Giving brains to off-highway brawn

March 3, 2005
GPS equipment and innovative power sources are at the top of Caterpillar's wish list.

Mike Gatz
Technology Licensing
Group Caterpillar Inc. Peoria, Ill.

The AccuGrade system uses several global positioning systems and a computer that derives guidance information and delivers it to the cabs of off-highway equipment.

Inside the cab, operators have access to a laser and GPS display, which are both part of the Accugrade system. AccuGrade determines the grader's blade orientation by measuring both edges of the blade.

The system computes positioning information, compares position of the blade relative to the overall plan, and sends that information to the operator via these in-cab displays.

The Cat Machine Security System guards against theft by disabling a machine’s starting system through the engine electronic-control module. It works with an RFID ignition key that carries a properly encoded chip that gives its owner access to the vehicle.

Engineers at Caterpillar started designing GPS into its mining equipment back in the 90s so that customers could move more tons of material per hour, a measure of their productivity. By 2000, construction companies began clamoring for more GPS, this time for grading work sites.

Up until then, grade control typically involved a transom, wooden stakes, and a certain degree of trial and error. Now, that less-than-exact process is obsolete thanks to onboard machine guidance that combines GPS and lasers. They show machine operators precisely which areas require fill and which need to be knocked down and leveled.

"Productivity increases we're seeing aren't small incremental spurts of 5 or 10%," says Tom Bucklar, supervisor of Information Products at Caterpillar. "Some customers testing the new GPS and laser systems have seen productivity jump 50 to 100%."

Engineers and designers at Caterpillar plan to build on their success with GPS and expand it into several other areas. They also want to combine it with other new technologies, including wireless data transmission.

Although mining and grade control were the first GPS applications at Caterpillar, company engineers are developing new uses that include real-time vehicle location, navigation with centimeter-level accuracy, equipment security, and maintenance. For maintenance, GPS and wireless technology will give equipment owners complete access to their equipment's sophisticated electronic controls, a key to keeping it productive. GPS-based communication provides that access without having to send personnel to remote sites.

Using a PDA, maintenance and repair technicians can see active and logged fault and event codes. The PDA could also provide troubleshooting guidance, telling field technicians what to do before serious problems develop. The system could also let customers better manage equipment by storing statistics such as total running time, idle time, fuel, idle fuel, maximum fuel, and average load factor. The PDA can also download statistics to office computers for further analysis.

Another application, the Cat Machine Security System, guards against theft and unauthorized use by disabling a machine's starting system. Thieves and vandals would have to bypass the starting system, an almost impossible task, because security algorithms are part of the engine electronics. The system is unlocked with a PDA and the right radiofrequencyidentification (RFID) ignition key. Only the key with the proper code starts the machine. Authorized personnel can use a PDA to modify the key setup to better manage access to a single vehicle or an entire fleet. Owners can restrict operations by time and driver to ensure only fully trained or certified personnel use the equipment, and restrict them even further such as limiting operations to normal working hours.

All the added electronic equipment and systems put greater demands on electrical systems. So Caterpillar upgraded the transient voltage suppression systems. Before this, the company outsourced design and manufacturing of voltage suppression systems. Today, they work with Trombetta Motion Technologies Inc., Menomonee Falls, Wis., to design and build them. The result of this collaboration is a main relay and suppressor that snaps into place and has only two solder points.

The relay uses springs to make the final connections. There are no separate wires that pass through and into the coil. Instead, conductive springs between the relays' internal plates pass the coil current through the relay. Engineers at both companies designed the suppression system, but Caterpillar licensed their patent on it to Trombetta so it could market the technology outside the off-highway industry.

Caterpillar also believed the off-road industry needed a new battery, but no battery manufacturer showed much enthusiasm for working with them. So they off-loaded their engineering know-how on batteries to a fresh start-up company, Firefly Energy Inc., Peoria, Ill. That company is now developing a battery to replace traditional lead-acid batteries in many off-highway applications.

Key to better battery performance and power density is a material that increases the surface area over which battery chemistry takes place. The power density of a traditional lead-acid battery is limited by the number of lead plates carried inside. In a standard car battery, for example, there might be 100 to 120 of these plates, but chemical reactions are limited to the surface of the plates.

The new material has about 2,000 times more surface area per cubic inch than current battery plates and uses about 75% less lead. When installed in a battery, that battery will provide the equivalent charge in a package onefourth the size and weight of standard batteries, and it will perform better in extreme temperatures.

Traditional cars and trucks, electric vehicles, and hybrids could benefit from this new technology, as well. As the auto industry moves from 12 to 42 V, the new material could let automakers run power steering, air conditioning, and other systems off the battery rather than the engine. The battery material may also fit applications involving marine and railway products, uninterruptible power sources, mining vehicles, and general utilities.

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