GPS grade control technology requires a substantial initial capital investment, as well as requires a slightly different approach to grading operations vs. traditional grade staking. This combination can make any contractor apprehensive about diving in.
But those who have invested in this technology have seen its many benefits lead to a quick return on investment. There are even those who claim companies that don't adopt the technology will get left behind - rendered uncompetitive.
Following is a look at three contractors who have made the leap and the returns they've seen from their investment.
No more waiting
Larry Cox is the owner of a small family-owned grading and excavation company in Arkansas that has been in business since 1972. "I have three boys working with me and three other employees. We do utility work, road work, earthwork for commercial sites and some airport work," he says. "Out typical job size runs between $150,000 to $500,000."
The company purchased its first Topcon GPS grade control system last year when it was working on a softball complex for the City of Heber Springs. The GPS system helped the company overcome the limitations of its laser grade control system. The project required multiple grade changes. "There were so many of them that you couldn't keep your laser set up," recalls Cox. The GPS system allowed the company to not only tackle this job, but eliminate the grade stakes.
This first unit, which was mounted on a Champion motor grader, represented a substantial investment for the company. "It was over $100,000," Cox notes. However, the payback was rapid. "The first job pretty much paid for half of it, mostly in labor [savings]." No surveyors were needed to lay out the project, and there was no reliance on grade checkers.
The GPS system allows the contractor to complete jobs more quickly. "The work goes faster and you don't have to wait on surveyors to come and lay out for you. That is one of the greatest benefits of it - we don't have to wait for anybody," Cox asserts. The company has also eliminated grade stakes. "We are not using any grade stakes at all."
The accuracy has been impressive. "I'm going to say that we are within 1/2 in. if not perfect," Cox asserts. The system has also proven very durable, and the contractor has not experienced any failures.
Initially, construction of the electronic maps necessary to run the grade control systems was hired out, but it is now being brought in house using the Topcon program.
Last Spring, Cox equipped two more pieces with GPS. The cost for adding these units was much less than the original system. "The next machine is a little more than half," he notes. "On the initial investment, you have the base station and rover to go with it." Once these are purchased, they will work with any additional units.
Installation complexity varies depending on the age of the machine. Many newer machines are pre-wired and it is simply a matter of plugging the system in. Older machines may take more work. "One of the dozers, we will have to take the cab off. It is pretty tough, but the other will be really simple," says Cox.
Cox advises putting pencil to paper when looking at a GPS system to see if it will pay for itself in a year and a half to two years.
Accuracy under water
Blue Goose Construction is a mid-size specialty contractor working in commercial and marine applications for water management districts and power companies. "Most of the grading we do is under water; very little of it is above water," says Larry Tarr.
Customized John Deere excavators - including an 850 with a 95-ft. boom, a 450 with a 70-ft. boom and two 240s with 60-ft. booms - commonly work off of barges.
The company invested in its first of four Topcon GPS grade control systems in September 2007 to complete a job with very tight grading specs. "We didn't have a lot of choice," says Tarr. "The design/build general contractor, Underground Engineering Inc., demanded tight grade tolerances on the 135-ft.-long slopes. We had to give them a smooth finish, which was necessary so they could install articulated concrete block mats over the surface."