Utility vehicles at the crossroad of electrification, automation and connectivity

By Ari Almqvist

A little over a year ago, National Grid and AVANGRID announced they were the first utilities in the United States “to incorporate fully electric backhoe loaders in their fleets.” CASE Construction Equipment built the all-electric backhoe loader by using its 580 diesel-powered version as a foundation. To develop the 580 EV, CASE worked with both utilities, battery experts and my employer, Moog Inc, which designs and manufacturers electric and hydraulic motion control products.

By swapping the diesel engine single-power source for a battery-powered traction drive system and hydraulic power source, operators say the 580 EV makes for a quieter work zone. That also means a safer workplace because crews don’t have to compete with engine noise to talk to one another. For utility customers, there’s an improvement in the audible quality of work sites adjacent to communities.

The benefits of electric technology go beyond noise-reduction and safety, of course. And utility companies aren’t the only machine owners and operators interested in the merits; equipment rental firms and utility contractors are noticing these technology advances.

“For situations where crews are working all day with a hydrovac truck that’s burning gallons and gallons of fuel per hour, an electric solution could be interesting,” said Patrick Kramer, a project manager for 3P Utility Services, a minority-controlled union contractor specializing in gas distribution infrastructure.

National Grid’s 580 EV Electric Backhoe

For example, diesel-powered construction equipment causes greater emissions and fuel use, since, even when idling, a diesel engine turns a torque converter and pump. Equipment World magazine estimates a John Deere Model 310SJ backhoe-loader owned for four years and run approximately 900 hours per year would tally preventative maintenance costs of $1,655 per year and $6.30 of diesel fuel per hour.  Electric-powered vehicles stop the moment an operator completes a function, so there’s no energy lost, which means lower operating costs for utilities and contractors. CASE says its 580 EV backhoe will save an owner as much as 90 percent in annual vehicle, fuel and maintenance costs.

“One of our current projects is rebuilding a 69-kV line, and the fuel costs for that project are approximately five percent of the total project budget,” said Jerry Kirby a project manager for EC Source, which engineers, procures and constructs extra high voltage electrical systems. “The technology advances with electric remind me of the jump to digital photography and the speed of capturing and disseminating images. As vehicle technology develops, predictive maintenance would be an invaluable tool for project managers to have; maximizing utilization is key.”

“Reporting on utilization typically amounts to calculating how long the engine is running and the number of miles driven,” adds Kramer. “It would be nice to go deeper and know about the articulation of a boom or cubic yards of dirt moved.”

Cloud-based and digitally equipped construction vehicles

Although all-electric vehicles are grabbing headlines, even machines with hydraulic actuation offer the possibility of incorporating intelligent designs. With the right mix of sensors, digital controllers, valves, actuators, interfaces and of course all enabling software, machine builders can equip construction vehicles that help operators automatically recognize no-dig zones, prevent a backhoe from digging below a certain depth or adjusting the backhoe-loader’s controls to maintain a pre-determined grade.

Imagine an internet-connected, electric-powered excavator that detects its battery will be empty in two hours. The machine then analyzes a weather forecast for rain the following work day. The machine alerts its operator and construction manager, and they adjust its energy consumption to squeeze out an extra hour of work albeit at slightly less power to capitalize on a few more hours of clear sky. Connectivity is not new, but linking devices, systems and equipment for intelligence (with embedded sensors) through new digitally controlled electric vehicles will make work more efficient, safer and easier.

Utilities, equipment rental firms and contractors can all benefit from connectivity and digitally enabled machines. Think of how 4G- and 5G-modems can augment controllers. By creating systems for construction machines that include equipment with a variety of sensors for monitoring temperature, torque, current and speed, operators gain efficiencies. By collecting this data and uploading it to the cloud, construction equipment owners and utility project managers can analyze output and change the parameters by which their equipment completes tasks on the job.

“My concern is having the equipment we need on-site and maximizing the use of those machines,” added Kirby. “Maybe you’re in need of a piece of equipment and operating it just 10 hours a week, but it’s required for the job for many, many weeks. Maybe an internet-connected machine helps us get the best bang for the buck in that kind of situation.”

The electrification, automation and connectivity that comes with these next-generation construction vehicles can be strategically helpful to project managers. But there are tactical applications, too. Traditional machine operators are often satisfied with their vehicle’s limitations and performance. They either don’t know what’s possible in terms of automation, or their employers have a risk-averse stance vis-à-vis adopting new technology.

With the right combination of controls, electronics and software, machine operators can digitally tune their equipment and achieve in hours what some equipment owners invest years to accomplish by mechanical adjustments. The benefit of digitally tuning a construction vehicle is that owners can create operator-specific settings for each person who runs the equipment.

The use of haptics, which comes from the Greek word “haptikos” and means a sense of touch, is one way to make it easier for an operator to enhance, or run, a piece of equipment because the machine’s controls simultaneously exchange information between the vehicle and operator, providing a more precise feel. This is even more critical when machines are remote operated to enable safe and reliable operations. If you tap an app on your mobile device, the vibration or sensation you feel is a kind of haptics. This sense of feel might not be as important for a veteran equipment operator. But making equipment easier to operate could be a way to fill job openings created by retiring older workers with younger people who gravitate toward new technology and gaming.

Construction vehicles are closer than ever to an always-connected future, and it will surely increase productivity on the job site as well as for managers deploying the resources for work in the field.

About the Author

Ari Almqvist is the group vice president for Growth & Innovation at Moog Inc. His duties have included general management, business development, engineering and project management. In his current role, he with his team drives new growth opportunities for which Moog can develop and apply its motion-control capabilities. Mr. Almqvist received his bachelor’s degree in automotive engineering from the Helsinki Institute of Technology and his MBA from the Helsinki University of Technology. Contact him at aalmqvist@moog.com.

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