When it comes to learning about automated grade control, the students in the heavy equipment operation program at West Hills Community College (WHCC) have a distinct advantage—all thanks to geography.
The Coalinga, Calif., college is located less than three hours down Interstate 5 from Topcon Positioning Systems’ Solutions Center in Pleasanton, Calif., a facility used for equipment training and testing. Each semester, students and instructors from WHCC make the trek to the Solutions Center for a day of classroom instruction and hands-on operation of heavy equipment installed with the latest grade control technology. For the students, the trip not only introduces them to the realities of the jobsite—it also exposes them to high-tech tools they can use in the future to help them get their jobs done.
In April 2012, WHCC Agriculture Department instructors Merlin Welch, Clint Cowden and Dale Gorman brought 18 students and instructors to the Pleasanton facility to learn about automated grade control, its benefits and how it’s used on the jobsite. The majority of students were enrolled in Welch’s Heavy Equipment course. Topcon’s senior training manager, John Dice, and training manager Derek Madrid provided in-depth instruction on 3D machine control systems and Topcon Positioning Systems’ 3D Grade Management System, which includes GR-3 satellite receivers and a FC-236 field controller equipped with Pocket 3D software. Students operated a Komatsu PC245 excavator equipped with Topcon’s X63 indicate system, as well as a John Deere 750J dozer, a Komatsu D65 dozer and a Caterpillar 140H motor grader equipped with Topcon’s 3D-MC2 high-speed automated grade control system. They also saw a demonstration of the 3D Grade Management System for checking grade and measuring volume quantities.
Carving Out Qualified Operators
WHCC has offered a heavy equipment operation course since 1974, after the California chapter of the Land Improvement Contractors Association (LICA) urged state colleges to provide training to produce qualified operators, according to Welch, who also serves as the 2012 LICA chapter president. While the college has some machine control technology on its heavy equipment for students to use, Welch says the experience at the Solutions Center is invaluable.
“This is not something we’d be able to duplicate at our facility,” he says. “We have some Topcon equipment, but we don’t have as much as they have here.”
Located on 12 acres of property rented from a local quarry, Topcon has used its current equipment training site for about 12 years. Topcon dealers from all over the world travel to the center.
In April 2011, the company officially opened Phase 1 of a renovation of the site and dedicated a new VIP Welcome Center. The Welcome Center provides a boardroom-style meeting space, eliminating the need for transportation to and from Topcon’s headquarters several miles away. The site also received an upgrade of the onsite training and engineering facilities, including two new classrooms, a break room, office space and a high-quality audio/video presentation system.
The Solutions Center features several pieces of heavy equipment for training and customer demonstrations. A typical training session at the center instructs Topcon dealers on the effective use of systems on the machines so that they can train their customers on the systems.
“We have a number of scenarios in construction,” Topcon’s Dice says. “We have a crowned road so that we can talk about how to set up and use our equipment in road situations, and we have a [Digital Terrain Model] surface, which includes flatter areas, sloped banks and curved banks—different job file types, plus areas where we can use both the 3D Grade Management System plus the machines. We’re in a mock construction environment.”
WHCC has a unique relationship with Topcon, Dice says. WHCC is the only school that regularly comes out to Pleasanton.
“They’re close enough that a field day works,” Dice says. “My primary goal is to get the students excited about wanting to learn more about machine control. Today’s students will need to learn and use machine control just as they need to learn how to operate the heavy equipment.”
Welch says that’s why he feels it’s important to bring his students to the center. “Until they’ve worked with the technical end of the systems, they’re not going to understand much of it,” he says. “But now they can realize how technically involved it is, and they’ll know when they need to do something by themselves or when they need to ask for some help. They might learn how to operate the systems, but they really need to learn what’s out there—that’s what I hope they get out of this. It will be an eye-opener.”
A typical training day consists of three parts: a theoretical overview in the classroom, field demonstrations by Dice and Madrid, and hands-on lessons with the students operating the equipment. They also use machine control box and 3D Grade Management System simulators that operate on a PC and project the readouts onto screens in the classroom.
“With these tools, we can ‘walk’ or ‘drive’ around the training center and show how the systems would work on a real site,” Dice says.
After a safety briefing, Dice started out by contrasting automated grade control with conventional grading techniques and equipment. He also provided an overview of the high-speed 3D-MC2 system, the 3D Grade Management System, how a base station integrates signals with a rover to establish Real-Time Kinetic (RTK) machine position and an introduction to Topcon’s line of products. Then Dice and Madrid demonstrated how the systems work on the site. Finally, the students got to operate the machines and systems.
One of the things operators learn at the center is the difference between systems with fully automatic capability and ones with indicate-only capability.
“For indicate-only systems, the operator is using the grade lights, and he is controlling the grade of the implement, so he will focus more on the display,” Dice says. “For automatic systems that are controlling the grade, the operator can focus more on managing the material. He will learn that he sometimes needs to switch the automatics off and manually control the blade for a bit.”
After instruction, it’s time for demonstrations and operation. When the students operate the equipment themselves, Dice says the instructors take a hands-off approach.
“We find that when operators are given the time for focused training, they learn additional capabilities they didn’t even know the system could do and also tips to help get the job done quicker,” Dice says. “They find out that in those times when they shut the system off because ‘we couldn’t use it on that job,’ there was a solution and they just didn’t know about it. And when faced with ‘problems’ in the field, understanding the theory of how the system works means they can solve many of the problems that previously may have shut them down.”
Worth the Trip
Nick Zerkas of Auberry, Calif., attended the field trip as a student anticipating to receive his heavy equipment operation certificate in May 2012. Prior to taking the class, Zerkas says he had no heavy equipment operating experience to speak of, other than using a tractor to do landscaping work around the house. He was even less familiar with automated grade control technology.
During the hands-on operation portion of the training session, Zerkas spent considerable time on a dozer and the excavator, and a little time on the motor grader. He learned what it was like to operate the equipment with the aid of the 3D-MC2 and X63 systems.
“When you use an automated grade control system, you set whatever your grade will be and if you’re too high or low, it adjusts the blade or bucket up and down to get to that grade,” he says. “It’s a tool to aid in the process; if you did it by eye, you’d normally have a grade checker go out there to make sure you’re close and they’d tell you how much more you’d have to take off.”
Zerkas says he learned that with these systems and 3D Grade Management, the need for staking is greatly reduced or eliminated entirely.
“You walk a few feet and the system tells you to move right or left, and it shows you how many feet or inches need to be cut or filled,” he says.
After operating heavy equipment without machine control, Zerkas says he immediately recognized the benefits of using automated grade control systems.
“You’re not focusing on the controls as much—you’re focusing on what you’re doing and it makes the process so much quicker,” he says. “For instance, on a grader, you normally make a couple of passes and with the automated systems, you only need to make one pass and you’re right at grade. At any point, if you’re not on grade, you can adjust the controls.
“After spending the day being trained, I felt that I could run a piece of equipment with GPS and wouldn’t be lost,” Zerkas adds. “It was a very memorable and rewarding day; I wouldn’t have missed it for anything.”