Technology Today: Evolutions in Machine Technology

By Pat Crail, CEM, Contributing Editor | July 12, 2011

Typically, when we think of technology, we think of information technology: sexy, digital innovations such as telematics or GPS grade-control systems. On a recent trip to a remote west-Texas desert ranch, I was reminded that technology comes in many less glamorous forms. I was visiting the ranch with my uncle, and one of our chores was to replace the generator on a 1967 Caterpillar D7E dozer. This 44-year-old machine carrying the same model designation as our 2010 Cat D7E with “hybrid” technology in the form of diesel-electric drive drove home for me just how much technology has evolved over the past few decades.

Much of this evolution has taken place with little fanfare. The 1967 Cat had a generator and mechanical voltage regulator. A few years later, alternators with solid-state regulators were introduced. In general, gear pumps have been replaced first by vane pumps and eventually by piston pumps, often with load-sensing control systems. Many machine owners and operators never noticed these changes, they just continued to operate the machines, perhaps noticing that they seemed a little more productive and vastly more reliable.

Fleet professionals, on the other hand, have likely been acutely aware of many of these technological developments because they affect the manner in which we purchase, maintain, repair, and dispose of these machines. Technicians had to adapt to new electrical systems as alternators entered the picture. They had to understand how to troubleshoot the more advanced hydraulic systems that came with load-sensing piston hydraulic pumps. Fleet managers had to become more proactive with the maintenance programs on these more complex hydraulic systems, as they are much less forgiving of contamination such as dirt than were the old gear pump systems. Fleet managers also had to understand the higher up-front cost of this new technology, as well as the anticipated payback in the forms of lower repair and maintenance cost, improved component life, and increased productivity.

Technology has emerged from the shadows in recent years, not only in the form of telematics and such, but also in large part due to rapidly changing emissions regulations. As federal regulations began phasing in reductions in exhaust emissions of particulate matter and oxides of nitrogen, engineers had to develop the technology to meet these stricter emissions standards while maintaining the power, reliability and longevity that owners have come to expect. They have employed exhaust gas recirculation (EGR), selective catalyst reduction (SCR), diesel oxidation catalysts (DOCs), and diesel particulate filters (DPFs), to name a few technologies. Coolant and oil manufacturers have had to reformulate their products to handle the extreme conditions placed upon them by these new engines.

As we have moved through the tiers toward Tier 4-F emissions requirements, fleet managers have been bombarded with information about the effects new engine technologies will have on their fleet. We have heard that they will have a profound effect on our machines. We’ve heard that they will bring maintenance headaches. We’ve heard they will come with shorter lives, shorter service intervals, reduced power, and a host of other doomsday predictions. Certainly, our maintenance practices will evolve to meet the challenges that these new technologies bring. Certainly, our technicians will have to learn how these new systems function in order to maintain and repair them properly. And without a doubt, these technologies will add to the purchase price of new machines.

Let’s reserve judgment on new engine technologies until we see how they perform. The horror stories about how ultra-low-sulfur diesel (ULSD) was going to wreak havoc with our equipment’s fuel systems never happened, at least not for our fleet. I can imagine the mechanics of the late 1960s griping about the new-fangled alternators that were replacing the trusty old generators. In hindsight, I think we can all agree that the move to the alternator was a technological improvement.