Promise and Peril

Rod Sutton, Editor in Chief | September 28, 2010

Rod Sutton, Editor in Chief
Rod Sutton, Editor in Chief

Signs point to a Federal transportation reauthorization bill that falls far short on the funds many estimate will be necessary to build and maintain the highways upon which the United States has come to depend. Those in highway construction and related industries have three options: groan about the lack of money, scramble to do the work as it's let, or figure out ways to accomplish more with less.

A highway firm bidding a public project competes not only against other contractors, but also against other projects that government agency hopes to accomplish. A builder that could cut costs out of its estimates, thereby enabling the agency to stretch its budget and build more, would fast become a preferred contractor.

Machine-control technology promises to help contractors gain that edge. As with most technological leaps, however, the jump to fully automated machine control is not without peril.

Successful machine control depends on the accuracy of the data preparation, the process by which project-design information translates into machine-control instructions known as surface files. If a machine owner can't load accurate surface files into his dozer or grader, he can't build the project as designed.

Data-prep talent is valuable, and scarce. Contractors must find vendors able to quickly and accurately create surface files, or they must hire someone to create them in-house. One highway/heavy contractor said his company's future depends more on finding the right data-preparation person than it does on finding skilled machine operators. A data-prep vendor lamented how one of his employees burned out after a few months because of the stresses in converting highway design to data — on deadline.

The contractors who lock in accurate and reliable data-prep service will win more jobs because they can profitably bid below the competition. For government agencies, that means the opportunity to better serve constituents by building more with its available tax dollars.

For more on data preparation and machine control, tune in next month for Construction Equipment's webinar, "From Site Plan to Machine Control: A How-to Guide." Visit for details.