Home / Connected To The Land Ep. 18: SmartGrade Technology & Jobsite Safety (Mike Sydow)

Connected To The Land Ep. 18: SmartGrade Technology & Jobsite Safety (Mike Sydow)

Connected To The Land Ep. 18: SmartGrade Technology & Jobsite Safety (Mike Sydow) In this episode of Connected To The...

Connected To The Land Ep. 18: SmartGrade Technology & Jobsite Safety (Mike Sydow)

In this episode of Connected To The Land with 4Rivers Equipment, host Fred Eichler talks with Mike Sydow, construction technology specialist, about SmartGrade technology from John Deere and safety on construction job sites.


Connected To The Land with 4Rivers equipment and John Deere.

Fred Eichler: Welcome to the 4Rivers podcast. We are your working partner and we mean it. Well, today, I’m sitting here with Mike Sydow, and Mike knows a lot about technology and construction. And when it comes to 4Rivers, they kinda break it up, they’ve got a yellow side, the green side. The green side is the ag, yellow side’s construction. And Mike, you’re on the construction side. If you would, tell me, what’s your job title?

Mike Sydow: So my official job title is Territory Development Manager for the State of Colorado.

FE: It’s hard to get that fit on a business Card.

MS: It is.

FE: It’s a long business card.

MS: Yeah. Yeah.

FE: So what’s the short version?

MS: The short version is, I sell construction technology.

FE: Construction technology to maybe large contractors? Give me an example of who you work with.

MS: I run the gambit, small to large contractors.

FE: Gotcha.

MS: We’ve got solutions for everybody.

FE: Gotcha. Probably some state contracts, maybe two with the state.

MS: Oh, not so many yet. We just started getting into the paving division of precision technology, and that’s where the State comes into play, I think more so.

FE: Gotcha, so you guys will probably be sitting down with them before too long, and hopefully getting some stuff going there.

MS: Maybe, maybe.

FE: It’s always good. So talk to me a little bit… The topic I had down was SmartGrade Technology. So let’s talk a little bit about SmartGrade Technology in the construction field, because I just think it’s fascinating how much technology is playing a part in everything, whether it’s ag or construction, saving people money, being more efficient, helping jobs get done better than they have before, so break it open, buddy.

MS: Yeah, so SmartGrade is actually Deere’s brand of grade control technology. And when you talk about grade control technology, it runs a wide array of product lines and brands. Specifically, we kind of deal with Topcon at 4Rivers here. The SmartGrade technology was brought about by Deere as an integrated solution. So, they build it into the tractor at the factory, so when it shows up here, it’s ready to go. The customer can just use it with their existing technology and start grading. That’s the idea. Their evolution has went from being a Topcon rebrand to their own product now, through Deere. And I think as it keeps evolving, they’re probably gonna try and make it as brand-agnostic as they can, because just like you’ve got CAT and Deere, a lot of customers carry Topcon and Trimble, which are two different brands of grade control. So I think they’re trying to bridge the gap and make it a one-size-fits-all type of technology.

0:03:02.2 FE: Marry it together.

0:03:03.2 MS: Yeah.

0:03:03.4 FE: So, explain in a nutshell what it is.

0:03:07.6 MS: So SmartGrade technology, or grade control technology is just a either GPS-controlled or instrument-controlled grading control on the machine, which means the machine takes input from either satellite GPS or a total station or laser on the job site somewhere and uses that to position the blade on the ground. So the operator basically can remove his hand from the controls or just let the machine do the control as it moves along and produce that engineered grade.

0:03:43.7 FE: That’s fascinating to me. So it’s working in conjunction with the laser on the ground and a satellite.

0:03:47.4 MS: Yeah, it can. There’s so many different combinations. The most basic is obviously just using a rotating laser. And a lot of contractors are very familiar with that, they’ve been doing it for years, and then it kinda branches into using satellites for GPS control. And then you go into total station control after that for highly precisioned jobs. Each one of those offers a different kind of types of machine control per se. So a laser would be a basic thing where you’re grading just a flat plane, one slope on the plane maybe, when you get into GPS and total station you get into the ability to create contours and rounded shapes, and these very complex designs into the dirt with very minimal operator input. So they’re pretty easy to use, really. [chuckle] It sounds complicated.

0:04:42.2 FE: It sounds amazing. By the way, so, how accurate is it? You’re on a job site, of course, I think of construction sites as crazy, you know what I mean? You got all a bunch of… You’ve got people everywhere, you’ve got other pieces of equipment, you’ve got a lot going on usually.

0:04:54.2 MS: Yeah.

0:04:54.9 FE: How accurate is this? Is there like, “Hey, we’re happy if we’re within a few inches.”? How accurate is this?

0:05:04.4 MS: In the realm of construction, a lot of guys use the tenths of a foot measurement and to turn that into layman’s terms, it’s about an inch and a quarter, and we’re usually that or less.

0:05:16.4 FE: Are you kidding me? On a huge piece of equipment?

0:05:20.2 MS: Yes, yes. [chuckle] We shoot for less than that.

0:05:22.7 FE: That’s without the operator really running it. That’s almost setting it up and the operators in there, making sure nothing goes wrong, basically.

0:05:28.3 MS: Sure, he’s steering the machine, of course.

0:05:30.2 FE: Yeah.

0:05:30.3 MS: And there’s some minimal input he’s gotta put in, but for the most part, the machine is lifting the blade and moving the blade as it needs to make that design.

0:05:39.0 FE: What’s an example of something that you’ve been impressed, like a job that you saw where you were like, “Holy Chowder.”, ’cause like you said, you talked about one grade, like a slight slope. That’s incredible enough, but do you have an example of something where you were like “Man, I saw this one time, even though I know the technology, it was pretty cool”.

0:05:58.5 MS: [chuckle] Yeah, we actually had a really impressive curb machine system together recently, and we’re talking like the curb you see on the side of the road, right?

0:06:09.4 FE: Yeah.

0:06:10.1 MS: Usually, or in the past, it’s been hand set or they put a form out and guys hand set those curbs. Well, then they came along with curb machines with a slip form on it that just lays the curb as it goes along. And it used to be, or very frequently it’s used with a string line that the machine follows along the curb line. Well, recently, we put this GPS system on it, and there’s no string line, there’s no reference where the curb goes, there’s nothing for the machine to reference, it’s just laying, driving along laying this perfect curb into the dirt, and there’s nothing for it to reference. It’s just doing its own thing. It steers itself, and it makes perfect radiuses. It’s just to see it in person, it’s like, wow. The operator’s literally just standing there.

0:06:53.9 FE: Unreal.

0:06:55.2 MS: Yeah.

0:06:56.1 FE: And that’s all off satellites?

0:06:57.7 MS: That’s all off GPS. Now, that’s a GPS laser combo system, but I mean, mostly incredible.

0:07:03.3 FE: That’s incredible. Yeah, there’s no other reference, there’s no line, there’s no anything else.

0:07:06.9 MS: That’s it. There’s one laser on the center of the job site, the satellite’s in the sky, and it knows exactly where to put the curb.


0:07:13.9 FE: See, it’s hard to fathom. Now, how new is some of this technology? How long has it been around? Is this brand new? Is this five years, 10 years? If you were to give me an idea how new some of this stuff is.

0:07:29.7 MS: So, a lot of it’s been around for a while. Laser grade control has been around for decades. GPS grade control is going on a couple of decades. Probably, mid to late ’90s, it started picking up speed, by the mid 2000s, you actually started seeing people adopt it, and use it, and talk about it. Now, it’s gotten just better, if anything. So, it’s been around, but now they’ve made it better where it’s way more reliable with more satellites in the sky, with better communication technology, it just works better. It’s smoother and it’s actually a lot easier for people to pick up and just start using without much prior knowledge. So yeah, I think that’s the direction anymore is just to make it easy and quick.

0:08:21.4 FE: Now, as a guy that’s ran a dozer before, to an inch and a half boggles my mind. Like I’m not gonna lie. That’s amazing. You know what I mean? My go-to is backplating. [laughter] I can do that okay.

0:08:29.8 MS: You and me, both. [chuckle]

0:08:33.3 FE: Let me backplate and I can make it look half way okay. But to be able to do that, it boggles my mind. Now, what kind of equipment can you get SmartGrade on? You mentioned the tractors, but is it across the gamut, or anything that has to do with like, from a road grader to a dozer? Give me some examples on it.

0:08:55.6 MS: Great, great question. The sky is the limit anymore. If you can dream it, we’re gonna try and make it happen. But from the factory, SmartGrade comes as a standard extra option that is motor graders, bulldozers, and now excavators, excavators being the newest. Just this last year, they got released. So that’s a fairly new technology.

0:09:19.7 FE: Now, how tough is it to use that technology? And I say that because John Deere’s done a pretty incredible job on the ag side that I know of, of like, “I’ve got a payload that does all kinds of stuff. Tell me what each bill weighs and how many came from this field, and that field, and give me an average.”

0:09:35.1 MS: Sure.

0:09:35.7 FE: On the construction side, I’m sure it matches. I’m sure that technology is just as important to you, but I guess, talk to me about that as far as, what have you seen?

0:09:49.2 MS: So, they’ve definitely made it a lot easier for people to just pick up and go, but there’s a lot that goes into getting comfortable with it, and having the right ground control tools to use the machinery, because you can buy a SmartGrade machine, but without a proper ground control, which is a basin rover system, you can’t run the machinery with grade control. So, it’s not difficult to get into. It’s a lot easier when you have good support, good training. That’s one thing, I think, we pride ourselves on here is our support training. But with that, you could take the average operator, who’s pretty good at manually grading and knows a little bit about design and survey and what goes on on the job site, and get him grading with a SmartGrade machine within a few training sessions. So maybe, I don’t know, 10 man-hours.

0:10:45.2 FE: Wow, so relatively simple to get somebody up to speed on how to run that?

0:10:49.8 MS: Yeah, it is. As long as they wanna learn it, and as long as they have an application that makes sense to use it, we can put them to work with it.

0:10:58.1 FE: That’s incredible. So how does that help with, or does it help with job site safety?

0:11:03.9 MS: Yeah, some would say it does. I would say there’s a place, especially with the excavators that it might fit. One thing the excavators do with the grade control is it eliminates a guy in the hold, check and grade. So typically, guys would use a grade rod and a laser, and there’d be a guy down in the hold, holding the grade rod, check and grade, telling the operator, “Hey, you gotta go up, you gotta go down.” And he’s down there in a trench or whatever they’re digging. That’s a dangerous place to be, especially, if they’re working in an area where maybe they shouldn’t be, or they’re laying pipe, there’s stuff, or there’s a lot going on in the trench, so what that can do is eliminate that guy.

0:11:49.1 FE: And it can collapse. [chuckle]

0:11:49.8 MS: Yeah. Well, exactly, which is worst case scenario. But having that, takes a guy out of the hold. Now, you still gotta have someone to go in after the fact, but at least you’re not in there with the machinery digging.

0:12:01.2 FE: As it’s working?

0:12:02.0 MS: Yeah, exactly. So, I’d say that’s a huge safety benefit.

0:12:05.6 FE: You ever seen them on a backhoe?

0:12:07.1 MS: I have seen them on a backhoe. Yeah, we actually, not necessarily SmartGrade or GPS, but we have an application for a backhoe. So, like I said earlier, if you dream it, we can try and put something together for you. We’ve done backhoes, we’ve curb and gutter machines, milling machines, paving machines, graders, dozers, wheel loaders, skid steers.

0:12:34.1 FE: Oh, that’s what I need on my skid steer.

0:12:36.2 MS: Yeah, exactly. [laughter]

0:12:37.5 FE: Holy chowder! I could actually make something straight, [laughter] or level.

0:12:41.2 MS: Not only that, but one hand operation. So, you know what that means?

0:12:43.9 FE: Yes. Oh yeah, that would be awesome. So, in general, on this construction side, talk to me how technology in general has helped you guys out, or helped you help customers, because that’s 4River’s slogan, and I tell people, ’cause I bought a lot of equipment from ’em, and that’s what’s kind of cool, is they’ve come out and they’ve taught me a lot about farming and helped us run more profitable, more efficiently. On the construction side, again, that slogan where you’re working partner holds true across the board. Like you said, if you can dream it up, we’ll try and make it happen for you. But talk about other examples that you’ve seen where technology on the construction side has really helped maybe an operator or a contractor, be more efficient, maybe more profitable.

0:13:32.0 MS: Yeah, 100%. Almost every time we see that. It’s the only way we achieve that too is with good training and good follow-up and good support. Of course, you can sell anybody anything, but if they can’t use it, they’re not gonna get anything out of it, but the grade control side, there’s almost always about a 30% efficiency margin there.

0:13:54.2 FE: That’s huge.

0:13:54.9 MS: Yeah.

0:13:55.2 FE: Yeah, we’re not talking about 5%. That’s a lot of times people’s profit margin.

0:13:58.5 MS: Yeah. And that’s of course after, like I said, the training, and it takes a minute to get comfortable with it, but once you’ve established in your workflow, which usually takes less than six months, you can see up to a 30% return.

0:14:10.7 FE: Wow!

0:14:11.1 MS: And that’s increased profits, increased job time. Sorry, decreased job time, greater efficiency on the job.

0:14:18.9 FE: Which is less fuel, less man hours, less everything.

0:14:21.5 MS: And then material savings, because when you can get to grade, and you don’t dig past grade, and you don’t leave too much material lying, you’re moving dirt less, and you’re using less material to create a finished product, so those are just the foreseen savings.

0:14:39.8 FE: Less wear and tear on the vehicle, Wouldn’t that? You know what I mean? On the piece of equipment. Wouldn’t that be one?

0:14:45.0 MS: Exactly, ’cause usually you’re digging for less time. Another thing we’ve seen more recently is, the people struggle to find help. That’s a widely accepted concept right now.

0:14:55.9 FE: It’s worse, it’s worse now than it’s ever been in my opinion. Yeah.

0:15:00.8 MS: So, when it’s hard to find help, what do you do to maintain your profits or maintain your workflow or maintain your workload rather is, become more efficient. And that’s the key, and a lot of people in the last couple of years have started seeing that and they’ve adopted it a lot faster.

0:15:16.7 FE: Yeah. More efficient, more automated, like McDonald’s. I went to McDonald’s the other day, took me, oh my gosh, I don’t go to town much but I was like, Wow. What is this big huge thing? Like, boom, boom, boom.

0:15:27.1 MS: Yeah. The big screen menu, just downloading your menu.

0:15:29.9 FE: Yeah, it’s unreal. So it’s the same thing in the construction side. So how can people get started with SmartGrade technology and how old of a machine can you upgrade? So if somebody wants… I’ve got an old piece of equipment, I go, Man, this technology sounds incredible. Can I call 4Rivers and just get it put on?

0:15:48.2 MS: Yeah. For sure.

0:15:49.4 FE: Talk to me about that.

0:15:50.4 MS: Typically, somebody comes to us with an idea, we’re gonna look at what they do for work and see if it makes sense to or see what type of grade control makes sense. You don’t wanna buy this $6 billion system, that’s exaggeration, of course to do a $50,000 job.

0:16:07.2 FE: Right.

0:16:07.7 MS: We’re gonna try and set you up with the right system, and then we’re gonna look at your machinery. We can upgrade a lot of older machinery, some of it doesn’t make sense to upgrade, but some of it is very capable still. We do a lot of grader specifically, and some of them are 15, 20-years-old still.

0:16:26.0 FE: Wow.

0:16:26.7 MS: And they’re getting this technology and they’re still using the machine efficiently.

0:16:30.1 FE: Use it even more efficiently, like you say. And the neat thing is some of that equipment, I mean, it’s so expensive once you have that investment in a piece of equipment like that, if you can upgrade it in technology and be more efficient, your money had…

0:16:43.1 MS: Exactly right. Exactly right.

0:16:44.9 FE: And what seemed to me is, you come from a construction background. You said your dad was kind of a custom home builder, so you’ve been around equipment and construction and certainly understand the costs and some of the challenges associated.

0:16:56.7 MS: There’s always challenges every day. I’ve seen them.

0:17:00.5 FE: Where do you see this technology going? I mean, based on what you’ve seen, what do you see happening in five years? I mean, are you excited about it? Sometimes, I look at it, and I go, What else could they do? Like this is amazing. If you can set a grade, an inch and a half and you even said we’re trying to shoot for less than that. That’s pretty incredible, but Where do you see that going?

0:17:24.7 MS: Yeah, I only see it following the rest of technology in our civilization, right? It’s changing so much faster now than it ever has. Construction Technology, they’re adding drones into workflow now. We actually have a drone segment of our group that we do survey, and we help customers get up on their own, doing their own survey. So taking the workflow from start to finish, there’s not, I don’t think a single piece of that workflow anymore that doesn’t involve some piece of technology, whether it be a drone or a survey Rover or machine control, or after the fact, they go back and they scan it to make sure everything is where it needs to be. So it’s the next thing that it’s the next tool in the tool belt is what you’re gonna have to look for. It could lead, I don’t know, about five years down the road, but maybe 10 years out or maybe a little less, that we could start seeing autonomous machinery where it’s completely unmanned. They’re just out there digging away.

0:18:33.6 FE: That’s perfect. I could be watching a football game. That sounds awesome. [laughter]

0:18:38.6 MS: Exactly.

0:18:39.3 FE: Mike. That’s great. Thanks so much for sitting down and talk to us, and you might run into Mike Sydow if you are working with 4Rivers or you’re interested in this kind of technology, look into it, call 4Rivers. It’s amazing what they’re doing with technology and both the Ag side and the construction side and what you can do with it. But Mike, I loved your excitement level, I think it’s fun because you’re obviously…

0:19:00.9 MS: It is. It’s fun. I really enjoy what I do, and it’s like playing in a giant sandbox every day, really.


0:19:06.0 FE: When we talked before the podcast that I loved it, ’cause you said, you know, I was kinda going in this way of the career, and then I kinda took a little bit of a corner. But I was on construction sites, or working with your dad, you’d see all kinds of equipment. You were like, That’s really cool. So I’d love to see you following… And you’re like that kid that gets to play with big toys.

0:19:22.4 MS: That’s exactly what it is, Honky toys, man.


0:19:25.8 FE: Well, thanks again Mike. I appreciate it.

0:19:27.6 MS: Thank you.