Why 2017 Will Be a Pivotal Year for the Aggregates Industry

2017 is shaping up to be a big year in the aggregates industry.

President Donald Trump is helping drive the conditions that will make this year a busy one, but he is by no means the only industry driver. The technology our team uses — namely lidar and drones — is evolving rapidly, and industry stakeholders are bringing some substantial initiatives to Capitol Hill.

Here is a quick summary of what you need to know about the aggregates industry’s potentially huge 2017.


America’s Renewed Focus on Infrastructure

First, let’s talk money.

At the end of January, Aggregates Manager reported that a leaked document from the Trump administration indicated it was planning 50 national infrastructure projects that, all told, were valued at about $137.5 billion and could create nearly 200,000 jobs.

This was welcome news for the construction, mining and aggregates industries. “The foundation is in place for an extended recovery, with growth in public construction spending just beginning to join the growth we have been seeing in private construction,” Investor’s Business Daily quotes Vulcan Materials CEO J. Thomas Hill as saying on a Feb. 7 earnings call.

Additionally, that piece points to another $200 billion in approved public transit measures passed by voters in half of the country’s states, plus another $5 billion earmarked in California for a decade-long infrastructure package.

“To rebuild the shaky infrastructure in the U.S., rocks and concrete are exactly what is needed,” U.S. News & World reporter Simon Constable writes. “Rocks … are needed to help surface all the highways that need upgrading. Likewise, steel is needed to reinforce structures, and pipes are needed to channel water away from roads or bridges.”


Congressional Measures That Could Affect the Aggregates Industry

At the legislative level, a pair of proposals are underway that anyone in the industry should pay attention to.

In mid-February, the American Road & Transportation Builders Association asked the House to consider reforming the Clean Air Act’s standards. “Local officials need some sense of predictability in order to develop long-range transportation plans to achieve emissions reduction goals,” the ARTBA says.

“In many instances, counties are focusing on addressing existing [National Ambient Air Quality Standards] and any additional changes to the standards are akin to moving the goalposts in the middle of the game.”

In January, Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) and Rep. Mark Amodei (R-Nev.) announced a minerals reform bill, the “National Strategic and Critical Minerals Production Act of 2017,” in the Senate and the House to make it easier for companies to access the country’s mineral wealth, Minerals Make Life reports.

“Currently, the process to obtain a mine permit can take upwards of seven to 10 years,” MML writes. “These protracted delays make it nearly impossible to secure domestic minerals in a timely and efficient manner. When compared to other countries that follow similar strict environmental standards, the U.S. falls behind in minerals development.”



New Uses for Commercial Drones and Lidar Technology

A variety of industries are all discovering how much safer and more efficient drones can make their worksites because flying craft can reach places that would have been impossible or dangerous for a person to reach.

In January, Jeremiah Karpowicz at Pit and Quarry had a great piece on the impact of drones at mining sites. “Engineers and operators in this space are using drones in conjunction with existing techniques and tools to create more powerful workflows that have made these operations safer and more efficient, and those changes are apparent everywhere you look,” Karpowicz writes.

“…The bottom line is that UAVs have given operators access that was previously unheard of, along with the ability to collect more valuable data, all while reducing the time spent gathering that info.”

He notes, however, that the regulatory environment around drones might hamper some workflows, especially in the US, where federal regulations require commercial operators to only fly their drones within their lines of sight.

Even still, stockpile measurement is becoming a killer app for drones. Wayne Grayson at Equipment World notes how Kespry’s new Drone 2 is introducing some incredible precision to worksites.

“Thanks to a new GNSS base station receiver on the ground, the Drone 2s can now deliver accuracy of 2 to 10 centimeters,” he writes. “Rather than having to set up multiple ground control points as is typically necessary with drone surveying, Kespry says the base station acts as a single survey control point.

“During a flight, images from the Drone 2s and data from the base station are collected simultaneously. … Both of these data sets are then automatically uploaded to the cloud for processing. In just a few hours the platform delivers survey-grade data.”


How Drones Fit Into the Work of Surveying Sites

Even with that kind of precision, however, drones are not going to replace other methods of surveying sites and getting measurements, Karpowicz writes in another piece at Commercial UAV News.

“Ultimately, drones are tools that allow surveying professionals to capture info in order to create and deliver products,” he says. “Whether it’s intentional or not, the hype and excitement around drones can make operators and stakeholders think a UAV is all anyone needs, no matter the industry or project. Time and time again though, the serious professionals explain how and why drones are tools, just like any other. They’re a fit for some projects and uses, and not fits for others.”


Lidar News

Meanwhile, lidar technology is finding a whole host of applications at worksites and elsewhere. Looking to the future, we see how crucial this technology is going to be for the fleets of self-driving vehicles poised to take the road in the next few years.

Because lidar is so useful at building 3D images of landscapes, it’s a perfect fit for autonomous vehicles, which “require an array of other sensors to position themselves precisely and maintain awareness of nearby pedestrians, vehicles and other objects,” Alex Webb at Bloomberg writes.

And currently, Google company Waymo is suing Uber over claims that the latter stole the former’s lidar technology. Keep an eye out as this battle unfolds. We’ll touch on some other developments in the autonomous vehicle universe in just a moment.

But first, a look to the past. Brigit Katz has an excellent piece at Smithsonian Magazine describing how archaeologists are also using lidar tech to uncover details of lost civilizations. In the jungles of Guatemala, Katz writes, researchers have discovered a vast network of roads — at least 17 — built by the ancient Maya.



Self-Driving Vehicles at Worksites

As welcome as self-driving cars will be to millions of commuters, this technology might have the biggest impact on industry.

At the end of February, European trucking industry supplier ZF announced the launch of its ProAI self-driving system, Monitor Daily reports. This system, which is set to go to market in 2018, is designed to fit both passenger and commercial vehicles that include forklifts and materials-handling vehicles, the piece says.

In other words, the big trucks hauling materials to and from work sites will soon be driven by robots. That translates to huge costs savings for trucking companies, for whom drivers are roughly a third of operating costs, Chris O’Brien writes at Trucks.com.

“IHS Automotive analysts estimate that annual sales of autonomous heavy-duty trucks could reach 600,000 units annually by 2035, beginning with several thousand deployed in 2020,” O’Brien writes.

“In a study released last summer, McKinsey & Company projected that by 2025, at least one of every three new heavy trucks will have high-level automation technology, which will be a big factor in the trucking industry seeing revenues increase 50 percent over the next decade.”

At the macroeconomic level, this could create seismic changes. For starters, driverless vehicles aren’t limited by a person’s need to sleep, so the current rules that limit a long-haul driver’s daily travel time to 11 hours won’t apply, says Railway Age Editor-in-Chief William C. Vantuono.

“Therefore, a Level 5 truck could cover more mileage, haul more freight and ultimately generate more revenue per day than a truck driven by a human,” Vantuono writes. “Trucking, which has lost market share on longer hauls in recent years to railroad intermodal service, could become more competitive again.”

Back at the worksite, driverless technology is already making inroads. Rio Tinto, BHP Billiton and Fortescue Metals currently use self-driving vehicles, Cowen and Company Vice President Novid Rassouli tells Vantuono, and these companies have already seen productivity gains as a result.

“The financial and safety benefits are compelling,” Rassouli says. “Rio Tinto ex-CEO Andrew Harding stated that the company’s autonomous fleet outperforms a manned fleet by an average of 12%, due to the elimination of required breaks, absenteeism and shift changes. Fortescue Metals has utilized driverless truck technology at its Solomon Hub mines in Western Australia since 2013 and claims to have seen a 20% productivity gain.”

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