Basics of Excavator Automation Technology

Automation for excavators has shown to deliver a 30 percent increase in production and many companies also report significant material savings.

Tue January 11, 2022
Scott Schumacher

A growing area of opportunity for many companies lies in an exciting form of technology: excavator automation.

One of the reasons excavator automation is becoming more popular is because excavators themselves continue to grow in popularity. In EquipmentWatch's State of the Construction Equipment Economy whitepaper, done in partnership with the Association of Equipment Management Professionals, excavators are noted as the top machine on fleet owners' minds coming into 2022, with 63 percent of those surveyed saying they intend to purchase one.

The advantages that can be gained with excavator automation are realized in several ways, including overall productivity and better performance from novice operators.

Ready to get up to speed on excavator automation? These FAQs cover five popular auto-excavator questions, and offer answers and basic info about this exciting excavator technology.

What all is automated on an excavator with automation technology?

With an excavator automation system, the machine's boom, bucket, and arm are automated to follow the set grade. Newer models of the John Deere SmartGrade auto-excavator also offer automated swing and height protection.

Not considered fully automated like the boom and bucket, these two functions are primarily designed for safety. They engage when an operator could move into a dangerous situation, like near traffic or overhead powerlines, and to prevent hitting the machine cab or tracks. Both also are soon coming on new Topcon systems.

Can some excavator automation be turned off while keeping others on?

Yes, an operator who just wants the excavator boom automated can turn off the bucket automation. The swing and height excavator automations also can be turned on and off as desired by the operator.

What bottom-line benefits does excavator automation provide?

The improved efficiency and production are among the most exciting benefits of using auto-excavator technology. Automation for excavators has shown to deliver a 30 percent increase in production and many companies also report significant material savings.

Another efficiency factor that is tough to measure but very real is operator productivity. The excavator technology takes some of the mental and physical load off the operator. Many operators report feeling less fatigued and more energized, allowing them to accomplish more in a day.

How skilled do I need to be to use excavator automation technology?

A great benefit to companies that implement auto-excavator technology is that it helps novice operators perform at a higher skill level. Essentially, an operator does not need to be skilled with an excavator or the excavator technology system to quickly learn it and be able to use it well.

How about operators who have had some time in the seat? Those who are familiar and comfortable with an excavator, yet perhaps not an expert, can elevate their performance to exceptional with the help of an excavator automation system.

Look for an equipment dealer partner that offers good training and ongoing support. Initial training, whether in person or virtual, ensures everyone is comfortable with the system. Ongoing support can mean a technology expert is available for a quick troubleshooting call or in tougher cases, that expert can remote into the excavator and walk the operator through everything they're seeing on the screen.

One piece to the overall excavator automation puzzle that does require a level of skill is building the 3D model. This again is where a knowledgeable dealer partner can offer 3D modeling as a service and can help companies with this crucial step in the process.

Is it better to add an excavator automation system to a machine or have one with integrated excavator technology?

There are upsides to both integrated systems, like Deere's SmartGrade excavator as well as systems that can be retrofitted onto an existing machine, like the Topcon X-53x.

An advantage of an integrated system is it comes directly from the factory, installed. No work is needed. The John Deere SmartGrade system also includes added features like virtual alerts. The system can set parameters like a virtual ceiling, floor, and swing to give operators more flexibility on a job site, and also notify when one is close to approaching and keep them within the set parameters.

An advantage of an add-on auto-excavator system is it can go on virtually any machine. There also are different levels of add-on automation for excavators, some that are more basic to those that are more advanced like the Topcon X-53x. A basic excavator technology system would be one where none of the features are fully-automated, but the screen shows real-time data and feedback to the operator so he or she can quickly adjust to achieve the desired grade.

Excavator automation is a growing area of opportunity for the construction industry. These excavator technology systems are only getting better, offering the ease and functionality that make them accessible to virtually any company.

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This story also appears on Construction Equipment Guide.