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Machine control and the mixed fleet

March 9, 2023
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Getting machine control to work with a multi-vendor fleet is one of the most common query topics we see at SMS Equipment, so we decided to take that on this month. In this edition of Experts Corner, we tapped the expertise of Jeff Martin, SMS Equipment Smart Construction Sales Representative, who has worked with equipment control systems for 25 years. In this interview, he shares his insights on the technology landscape, the challenges, and how surprisingly simple it is to manage a mixed fleet from a single point of control.

We’re hearing a lot of buzz lately about managing mixed fleets. What’s the background here?

As companies grow, it’s common for them to have equipment from different vendors. The difficulty has been that every control technology vendor has its own interface, platform, and file type. It’s a bit like Apple and PCs. So years ago, if you were running, say, Trimble, you had to stay with Trimble—same thing with Topcon.

With the integration of more and more machine control, equipment owners are getting the ability to mix. What’s changed is that control vendors are working together towards a degree of standardization. So today, for example, if you want to use Komatsu’s integrated Management Control (IMC) and you have a Trimble fleet, you’re able to manage them together.

But there’s still confusion about that. Many customers still hear that running a mixed fleet is complex and might not be a good idea. Furthermore, they may experience challenges getting the support they need for a mixed fleet.

How have companies dealt with this in the past?

How have companies dealt with this in the past?

What we see a lot is customers running two base stations, for example, one for Trimble and one for Topcon. We also see people putting special radios on their base stations to talk to other vendors. This means higher costs, having to work with multiple control panels, and sometimes, having special radios and other gear to make a non-conforming system compatible.

What’s SMS Equipment’s position on this?

We are different in that we actively promote mixed fleets and will support our customers regardless of the control system they choose to run. We recognize that every control platform has strengths and weaknesses and that companies should choose based on their work and the attachments they are running.

So rather than pressuring a customer to run a particular platform, we will go above and beyond to show how easy it is to manage an integrated fleet from a single point of control.

Komatsu has an important role here in that it’s the only major equipment vendor to support mixed fleets. Furthermore, Komatsu’s control platform, Integrated Machine Control (IMC), is provided with the equipment, so our customers don’t have to deal with a control vendor separately.

That means SMS Equipment is set up as a one-stop shop. If we are the supplier of choice for a customer’s equipment, we will also support their control system, regardless of vendor. So, if there’s a problem with the control system, we’ll deal with it and not send our customer to another vendor.

I should also add that many of our customers are currently running mixed fleets and having a lot of success with that.

Can you give an example?
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Can you give an example?

One example is Dig-It in Kelowna, BC. They were running Topcon but acquired a special bucket that Topcon didn’t support. We recommended they go to Trimble to get the full functionality out of it and to achieve what they wanted. So, we supplied Trimble for those machines as well as supported it along with the rest of their fleet.

Of course, Komatsu’s IMC is the default when selling new equipment because we think it’s the best system overall. But like all systems, it does have some limitations, and we won’t hesitate to promote another control system if that’s better for a customer’s specific requirements.

At Road to Rail Construction in Camrose, Alberta, for example, we promoted Trimble because we recognized that for the functionality they wanted, it was a better fit than IMC. Today, we support them as a mixed fleet.

What kind of assistance does SMS Equipment provide?

We start with a 30-minute meeting to show our customer all the settings they need to change. For example, you need to get all radio frequencies on the same channel and the same modulation type, baud rate, and protocols. We also give them two pieces of software, which are free, and a “how to” video. It’s really not that difficult – it’s just that people have been led to believe that this is difficult and not a good idea.

Why can SMS Equipment do this and not others?

Why can SMS Equipment do this and not others?

We have the right people. I’ve been working with most of the different competitor technologies for twenty-five years, and some of our people have been machine control experts for longer than that. The people we hire know their stuff, and the company provides continuous advanced training so that we can offer our customers the best solutions, products, and technologies.

The bottom line:

Many people have been led to believe that running mixed fleets is complex and not a very good idea. However, thanks to industry standards, mixed fleets are not difficult to manage. SMS Equipment actively supports mixed fleets, recommending them when circumstances indicate this is the best choice for customer applications and supporting them as a supplier of choice from a single point of contact.

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