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Komatsu to crank out automated excavators

Komatsu's automated machinery will let fewer, less experienced workers deliver the same results

TOKYO -- Construction machinery maker Komatsu will introduce automated excavators in Japan, the U.S. and Europe later this year, which could help make up for a shortage of experienced workers in advanced economies.

     The new excavators will level or dig the ground based on orders sent to their main controls. They will receive real-time updates of their location and the condition of the ground via GPS and sensors on their bodies, allowing them to operate within centimeters of the instructions.

     Human operators will still be needed to move the machines and operate their arms. But the new feature will allow even less experienced workers to follow plans to a tee. It will also decrease the amount of surveying needed on the ground, making construction more efficient and less labor intensive.

     The machines will be manufactured in the company's Osaka plant. They will go on sale in Europe this month, and will be made available for hire in Japan as well. Komatsu plans to start U.S. sales in November.

     A midsize excavator will cost over 30 million yen ($277,000), about 50% more than existing models.

     Komatsu sees automated machinery, which allow users to moniter of their projects in real time, as one of its future strategic areas. The company already provides a service that tracks the operating status of its machinery, which helps determine the optimal timing for repairs and replacing parts.

     Its automated bulldozers, a line that was commercialized in 2013, apparently helped some clients halve the number of machines they need. Depending on the frequency of use, they can likely recover initial costs in just a few years.

     The company has sold about 500 automated bulldozers in Japan, the U.S. and Europe. North American sales are apparently triple initial projections, and the automated variety are said to account for nearly half of all new midsize bulldozers sold in the region.

     Komatsu first started farming them out in Japan in September 2013. They have so far been used at about 200 sites.

     U.S. giant Caterpillar and other rivals have also created systems to increase efficiency using construction plans and machines' locations. But they were mainly designed only to assist human operators.


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