GPS Technology — A Business Decision

Staff | September 28, 2010

Investing in any equipment should be carried out based on good business practices, including justifying its cost and a host of other business reasons. One type of equipment to consider buying is high technology that can create a synergism within a company's production operations. Synergism: "... the total effect is greater than the sum of the individual effects" — Merriam-Webster's 11th Collegiate Dictionary.

Synergism is certainly a main reason that COMUS Construction LLC purchased a new Leica Geosystems GPS 3-D system for one of the company's bulldozers. The company is headquartered in Dickerson, Maryland. Brad Hill, president of the company, is a firm believer in selecting equipment based on its performance and cost-effectiveness, followed by the quality of the product, its features, its known reliability, and certainly the efficiency of the service and parts availability.

Nevertheless, as important as all these factors are, technological equipment in particular (i.e. a GPS system) must integrate into the construction project's production mix for improving the quality of production and/or reducing the amount of labor to carry it out, thus the synergistic value of the technology in relationship to other production equipment and labor.

Hill is a university graduate geophysicist who decided early on in his career that this science discipline was not for him. "I really enjoy heavy construction and all that goes with it, including the equipment. I remember talking it over with my father [an architect] before I made the career change and he simply said 'do it' and so I did," says Hill.

Hill has much experience in the construction industry including concrete construction work. He was employed by others until 2001, when he launched COMUS. Today, the company employs 25 people, including Hill's son, Zachariah. While Hill's business card reads excavation-utilities, the company's services are much more than that. It performs all types of site work —excavation, profiling, underground utility work, and major pond construction — as well as applied environmental engineering and remediation work. Carrying out all work in-house, COMUS also has expertise in shotcrete technology as it applies to lining newly built settlement ponds.

There is good reason why the company does not subcontract out any of its work. Hill says, "We do all construction work in-house for business reasons. I will not subcontract out any part of our contracts because too much of our control is lost relative to the quality of work performed and meeting completion schedules on time."

Hill does not take on all projects that are available to him. Instead, he mostly caters to industrial companies and the industrial site work required by them. There are several good business reasons why he restricts his business dealings to industrial accounts. One is industrial companies pay their bills on time.

Hill explains, "We have had the experience that practically all industrial companies pay our invoices promptly. This promptness is important for us to maintain a positive cash flow. If we worked as a subcontractor, for example, it would be more difficult to maintain a positive cash flow. Some contractors are notoriously slow payers."

Another reason Hill prefers to deal directly with industrial accounts is they often represent repeat business for his company. Many of COMUS' customers are big companies and frequently have new projects in the pipeline.

Most of COMUS' industrial projects are near the Washington, DC, area where the winters are relatively mild, thus enabling the company to work all year. While Hill recognizes that public-sector construction work also is available 12 months a year, he is quick to point out that many contractors bid for the same work, often making this work less profitable.

"We certainly do take on some government work, but only those projects where we can make a fair profit. In fact, we recently completed a large parking lot for a municipality that was quite profitable for us. Part of the profitability was because of the new Leica GPS 3-D system we installed on a bulldozer and used it there for the rough and fine grading," says Hill.

GPS Keeps Records Straight

Hill says the Leica GPS 3-D system fitted to a Caterpillar D6 bulldozer was specifically purchased for doing the parking lot project. There were a number of circumstances relative to this project that induced him to make the $100,000-plus capital investment. He was confident the GPS investment was sure to pay for itself on this project and it did.

"On past projects, we had the experience of having to return to some of the sites to re-grade them even though we had completed our grading work. More than once, we would have to go back two or three times to re-grade the site because other contractors on the project would dump spoil there. It is simple as to why they did it; exporting spoil costs $25 a cubic yard, so they dumped it on our graded sites when no one was looking, of course. We always ended up having to re-grade the area and pay to export the spoil. We did it in order to get paid for the overall project by the owner. The re-grading problem finally was solved when the GPS system was installed on the bulldozer because we now had proof that the site was graded to specification. Now, if others dump spoil on our work, we are paid to re-grade the site," says Hill.

Hill's decision to buy the Leica GPS 3-D system was not only based on potential final grading disputes. Nonetheless, eliminating this problem has been financially significant. The elimination of re-grading a site at COMUS' expense and receiving compensation if the site must be re-graded has paid for the GPS system.

Nevertheless, the main reason Hill purchased the GPS system was to eliminate installing stakes associated with laying out the site work and the two-man survey team needed to carry it out.

COMUS' primary method of excavation is the use of bulldozers and hydraulic excavators and articulated trucks. Hill decided to enter the world of GPS technology by fitting it on a mid-capacity bulldozer rather than a hydraulic excavator. The logic is a bulldozer can be used more productively to grade large areas that are not practical to do with an excavator.

Years past, many excavating contractors used scrapers/elevators or pull-pans for the major excavation done in this area, but that practice is not as popular today because of geo-technical conditions encountered on the project sites. Hill says most construction site activities today have either rocky soil or heavy slippery clay. By comparison, the construction sites of the past were of deep topsoil, but these have all been developed.

Excavators and articulated trucks are Hill's choice where the rock is substantial or where deep excavation cuts and trenching must be made, such as building surface-water collector ponds. However, all the final grading on these projects is carried out using the bulldozer outfitted with the GPS 3-D system. Hill finds the bulldozer more versatile than a motor grader when it comes to most grading work on his projects. Essentially, the bulldozer fitted with the GPS 3-D system can grade within the same close tolerances as the motor grader can when building on-site roads. However, the bulldozer likewise can carry out all types of aggressive excavation and profiling work that is not practical for a motor grader.

"We must maximize the utilization rates of all our equipment, and there is much more use for bulldozers on our projects than motor graders. Having the GPS machine automation control system controlling the bulldozer gives us the precision grading results wanted. With our Leica GPS system mounted on the Caterpillar D6, we constantly are getting ±0.84 to ±1.2 inches grading-precision results," says Hill. Precision excavation and grading is very critical when building major surface-water ponds that are under regulations imposed by EPA and other environmental regulatory agencies.

COMUS is presently active on a major project site in Union Bridge, Maryland, that is owned by Lehigh Cement Company of Allentown, Pennsylvania, which is part of the Heidelberg Cement Group. The plant is one of the top 25 largest producing portland cement facilities in the United States. This facility includes the cement plant and a limestone quarry situated on a 400-acre site.

Among various construction projects is the building of five surface-water collector and settling ponds. Each pond is 380 feet long by 160 feet wide by 20 feet deep with 2:1 slope ratios on the four sides. Soil excavation conditions include clay mixed with limestone and occasional encounters with outcroppings of limestone boulders. With these conditions, Hill decided to use the Caterpillar D6 with the Leica GPS system, two Hitachi excavators and five Terex 25-ton capacity articulated trucks.

The ponds were rough excavated using the excavators, followed by the bulldozer making the final cuts and the finished grading. GPS was very instrumental in the efficient production achieved because no survey layouts with stakes were needed. That was not all, however. The precise holding capacities specified for the ponds had to be met and certified by state and federal environmental regulatory agencies. It can be accomplished without GPS, of course, by over-excavating and then coming back to carefully backfill, grade and roller compact the sloped sides to meet the specifications. However, this is a time-consuming and costly procedure, according to Hill.

The ponds are lined with a geo-membrane followed with a final liner made by shotcreting. Hill says, "If it were not for the combined GPS system/bulldozer used to excavate and fine grade these five ponds, we would have spent a lot more time trying to reach the precise holding capacities needed to get them certified. I figure we are saving about $100,000 in surveying-backfilling-grading-compacting costs."


GPS Technology — A Benefit For The Contractor

COMUS' Brad Hill says GPS technology is not only a time-saver but also a moneymaker. According to him, many site-work contractors could benefit by using GPS technology. In fact, he bought a second Leica GPS system to fit on a Hitachi 350 hydraulic excavator.

Hill predicts the more progressive-thinking contractors who are receptive to new technology proven to improve quality of work and productivity will opt for GPS technology once they realize the benefits afforded them. He says the return on the GPS investment will take less than a year, making it all the more compelling to commit to the technology.

Nevertheless, he says a contractor that is new to this technology must consider the following. First time around for the contractor, there is a learning curve that includes at least himself and an equipment operator.

Hill advises, "I cannot stress enough that the contractor should thoroughly familiarize himself with the function of the GPS system and be sure the operator is well-trained in using the system effectively. There is one more thing to consider. Include additional funds to the cost of the GPS equipment for covering the expenses needed to thoroughly train an operator and likewise, consider the slower grading productivity during the training process. If the contractor does all of this, he will ultimately end up with greater profitability and superior grading results on all future projects. I find GPS technology to be one of the most important pieces of equipment a contractor can invest in."