Breaking Down the Digital Wall

March 4, 2011

With any new technology or product, enthusiasts who can afford it, embrace it and stand in line for hours to purchase it. The rest of us wait for not only the cost to come down, but also to make sure it lives up to the marketing claims and works through all the bugs. Three-dimensional grade control is no different.

With any new technology or product, enthusiasts who can afford it, embrace it and stand in line for hours to purchase it. The rest of us wait for not only the cost to come down, but also to make sure it lives up to the marketing claims and works through all the bugs. Three-dimensional grade control is no different.

Although that technology has been around for more than 10 years, many contractors are slow to adopt it. For them, 2D grade control has served them well over the past 30 years. Whether they control elevation through a laser receiver/transmitter or sonic tracers—benching off the ground, curb or stringline—the end result is an accurate final grade. But reaching that final grade comes with a fair share of challenges, including contour limitations and survey costs.

Data preparation

So, too, does 3D grade control come with challenges. The first, and maybe the most intimidating, is data preparation. Typically engineering firms deliver a set of paper plans to the owner of the project. The plans may or may not include done a three-dimensional drawing, so that data has to be verified for accuracy by the contractor and then translated into a 3D electronic file, also known as a digital model.

“When a contractor is transitioning from a two-dimensional or laser-based machine control to the 3D world, the biggest difference is in the preparation of the job files,” says Tony Vanneman, Topcon Positioning Systems’ construction products marketing manager. “But they have options today. They can be trained by their local dealer on how to create those files and build those job models themselves with software from their 3D hardware supplier, or they can subcontract that work out to a local engineering firm. Some companies do a combination of both.”

Like Topcon, Trimble also offers solutions for all or part of the data-preparation process. “We offer products that give contractors the power to go in and do project planning, project estimation, data preparation; and that same piece of software will be the interaction piece of software to be able to write files out for the machines or out to the site-positioning system,” says Lamar Hester, sales engineer manager for Trimble. “There’s also a take-off module you can use for estimating, and in effect, while going through those processes, you’re doing the data prep simultaneously so that once you get the project estimated, you can streamline and go straight into the machine systems.”

A third player in the market, Leica, addresses 3D data-prep concerns with software offered in different modules. “The core module gives the contractor the ability to bring data in, look at the data, make sure there are no spikes or errors in elevation or other errors,” says Nick Guadagnoli, product marketing manager for Leica Geosystems. “They can fly through the data using a 3D viewer, and once it’s verified, they can take all that data and bring it out to whatever system they might be working with.

“But to get a 3D model built, prepped and do the follow-up work that may be needed as changes occur throughout the project costs the contractor a lot of money,” Guadagnoli adds. “So what a lot of contractors do is bring in somebody full time and that’s their full-time focus. But before they make that decision, they ask themselves if their workload is big enough to justify bringing on that type of person full time to simply do data prep. And where do they find that person and get him or her trained?”

Many contractors start off doing data prep themselves, but it doesn’t take long for them to realize the benefits of having someone dedicated to that function.

“When I first started, I did all the modeling myself,” says Lee Kieswetter of Kieswetter Excavating, Ontario, Canada, “but that led to a lot of late nights. We finally hired someone to do that job, and he’s been a mainstay. That’s all he does is data prep for machines and take-off for estimating. If issues arise, it’s nice to have it in-house because you can get files changed; when change-orders come through, you can send that to the office and have it out right away. When it’s in-house, you’re in control.”

Johnny Lewis of Mario Sinacola & Sons, Frisco, Texas, concurs. “I had one person doing that job for three years, but demand has grown so much within my company that I’m on my second person, and we’re preparing to train a third. Every time we get a project now, the owners and project managers ask, ‘Do you have my GPS model built yet?’”

Data management

Once contractors have conquered the data-prep hurdle, they will need to organize a file-management system to keep track of the most current versions of data. Whether the company makes sure every file has a date/time stamp or assigns one central person to keep track of all the updates and verification, that function will be crucial to maintaining accuracy on the job.

Data management also includes delivering the data to the devices deployed to the field and making sure the updates are transferred and put onto those systems. Depending on where the office is situated in relation to the jobsite, there will be some travel costs and man-hours associated with that function.

“We do offer tools to help in that arena,” says Hester. “With Trimble Connected Community, contractors have the ability to create project-specific websites, and they have file spaces so they can transfer data and load data directly onto the file space. It’s one central location on a secure server for data back-up. All of our machine products, site-positioning products, and office-software products have integrated functionality to allow information to sync directly to the Connected Community. So as long as there is Internet connectivity, the person in the field can sync with the Community, see that there’s a change, and it will download to their device. It also works in reverse—from the field to the office.”

Topcon offers a similar solution called SiteLINK 3D, billed as a comprehensive software solution for both construction equipment and projects. Essentially, it’s a real-time wireless communications mapping, data logging, reporting and asset-management system for off-road equipment. Another unique feature “is the ability to link all working machines together so operators can actually ‘talk’ to one another to maximize productivity at every step of the operation,” says Ray O’Connor, Topcon president and CEO.

Topcon’s Tierra is a telematics system that can also pinpoint (via GPS) any piece of equipment on a job anywhere in the world, while monitoring fuel levels, oil pressure, temperature and hours of use via CAN bus or analog connections.

Training options

Although the host of advancements could likely make a project manager’s job easier and more productive in the long run, the learning curve for 3D GPS products can be intimidating.

“Switching from 2D to 3D is a jump for contractors,” says Guadagnoli. “They have to learn how to use, maintain, care for GPS equipment—and radios come into play—so that’s a decent sized jump for contractors using lasers to using GPS equipment. It’s a big leap of faith for them, and a big investment to get involved in 3D grade-control products.”   

Manufacturers understand the concerns associated with making that leap. That’s why all of them offer extensive training programs. Across the board, new customers always receive training when they invest in GPS machine control. They can be trained on the data-management aspect, data preparation, site positioning products, and machine-control products. Most of that training comes from their extensive dealer networks because they are in close proximity to the contractor and their jobsites. The initial training often comes free, but if end-users need extra training down the road, the companies will likely charge a per-diem rate.

“Trimble dealers recommend that their clients identify a GPS champion in their company and strategically select someone they feel can do the job and will be a long-time employee,” says Hester. “With the right person in place, as they have operator turnover or new employees come into the company, the GPS champion can deliver training in-house.”

“Training is an essential part of the equation,” says Vanneman. “The first part always comes from the Topcon dealer, and it comes in two pieces. In piece No. 1, the guys in the office are trained on the conversion software that converts those job files. The second piece is the field training where we’re going to train the grade setter, the foreman, and the operators on how to utilize the GPS machine-control products in the field.”

Topcon also offers Topcon University, which provides training to its dealers and customers around the world—both in classroom settings and in the field. There are also Web-based training classes so users can learn on their own time. Contractors sometimes use this for refresher courses in the spring so they can revisit what they learned in the previous season.

All of the manufacturers include product manuals and user guides to keep in the office or in the cabs for reference. But most would agree that in-person training is best—especially with contractors new to the technology. They also offer phone-in customer service should any questions or problems arise.

“We look at the sale of this type of equipment as a partnership; we’re looking to help these contractors for the long-term,” says Guadagnoli. “Our dealers know contractors don’t work 9 to 5. They’ll field calls at midnight on a Friday night if need be. We also have sales reps that live in the area where they’re selling equipment, so they’re able to respond very quickly.”

Once training is complete, contractors say operators pick it up pretty quickly. Kieswetter says he has two operators of retirement age who love it, and one of them doesn’t speak or write the English language. Lewis says they have a little trouble training Spanish-speaking workers because their Trimble representatives don’t speak Spanish. Now he has someone in-house to help him with the language barrier. Once they learn it, they get it.

“The problem we have now is that all of the foremen who have been exposed to GPS want it on their machines,” says Lewis. “We don’t have it on every machine, so our biggest struggle is to decide who gets the GPS machines and why do they get it over the other ones? We also debated if we give the Type A—top of the line—operators the good system or give it to the C operator to make him a better operator. We decided to give it to the C guy to bring his quality up to the A guy.”

Contractor proponents of GPS grade control boast about the fast return on their investment.

“I know one of the largest machine-control users in North America and probably one of the earliest adopters has recouped their investment in as little as two weeks,” says Ryan Forrestel of Cold Spring Construction, Akron, N.Y. “For us, in certain applications, it’s been awful close to that. The excavator systems in particular have been surprising to us how quickly they provide return on investment.”

Substantial productivity gains; reduced engineering costs; reduced fuel costs, man hours, and wear-and-tear on equipment; the ability to handle more complex designs; materials savings; tighter bids; and early-completion bonuses, enable the system to pay for itself in a matter of weeks or months, depending on the project. And equipment manufacturers have made the transition easier, too. Caterpillar, John Deere and Komatsu machines can be ordered with the necessary plumbing/accommodations for grade-control systems. Caterpillar also offers its own line of AccuGrade GPS grade-control systems and an AccuGrade Attachment Ready Option (ARO) machine where the grade-control system is designed and integrated into the machine systems and controls.

“For contractors who have been working the same way for many years, using GPS definitely changes the way they do business,” says Vanneman. “It changes the way you look at jobs, it changes the way you approach projects, and then how you execute them. But a lot of the time that change is good.”