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Machine Advancements Help Combat Operator Fatigue

The Komatsu D39PXi-24 reduces the constant adjustments an operator must make to the dozer blade.

By Craig McGinnis | Tuesday, August 14, 2018
Construction equipment cabs have come a long way during the past 30 years. Gone are the days of bare-bones workhorses with rigid seats and very few features. Today’s machines are more akin to an on-highway pick-up truck, with heated leather bucket seats, satellite radio and navigation systems. In addition, auxiliary inputs allow operators to play the music of their choice, and the cabs feature color monitors and push-button features. Most importantly, heavy equipment continues to evolve to more effectively combat operator fatigue with operator-friendly working environments.

An Advanced Joystick Steering System (AJSS) eliminates the steering wheel for improved forward visibility and operator comfort while allowing the machine to operate at full speed.

One key improvement area to combat operator fatigue has been the introduction of advanced joystick steering. Eliminating the steering wheel significantly reduces the number of repetitive motions when constantly turning the wheel. At first blush, turning a wheel may not seem taxing, but think about the number of times an operator turns the wheel during a 10- or 12-hour shift. Instead of needing to make several complete rotations of the wheel during a turn, an advanced ergonomic joystick only requires the operator to angle his or her wrist for comfortable all-day operation.

A secondary advantage of joysticks is the operator’s improved forward visibility once the steering wheel is removed. Without the steering column, the operator has a much cleaner line of sight to everything in front, including the bucket and work equipment. Combatting fatigue also improves visibility, a real win-win.

Some advanced joysticks are part of a position-based system, which makes it even easier to steer. For example, on a wheel loader with a position-based system, the machine is engineered to monitor the angle of the front and rear frames in relationship to each other. Because the system continuously reads the frame’s articulation angle, the operator can avoid counter-steering when performing a turn. Instead, based on the lever position, the machine knows what the operator is trying to do, making it easier to perform the job at hand and making it less fatiguing in the process.

Automation and semi-automation can play a significant role in curbing fatigue by reducing the number of lever movements.

An auto-dig feature on a wheel loader helps reduce the number of movements the operator must make while digging. When this feature is activated, the machine will raise the boom and curl the bucket while digging in a pile, relieving the operator of those repetitive tasks.
Automatic transmission and auto-kickdown eliminates the need to constantly shift gears during the loading process.
Intelligent machine control on a dozer reduces the constant adjustments an operator must make to the dozer blade.
Finally, telematics—when used to its fullest extent—can help tremendously with operator fatigue by identifying operational inefficiencies. Operator ID allows managers to monitor the number of hours an operator has been working. If the manager notices a high number of hours, or a decrease in productivity, that operator can be replaced by someone else.

Telematics also help better manage a worksite by monitoring idle time. If managers notice a high idle time during a certain operation, they can explore ways of reconfiguring to use the operator elsewhere. And of course, sometimes the best and easiest way to combat fatigue is recognizing that it’s time for the operator to get out of the cab and move around a little bit, but only if job conditions allow it.

What’s the next big improvement to combat operator fatigue on the construction jobsite? Keep an eye on OEMs that make some of the largest mining equipment in the world. Because mining requires operators to stay in machines for 10, 12 or more hours, improvements that are made to enhance operator comfort in those cabs are very likely to migrate down to smaller construction-size machines.