, including whether you want tires or tracks, and whether you want a climate-controlled cab. “Again, you need to understand the types of jobs you will be bidding on,” Savage added. “If you are working in rural areas, you may want to consider tracks vs. rubber tires. Whereas if you are working in urban areas on hard surface roadways, rubber tires may be the better option. If you are working in very hot or very cold conditions, a climate-controlled cab can be a benefit in keeping operators comfortable.”
As the future for the utility construction market looks bright, companies like Vermeer strive to improve their equipment to help contractors stay as productive as possible. “We are continually looking at ways to make it easier for the operator to run our machines and improve the operator experience.” Tags: September/October 2022 Print Issue, Vermeer