The most recent financial news from construction equipment manufacturer Caterpillar could have been better. The company's third quarter sales and revenues decreased 6% to $12.8 billion year over year, and profit per share was down 8% to $2.66.
Caterpillar told Reuters that one reason sales are down is that customers are hesitant to make large purchases amid the U.S. and China trade war. The original equipment manufacturer even anticipates the slowdown in sales to continue into the fourth quarter and its grim outlook has even resulted in it having to lay off 120 temporary workers at its Victoria, Texas, plant.
However, despite the downturn, the company continues to invest in innovation and technology, it said, which includes its autonomous vehicle and equipment solutions.
"We're continuing our focus on autonomy, semi-autonomy and remote operation as we expand our offerings," said Caterpillar Chairman and CEO Jim Umpleby during an earnings call with analysts Oct. 23. "We believe Caterpillar leads our industry in all three areas."
Umpleby said during the call, of which Construction Dive obtained a transcript, that its mining customers have reported up to a 30% bump in productivity and up to a 90% reduction in safety incidents when using its autonomous equipment. "I think if you look at that 30% productivity increase, it really can be a game-changer for many of our customers."
The company is retrofitting competitors' equipment with this technology to obtain full customer implementation. "We're encouraged by the recent wins we've had in autonomy this year," he told analysts.
The mining industry is a perfect proving ground for autonomous technology because, for the most part, its vehicles follow predictable and repetitive paths, performing the same task over and over. And there are reports that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) might even use Caterpillar autonomous and remote-control equipment to mine materials on the moon.
It's not so easy for most construction projects, however, where a constant stream of vehicles and workers, along with new structures, can alter the jobsite layout. Caterpillar's lineup of autonomous vehicles and equipment does include some products for jobsites, such as the semi-autonomous, operator-assisted technology on one of its large excavators. The Cat Grade with 2D system, for example, provides operators information about depth, slope and horizontal distance to grade, which, the company claims, can the company says can increase productivity by up to 45% when compared to traditional grading systems.
Caterpillar also developed a remote system through which operators can leave the most dangerous jobs to the equipment. The Cat Command feature is available on select excavators and dozers and allows operators to lift, dig, push and wreck from up to 400 meters away. Dozer options include a mock-up cab so that operators can run the equipment sitting down with a familiar layout.