Cat ratchets up tech tools amid big changes

Test drive: The author tries out the new 930M Small Wheel Loader, fresh off the assembly line in North Carolina.

It’s been a disruptive fall, to say the least, for global construction equipment giant Caterpillar IncIn just the last three weeks, it has seen one CEO retire, a previously retired CEO pass away, pockets of layoffs across the U.S., and an unwelcome third-quarter dip in its otherwise strong stock performance.

But for a 91-year-old multinational manufacturer with $47 billion in annual revenues, and some 109,000 full- and part-time employees worldwide, that’s really just a typical news cycle. Still, when a company is that big, any hiccup can make headlines.

That reality was driven home to me again last week when I visited Cat HQ in Peoria for a major media event on the Jobsite of the Future, and technology’s role in keeping the company at the forefront of innovation and experimentation in both the field and the lab. So, on Nov. 3, I was among 33 journalists from across the U.S. who gathered at Cat’s Edwards Learning and Demonstration Center for a glimpse of both the virtual (VR) and augmented (AR) present, as well as an old-fashioned test drive. No one seemed the least bit concerned with recent headlines. (After all, Cat has still been the best performing stock among the Dow 30 this year, up more than 21% through October, despite the 0.3% slide since June.)

Editors donned headsets to dive into the VR, AR world of machines.

So not surprisingly, our hosts stuck to the script and conveyed enthusiasm and optimism about the ongoing global explosion in construction technology, and what that means for equipment makers, owners, and operators all over the world. For instance, “China is all about mobile right now… mobile everything,” noted Jeff Bowman, Cat’s director of eBusiness, during his presentation on e-commerce and digital strategy. Among other products he presented was Cat’s own customized rugged smartphone, which boasts an integrated thermal camera, a combination the firm claims is a first. The phone also is loaded with apps galore for equipment operators, project managers, and access to remote support.

Faidley talked immersive tech.

Other presentations and demonstrations focused on Cat’s emerging use of immersive technology for product development and refinement, as well as for training. Attendees donned headsets for the HTC Vive, as well as a portable cave, and Augmented Machine Cab operations. Even drones were on the menu, highlighted for their usefulness in “big picture” monitoring of jobsites.

“To be honest, we have really been using immersive technology in one form or another for 30 years,” said Galen Faidley, a senior engineering project team lead with Cat. He presented on both the Portable Cave and the HTC Vive. “But today is still an exciting time.”

  • Below, two immersive tech videos from last spring. Faidley says updates have since been added. 

Inside the machine cab, Cat is in the process of expanding its tech menu for operators via AR and other enhancements to transform the user experience. Senior engineer Lonny Johnson, Cat’s AR project team lead, reprised his presentation from Chicago Ideas Week last month. “Just think about sitting in your car, and no longer having a physical dashboard,” he said. “Then, when you put on the AR glasses, all of that information – dashboard gauges, radio, switches, etc. – appears along with the ability to interact with it.”

In simpler terms, AR allows virtual objects to appear in front of you, as though they are in the real world, he added. This technology is being deployed as a new way for operators to receive and communicate critical information and standardize complex processes through the use of sensory inputs such as sound, video and graphics.

Last week, Johnson again demonstrated how while wearing a pair of AR glasses, job site information can be delivered becomes interactive and able to be digitally manipulated by an operator. “By superimposing the right information in the right place at the right time, we can simplify the overall electrical complexity of a machine’s cab,” he explained.

Indeed, with simplicity as the watchword, equipment dealers and operators should be prepared for much more innovation ahead. And the global competition among manufacturers will only accelerate and amplify the breathtaking pace of all the changes yet to come.

Not your grandfather’s Cat: Simulators for training abound at the Peoria innovation center.
  • BONUS: Below, from last monthCat CFO Brad Halverson explains the firm’s flat 3Q performance.