More Than Just Another Company That Moves Dirt

Edited by Mike Larson, Editor | September 28, 2010

"Nothing can replace the skill of a talented operator, but technology sure can make that operator a whole lot more productive," says Steve Ristow, president of Schneider Excavating, Inc. of Milwaukee, WI. "We've proven that over and over again on all kinds of equipment doing all kinds of jobs."

Company Makes Extensive Use Of GPS

Schneider's graders, dozers and excavators all have extensive arrays of GPS antennas, sensors and computer controls.

Scheider's professional engineer Fred Hartzheim travels from site to site in the conspicuously decorated quality-control vehicle.

But, perhaps the most striking example of Ristow's dedication to technology is Schneider's bright yellow Hummer H2 quality-control vehicle, decorated with custom decals featuring the firm's advanced capabilities. Many of those decals highlight the Topcon Positioning Systems Co. systems that support Schneider's operations.

"Schneider is not just another company that moves dirt," Ristow explained. "We have a registered professional engineer on staff who uses the Hummer to visit job sites where our crews are working. We're using 21st-century technology on our equipment, and we want to convey that to everyone who sees our vehicle at work."

The Schneider Hummer delivers the message, but it's the combination of skilled operators, top-quality equipment and leading-edge technology that makes its promise real for Schneider customers.

Steve Ristow, president of Schneider Excavating, has been at the forefront of the company's extensive use of productivity-enhancing GPS and electronic machine controls.

"We're among the first subcontractors on the job site, and we're usually the last ones to leave it," Ristow continued. "We do the site preparation, which often includes demolition of existing structures and remediation of contaminated soils. We dig the footings, and once the walls are up we install and grade the TB limestone base that supports the concrete on grade level floors.

"Then, when the buildings are finished, we come back and grade the parking lots before they're paved, finish-grade the site, install the topsoil, and complete the landscaping.

"In the old days, a survey crew would first set the grade stakes and we would work around them. Some people still do it that way. You've probably seen job sites with stakes sitting on top of piles of earth," Ristow added.

Involved With Electronic Staking Since 1995

Schneider was among the first excavation specialists to do its own construction staking rather than depending on an outside engineering firm. That experience helped lead to the purchase of a Topcon APL-1 robotic total station.

"In 1995 we began using Agtek software to topo, check topography and stake our construction sites while our competition relied on local engineering firms," Ristow continued. "We would build a 3-D model and stake to that model with Graphic Grade, which is an Agtek module."

Today on its job sites, Schneider often sets up a Topcon base station that contains the downloaded coordinates for the whole project. That saves at least 30 minutes of setup every time the equipment is used and also ensures that the same data is used all project long.

Earthmoving Equipment Gets Automatic Controls

With that early GPS experience under its belt, Schneider began to equip its earthmoving equipment with automatic controls that could take advantage of computer-generated data.

The Cat 140H motor grader that graded the TB sub-floor of the Willow Tree Internet Warehouse near Milwaukee is a typical example.

"The left side of the blade has a Tracker Jack laser tracking system installed," Ristow explained, "and the right side has a Topcon millimeter accuracy GPS system. They're both connected to a Topcon System-5 control box in the cab, and the control box is connected to the grader's hydraulic system.

"The System-5 box lets the operator switch from the 2-D laser system to the 3-D GPS system as the job requires. Working inside a building, for example, we typically use the laser system because the structure often obscures the GPS satellite signals. We also don't need the millimeter accuracy to grade a 3/4-inch limestone TB sub-base," he added.

Schneider actually purchased their motor graders' GPS systems in order to grade a new soccer field for installation of an artificial playing surface.

The specification called for deviations of less than 0.125 inch in 10 feet — precision met easily by the Topcon millimeter machine-control system.

"To make it even more interesting," Ristow noted, "the field was crowned, not flat. The only alternative to the GPS system would have been to grade the whole thing by hand, and nobody was interested in paying the bill for that."

While that kind of precision is not typically required, the ability to work in three dimensions does give Schneider an advantage on many jobs.

"We can work from a 3-D model to grade an entire site," Ristow said. "That includes features like catch basins, crowns and slopes in addition to the flat work. Without the machine-control system, that kind of detail would take a long time to prep and complete. With it, it's really not much more difficult to grade than simple flat work."

Professional Engineer Key Member Of Team

Schneider's professional engineer, Fred Hartzheim, does most of the work to convert 2-D architectural and engineering drawings into 3-D models and TN3 files for the machine controls to follow. Hartzheim also uses his experience to check the supplied drawings to make sure the site will drain properly when completed.

"As a professional civil engineer, I have the training and experience to spot mistakes and potential trouble spots on a drawing and suggest the necessary changes before we move any dirt," says Hartzheim.

Hartzheim also visits each job site to provide quality control oversight and routine field service for the computer and GPS equipment. He is certified to verify and correct GPS system calibration, and has ample practical experience tweaking computers in the field.

Dozers Benefit From Wireless Controls

Schneider's Cat D8R dozers have Topcon GPS systems similar to those on its motor graders.

"Actually, the system on the dozers is completely wireless," Ristow said. "It communicates with the base station via radio, and with the onboard computer via Bluetooth. We use the Topcon HiPer Lite+ interface to handle all of the communication from satellite to base station to onboard computer.

"That way, there are no wires to be cut or connections to vibrate loose," Ristow continued.

"The HiPer Lite+ can also perform as a base station or rover, which can eliminate the need for a separate unit on a job site," Ristow added.

GPS Works For Excavators, Too

Schneider has also equipped its Volvo excavators with Topcon GPS systems. Each machine has a pair of satellite antennas attached to the counterweight and position sensors attached to the boom, the bucket, the control stick, and the excavator body. All of the signals are integrated by a Topcon MAG box processor under the excavator's cowling.

"Excavators are not like motor graders and dozers," Ristow explained. The tracks are typically stationary when the machine is working, but the boom swings around and may extend 20 or 30 feet away from the undercarriage.

"You have to know where the bucket is, not the undercarriage. The pair of antennas on the counterweight let the computer sense machine rotation, and the position sensors tell us where the boom and bucket are. The computer integrates all of the data to give us an exact location. All the operator has to do is match the position readout display to the drawing on the computer screen.

"In the old days, you would have to stake a footing and run a string or paint a line on the ground. Now, you just position the machine and dig, and it's accurate to within 0.02 inch horizontally.

"Not only that," he continued, "but in a conventional operation you needed a man to get down in the hole and make sure the bottom grade was correct. In many cases the operator had to do it, and while the operator was checking the grade the machine was not moving dirt.

"Now, we just line up the machine and dig. On one recent job, we dug a 150-cubic-yard footing pad. Typically, you would expect to pour about 160 cubic yards of concrete into that kind of excavation simply to make up for the unavoidable variation in a hole that big.

"This one took exactly 151 cubic yards of concrete to fill. That's how precise the Topcon system on these excavators is."

Good Dealer Support Vital

"Our Topcon dealer is Positioning Solutions Co. in Waukesha, Wisconsin," Ristow said. "They helped us install, configure and train on the systems. More importantly, they provide extremely responsive service, sometimes over and above the call of duty.

"We don't stake a job site anymore," he continued, "so if the system goes down we're pretty much dead in the water until it's fixed. There is no Plan B, and downtime can cost thousands of dollars per hour.

"Both Positioning Solutions and Topcon have gone out of their way to maximize our uptime."

Operators Like It

Schneider's operators have been highly receptive to the addition of GPS technology on the machines they run, says Ristow.

He points to a relatively new operator who became productive with a motor grader after only a few weeks of instruction as an example of how the technology can enable a relatively unskilled employee to be successful.

But, he saves his greatest praise for the impact of this technology on the most skilled operators. "When you combine the precision of the GPS machine controls with the skill of a first-class operator, the results are truly awesome," he says. "That combination sets a whole new benchmark for productivity and precision at a level that's never before been available. We now actually call one of our senior D8R operators Doctor Dirt."