A Site Contractor Finds Machine Control Means Business

Jan. 25, 2016

Waco Webb represents the second generation of Silver Spur Construction, a site prep, erosion control, and subbase contractor in Haskell, Okla., a firm started by his dad, Roy Webb, and his uncle, Rocky Webb, back in 1975.

“They didn’t grow up around 3D grade-control technology but now that we have it, they’re starting to see how beneficial it is,” Waco Webb says.

But “old school” ways have made the family-owned firm a good living for almost 40 years; after being started by just two men, Silver Spur’s fleet has grown to 60 machines.

“Most of our work has been government work throughout the years,” Webb, the company’s project manager, estimator and operator says. “We’d lay rip rap along creek banks and river banks. They would give us a set of plans, but they’d say, ‘Just make it work.’ In other words, make it fit.”

Though the cliché “Close enough for government work” might come to mind, Webb knew that more complex commercial jobs would require more precision. And when government work slowed, Silver Spur decided to expand its horizons.

“Recently we got into doing some commercial work with QuikTrip convenience stores, where they have a site draining plan and their requirements are a lot more detailed,” he says. “We realized that we needed something else to give us an edge, so we weren’t having a surveyor sit on top of us and keep our grade, or have to run string lines.”

Grade control had been in the back of Webb’s mind for some time. “About five years ago, we had a project in Wagoner, Okla., where we were excavating underwater. It was a state project, we were subcontracted through Manhattan Construction. On that job, we felt like we needed something to be our eyes under the water,” Webb says.

“We investigated it at that point, and we were going to buy something, but we had already started the project and realized that though it would have been nice to have, we were able to do the job without it.”

In 2014, when Silver Spur began working on commercial sites, Webb knew it was time to revisit 3D grade control. The commercial work called for various elevation changes, slopes and material depths.

“If I had to use traditional methods, pulling string lines, I wouldn’t even think of doing that kind of work,” Webb says. “The time that it would take you would eat into your profits.”

Silver Spur started slowly, with a rental. “We actually rented a 450 John Deere dozer when we were building the first QuikTrip, and it was a Topcon unit,” he says. It whet Webb’s appetite. “After that, I told my dad and uncle, let’s try all of the manufacturers.”

Another local dealer brought a Caterpillar D6K to Silver Spur’s site. “Our salesman told us to keep it and use it as long as we needed, and the grade-control dealer came out and set us all up,” Webb says. “Everything worked smoothly, and we didn’t have any issues with it going in and out of signal.”

Eventually, Silver Spur bought a new Cat D6K dozer, which was then equipped with a machine control system (Trimble GCS900), and a base station/rover (Trimble SPS855) and receiver. Webb has used it on four projects so far. “Now, I want to use it on every job. I’m always looking for any possible way I can use it,” he says. “I want a plan built and we use it on the project. It’s been going non-stop since we’ve had it.”

Other than the obvious twin masts on the dozer, what Webb and his operators see is a grade control system and control box inside the cab that displays the site plan: design surfaces, grades and alignments. The system uses the two GPS receivers and solid-state angle sensors to measure the exact 3D position of the cutting edge, providing vertical and horizontal positions.

The operator then compares the position information on the control box to the design elevation to compute cut or fill to reach grade. The display shows the guidance information in a number of ways, including plan mode, profile, cross-section view, or text.

It was a lot to digest at first glance.

“It is a little intimidating when you see all that equipment,” Webb says. “When we were getting started, they brought all the equipment out and ran through it with me. Every day I would learn a little bit more, and I would start branching out and showing our guys how to run it. It’s really not that bad.”

Webb wasn’t alone feeling the intimidation factor. “Starting out, everyone was a little bit intimidated by it, and they didn’t know if it was going to be something they would want to use, but once they started to use it and see how quickly it puts you on grade and how accurate it is, everyone wanted to run it.”

Putting on his project manager and estimator hats, Webb thinks Silver Spur has achieved a 20-percent increase in grading productivity, and on one project, recovered more than one month of time after bad weather.

But he says the most impressive savings has been on materials. “Commercial sites, they all have a certain thickness of gravel they want to put down after your subgrade is finished, which can range from 8 to 10 inches,” Webb says.

“Before, on certain sites, you were always scared you hadn’t laid the gravel thick enough, so you would tend to cut down your subgrade deeper because the last thing you’d want is for someone to go out and check it, and find you only have two inches of gravel versus 6 inches of gravel. With this unit, you can get the subgrade perfect and then dial into whatever thickness you want, and there’s no overrun on it. Whatever you planned for is what it is. Materials are expensive. If you take a 5-acre site and you’re off an inch on material, it doesn’t seem like that much, but over 5 acres, that’s a lot of money.”

There’s also very little staking left to do on job sites, Webb reports. “This is another area where we’re able to reduce costs now,” he says. “On a project we’re doing in Harrah, Okla., for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, I’m using the rover that we bought to do all of the survey, layout and stakeout work personally.

“Normally, we would have to call someone to come out to our job site and stake it out. As you know, stakes tend to disappear after awhile with the operators taking them out, and I’m as guilty as anybody else,” Webb laughs. “But with this unit, I can restake something very quickly and efficiently. Before we’d have to call out a surveyor, and surveying is expensive. We’ve saved a great deal on surveying.”

The erosion control project on the Canadian River involves placing 25,000 tons of rip rap along a half-mile riverbank with a slope embankment of 3:1.

“Using machine control for this project is going to be a game-changer for us because we’ll have so much precision in hitting our design targets,” Webb says. “I believe we’ll be able to speed up work more than 20 percent, which is particularly important right now as the project is behind schedule due to rock testing.”

The busier Silver Spur becomes, the more likely it is to expand grade-control to another machine in the fleet.

“As far as putting systems on more machines, we actually have kicked that around a little bit,” Webb says.  “We’re going to bid a couple of more QuikTrip stores, and maybe get into some more commercial work, but we haven’t been awarded any of those projects yet. If we get to a point where we need a dozer at two different projects, we definitely would.” Webb indicates that Silver Spur would lean toward installing a system on a smaller dozer for more detailed work before trying it on another machine type, such as a motor grader.

He’s also eager to share what he’s experienced with machine control with other managers.

“I told our salesman to have anybody that he’s trying to make a sale to come out and run our piece of equipment; I don’t care. Bring them out, let them try it out.

“[Grade control] is a lot of money, but you should try all the systems—it will ease your mind and you’ll think, ‘Okay I made the right decision,’” he says. “And, anybody can sell you something, but make sure you’re dealing with someone that will service you after the sale.”

Though Silver Spur still has grade control on only one unit at present, they’re already thinking about the future, including possible use of a UAS for mapping larger sites. “Right now, this [grade-control] unit that we’re using is doing everything we need, but the way technology is advancing, it probably is something we’ll look at in the near future,” Webb says.