A recent research study conducted by CAVCOE (formerly the Canadian Automated Vehicles Centre of Excellence) for Associated Equipment Distributors (AED), “A Study of the Impact of Autonomous Technology,” examined the current state of autonomous technology in the industry. It highlights ways companies prepare themselves to not only capitalize on the opportunities the technology presents today, but adapt in anticipation of what the future holds.
“Technology has never been developing at a faster rate than it is today, and tomorrow it will be even faster,” the study reads. “A major prediction about exponential technology development is that a computer will have human-level intelligence by 2029. All AED members developing business strategies beyond the next 10 years should consider the profound impacts that artificial intelligence in particular could have on their business and operational models.”
For some sectors of C&E, autonomous machinery has already reached maturity. In mining, for instance, autonomous drills and haulers have been in use for over a decade. That first-mover advantage has allowed mining to refine techniques and technology to the point where much underground mining work today can be performed either autonomously or by remote operator from the safety of a control center. The study contends that in a similar timeframe, the benefits of autonomous machinery could be equally apparent for home and commercial construction companies.
“A few heavy equipment end users have already expressed a desire for fully autonomous work sites and electric equipment, as this helps them to lower overall costs and to meet efficiency and environmental targets. The indications are that it is a no-brainer for heavy equipment operations to transition to fully autonomous and electric operations at the earliest commercially viable opportunity,” the study states.
The rise in automation is also leading to a broad business shift from a sales-model to a service-model, as more companies opt to rent equipment when needed rather than buying it and assuming the costs of maintenance.
The study cited a real example of The Berry Group, an equipment dealer that operates 5 Bobcat dealerships. It examined the likely impact of autonomous technology on the business over a 5-, 10- and 15-year period.
“By about 2030, it is expected that AI will have reached a point where its capability exceeds that of a human for many tasks, including operating a Bobcat. In the 2030s, AI technology will allow most, if not all, of the Bobcat use cases to be automated,” the report says.
“These impacts will be seen in both the skill set required of Berry’s technicians and the need to retrain customers in how to program the Bobcats for specific tasks….we can expect that Berry’s customers’ level of satisfaction will depend in part on how intuitive it is to use automated Bobcats and how well they perform.”
The report estimates that over the next 10-15 years, more than 80% of heavy equipment machinery will be powered by electric drivetrains and contain autonomous systems.
“These technology disruptors will require the heavy equipment industry to develop a new type of technician…who has a blend of the standard mechanical skill sets with a much more extensive background in electronic and automated systems. Not only is the current technician shortage at a record high, but the industry must now begin developing the technician of the future, today.”
In order to stay ahead of the curve and avoid being caught flat-footed, the report suggests companies actively monitor their sectors for disruptive autonomous trends on the horizon, and develop a business model flexible enough to withstand rapid change.
As far as integrating the new technology, the report recommends involving top management as much as possible to ensure early buy-in for the planning stage. It also suggests holding in-house workshops where managers can educate employees on the opportunities, challenges and changes ahead. Also critical is informing clients of your new capabilities and how it will improve the service your company delivers.