Caterpillar Inc. (NYSE: CAT) is a global leader in the creation of heavy industrial equipment, including construction and mining vehicles, headquartered in Peoria, IL. Earlier this morning, Caterpillar released its latest quarterly earnings report, announcing third-quarter earnings of $1.72 a share, compared to $1.45 for the third quarter last year. Wall Street was expecting Caterpillar to announce earnings of approximately $1.32 per share. The full year expectation was revised by Caterpillar to between $6 and $6.50 per share.
The corporation has seen some turbulence in its executive ranks as of late after experiencing the retirement of the presidents of both its resource industries and customer and dealer support groups. Despite corporate challenges, some business analysts are forecasting some very positive gains in Caterpillar stock over the coming year, owing mainly to the diverse nature of the company’s business operations.
This corporation is a leader in the heavy industrial sector, making it a good candidate for the Companies We Follow series. Innovation is strong at Caterpillar and seemingly increasing in scope over the past few months. Some patent applications which we’ve discussed below include technologies for removing environmental pollutants, including nitrogen oxides, from machinery exhaust gas. Another patent application discusses a drive assist system for starting a heavy vehicle while parked on a hill. Many improvements to Caterpillar’s hardware, including an enhanced metallurgy process for casting metal parts, are also featured.
The patent portfolio of Caterpillar has been increasing at a rapid clip in recent days. Automation in heavy industrial equipment can be seen in a few recently issued patents, including one technology for automating the work of a heavy material moving machine. We were also intrigued to explore some innovations for energy efficient industrial vehicles, including one invention that could support the use of all-electric drive systems in machinery and eliminate the use of fuel.
Caterpillar’s Patent Applications: From Exhaust Filtration Technologies to Automated Bulldozers
Caterpillar is involved in every step of the production process for its heavy machinery and equipment, from design to manufacture to marketing. As a result, the company is responsible for a wide scope of innovation in its industry, from braking systems to air filters to manufacturing methods. On its corporate website, Caterpillar boasts a research and development team of more than 8,000 technical experts. Recently, the company announced plans to build a data analytics lab in Champaign, IL, which will employ professionals in the fields of computer science, engineering, statistics and economics and will work with student programs from the nearby University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
As entrenched as Caterpillar is in construction and mining equipment for heavy industrial applications, we were intrigued to learn about a couple of technologies which are keeping an eye towards environmental protection. Techniques for reducing harmful pollutants from machinery exhaust is discussed within U.S. Patent Application No. 20140260198, filed under the title Exhaust Aftertreatment System. This filing would protect an exhaust aftertreatment module with an inlet configured to introduce exhaust into a housing and a mixing tube which directs the exhaust towards a bank of selective catalytic reduction catalysts. The aftertreatment system of this invention is designed to better accommodate the space constraints posed by larger engines. A technology for removing nitrogen oxide emissions from exhaust is disclosed by U.S. Patent Application No. 20140255281, which is titled System and Method for Exhaust Gas After Treatment. The invention is aimed at reducing nitrogen oxides in exhaust while improving on the conventional use of nitrogen-based reductant agents like ammonia or urea. The selective catalyst reduction system of this patent application utilizes hydrocarbon catalysts to reduce nitrogen oxides present in exhaust gas; the hydrocarbon catalysts are less expensive than nitrogen-based reductants and do not require replenishment as often.
Those who are knowledgeable of construction and mining fields may be intrigued to hear about a few practical improvements to the hardware developed by Caterpillar for its machinery. Clean air is also necessary for optimal performance by an internal combustion engine, and we noted an air filtration technology laid out by U.S. Patent Application No. 20140260129, filed under the title Intake Air Pre-Cleaner. The patent application would protect a pre-cleaner comprised of a base with a scavenge port and multiple separators extending from the base, and a baffle with more separators which are designed to mate with the base separators. The configuration of this pre-cleaner is such that debris removal from intake air is greatly improved, reducing the risk that airborne debris may damage components and increasing the operating efficiency of the equipment. Improvements to hydraulic equipment used for gear shifting in heavy machines is the focus of U.S. Patent Application No. 20140308150, entitled Gear Pump Having Grooved Mounting Adapter. The filing would protect a mounting adapter for a gear pump with a plate-like mounting flange attached to a base; the base also has a series of bearing bores for receiving gear shafts and a corresponding number of bleed grooves which are concentric with the bearing bores. The technology addresses issues of cavitation in low-pressure gear pump fluids while overcoming problems with finding space within a pump assembly for bleed slots. Caterpillar is also working with innovative ways of casting molten materials to create products, as is evidenced in U.S. Patent Application No. 20140299287, which is titled Method of Casting. The method of casting an article that would be protected includes the steps of positioning a first portion of the article in a rotatable mold and adding a molten material over the first portion while rotating the mold to create a second article portion which is metallurgically bonded to the first portion. This method of manufacturing would be used to fabricate wear components for compactor wheels, such as compacting teeth, which have a reduced weight, lowering the stress on the compactor’s powertrain drive components and reducing premature failure in those components.
As Caterpillar’s increased activities in data analytics might suggest, we found evidence of a number of electronics systems utilizing sensors and other components to improve the operation and use of certain technologies. U.S. Patent Application No. 20140249729, which is titled Hill Start in a Vehicle, is directed at a technology for aiding the start of heavy vehicles, such as earthmovers, when they’re parked on an incline. The patent application would protect a method of applying a brake force after an operator-controlled brake is released, calculating the rimpull at a vehicle’s drive wheel and slowly releasing the brake force as the rimpull force increases. The technology is intended to reduce unintended downhill motion when starting a heavy vehicle on an incline as well as reduce wear on the torque converter, gearbox and other drivetrain elements. We were also intrigued by an innovation involving autonomous, or self-driving, components on industrial vehicles described within U.S. Patent Application No. 20140277957, titled System and Method for Determining a Ripping Path. The system outlined by this patent application includes a position sensing system to determine a machine’s position and a controller that determines a plurality of positions, senses material characteristics and determines a ripping path. This system is capable of automating the process of determining when to engage a ripper mechanism in dozers or motor graders, a job which is typically handled by a human operator.
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Issued Patents of Note: More Autonomous Systems for Hydraulics and Energy Efficient Vehicles
Caterpillar holds a very respectable patent portfolio and particularly has strong intellectual property holdings in the field of industrial equipment. In 2013, the company earned 332 patents, an increase of 4.1 percent over the number of patents earned by Caterpillar in 2012 according to the Intellectual Property Owners Association. 2014 may be an even brighter year for corporate innovation at Caterpillar, as the company has received more than 60 patents within the past few weeks alone.
Many of the patents issued to Caterpillar in recent weeks have been granted to protect other intriguing hardware improvements for industrial vehicles both in terms of better design configurations and more effective manufacturing methods. Innovations involving chain scrap conveyors in use with underground mining projects are disclosed and protected by U.S. Patent No. 8844711, which is titled Chain Wheel Arrangement for Mining Machines. Assigned to German subsidiary Caterpillar Global Mining Europe, the patent protects a chain wheel arrangement for chain drives in mining machines with a chain wheel shaft, at least one chain starwheel and a multitude of bearing shells arranged around the chain wheel. The configuration of this chain wheel increases the service life of sliding ring seals arranged between the chain wheel and bearings. A manufacturing procedure for creating important vehicle components has also been protected for this corporation through the filing of U.S. Patent No. 8833330, entitled Method of Manufacturing an Engine Block. The protected manufacturing method involves the steps of creating a recessed area in the top deck of an engine block, placing a seal around an opening surrounded by the recess and positioning an insert against the seal within the recessed area. The invention improves on previous engine block configurations which made it unfeasible to repair cracks along the top deck of an engine block or along the edges of water passages.
Energy efficient technologies for heavy industry vehicles are also featured in a couple of other patents which caught our eyes during our recent survey of Caterpillar’s patent portfolio additions. Methods of reducing cold start time in twin fuel engine vehicles are disclosed by U.S. Patent No. 8857162, issued under the title Coolant Warm-Up Using Exhaust. The patent protects a method of vaporizing cryogenic liquid natural gas by directing exhaust to a heat exchanger to heat a circulating liquid which is directed to a second heat exchanger for vaporizing the natural gas. This technology improves the use of liquid natural gas in industrial vehicles while reducing long wait times needed for warming coolant with diesel fuel so that it doesn’t freeze when trying to vaporize the liquid natural gas. The use of all-electric drive systems in Caterpillar machinery may also be coming soon thanks to the technology outlined within U.S. Patent No. 8857542, entitled Method and Apparatus to Eliminate Fuel Use for Electric Drive Machines During Trolley Operation. The patent describes a drive system for a machine with an engine coupled to a generator which includes a converter circuit coupled to a trolley drive arrangement. The trolley drive arrangement communicates with the motor and generator during trolley and brake modes and allows for the shutoff of fuel during those modes. This innovation overcomes issues associated with transferring power to an engine during a dynamic braking mode.
Finally, we’ll wrap up our discussion with a look at a few more autonomous technologies for Caterpillar’s industrial equipment. Computer control of hydraulically actuated implement systems utilized in backhoes, excavators and wheel loaders is the subject of U.S. Patent No. 8858151, titled Machine Having Hydraulically Actuated Implement System with Down Force Control, and Method. The patent protects a method of fluidly connecting a hydraulic actuator to an inlet for adjusting the pressure of hydraulic fluid in response to a down force control command received by an electronic control unit. The technology supports reduced wear and tear on a hydraulic implement system by allowing the implement system to rest briefly on a substrate during a down force command. We were also interested by the innovation for self-driving industrial vehicles which is protected by U.S. Patent No. 8868302, which is titled System for Autonomous Path Planning and Machine Control. This patent claims a control system for use with a mobile loading machine which includes a worksite controller that determines the position of a mobile loading machine and creates a travel path for the machine. The technology improves upon previous systems which supported autonomous driving for single-use machines developed for agricultural applications by developing a system that can change routing based on a change in work goals.