Like their colleagues around the world, two contractors in Northeast Florida are constantly searching for the most efficient way to do business.
And because they both concentrate on land clearing, site work, excavation, and utilities, their prime focus of efficiency centers on earthmoving. Both have learned recently that efficiency gains go beyond buying the right machines, hiring the right people, etc. It means using the latest technology, and both have discovered that the Caterpillar AccuGradetm GPS grade control system puts them at the cutting edge of earthmoving efficiency.
AccuGrade uses a patented dual combined receiver and antenna system to provide machine operators increased precision on even complex design surfaces. The receiver, along with a cab-mounted radio, collect positioning data from satellites and an off-board GPS base station. The system uses that information to calculate the position of the tractor blade relative to the project's design plan.
Southern Development Corporation
Brett McKnight remembers the day almost eight years ago when George Sayar started Southern Development Corporation in Jacksonville, Florida.
"I hired on as - and still am - the company's general superintendent. We wanted to be a good, small company of about 15 employees," he laughs, knowing full well Southern's employee count hovers around 150.
McKnight's role puts him in charge of all Southern field operations. A self-admitted "old-school" veteran of the business, McKnight is quick to laugh again when he starts to consider how things have changed in the "field" where he's spent decades. And the biggest change, he's quick to note, is the most recent - the Caterpillar AccuGrade GPS grade control system on half of the company's track-type tractors.
"AccuGrade has changed the way we do business," says Sayar, the company's president. "We're more efficient, we're quicker, we're able to do more with our machines, and we've seen a tremendous improvement to our bottom line.
"We researched other systems and picked AccuGrade because it was leading edge technology and we had an excellent partnership with our Caterpillar dealer (Ring Power)."
Sayer says the company is billing more each month because it can get more work done.
"We're more productive. AccuGrade can make a mediocre operator an excellent operator. Because of that, we've widened out ability to hire operators."
"Old-school" McKnight is quick to agree.
"We had operators who said 'we don't need this' because they were worried about the computers. I guess I agreed with them and to be honest, I didn't want it to work. But after two days, the operators were mad if we put them on a machine without AccuGrade."
He says operators are "happier" because AccuGrade has made their life less stressful. "They're not fighting the machine all day."
McKnight tried the system and while he found it hard to sit on his right hand, AccuGrade made a believer out of him.
"It gets it right in one pass, not two, not three," he boasts. "It seems like before that we were hitting a stake every 10 minutes. That meant waiting for the survey crew and moving dirt again and again. Now we've been able to cut down on the ground crew."
McKnight says AccuGrade paid for itself in just one job by cutting 30 days off a 180-day schedule.
Sayar, too, notes savings that exceeded all expectations and plans to add AccuGrade to every one of Southern's track-type tractors.
"We've increased our final-grade production by anywhere from 25 percent to 40 percent. I'd recommend AccuGrade to anyone - except my competitors, of course."
Vallencourt Construction Company
Mike Vallencourt's father started Vallencourt Construction Company shortly after World War II. Today, the company is a $40 million-plus operation that "provides the entire package to developers."
With 200 employees and a fleet of dozens of machines, the company is nothing like the firm that specialized in clearing land and building Victory Gardens in the 1940s. But Vallencourt is quick to point out that today's pace of change outstrips anything in the past.
"What we are doing today is nothing compared to what we did just five years ago. GPS is the way we do business and Caterpillar's AccuGrade has taken us to another level. It's changed the way we estimate, it's changed the way we bill, it's changed our cost structure, and it's changed our competitive position - all for the positive."
Approximately 85 per cent of the company's track-type tractors have AccuGrade and plans are to put it on every tractor because, as Vallencourt puts it, "AccuGrade has increased our productivity exponentially. We put material where it belongs the first time."
"We can't survey and stake quick enough to keep up with the tractor. With AccuGrade, as soon as the tractor hits the site, it's moving dirt. We don't have to wait for a survey crew because AccuGrade turns a tractor into survey crew. And we've eliminated the man on the ground, a constant safety concern."
Vallencourt credits AccuGrade with making all of his operators more effective. He says the older operators would never go back to the "other way" of moving dirt and that AccuGrade has allowed the company to "attract the cream" of potential employees.
Vallencourt remembers the "Leap of Faith" that brought him to try AccuGrade.
"We did a subdivision of maybe 350 lots and just busted through our survey budget. We spent a lot of time trying to figure what went wrong because we had to do a similar sized project just across the street from the first one. We put AccuGrade on our tractors for the next project and found some of our costs were cut in half. That settled that."
While at one time he couldn't see the need for a GPS system, he now can't imagine every tractor in his fleet without AccuGrade.
"We want to provide the best value for the customer's dollar," says Vallencourt. "We're not the lowest price every time, but we want to be the best value. AccuGrade helps us get there."
Operators, Surveyors Embrace AccuGrade
For most of his 10 years as a surveyor, Carlos Martinez' life was one of tripods and stakes.
As the survey superintendent for Southern Development Corporation, he now plies his trade with a computer he carries in his truck. "Gone for good" are the "old days" thanks to his company's use of Caterpillar's AccuGrade GPS grade control system.
"Our work is accurate. We get it right the first time," says Martinez. "We're able to put dirt where it belongs the first time."
Southern's Joe Connors is quick to agree. The company's "dirt foreman" says that AccuGrade allows him to "keep dirt moving. We're cutting everything right the first time."
Both Martinez and Connors are impressed with the system's simplicity. They agree that operators now "love their jobs." For one thing, those operators can now move dirt without the burden of watching for surveyors on the job site, or the embarrassment of hitting stakes.
"The fewer people on the ground, the better," notes Martinez. "AccuGrade reduces that hazard and it relegates to history the old adage in the surveying business: 'It's not just getting stakes in the ground. It's keeping them there.'"
If you ask Operator Barbara Sweringen or Dan Vallencourt about AccuGrade, you'll hear them say "easy to use" at the same time.
They agree the biggest hurdle is learning to trust the computer, but once they do, Sweringen says, "operators catch on quickly."
"All you have to do is drive," says Vallencourt, the GPS supervisor for Vallencourt Construction Company. AccuGrade is as automatic as you can get. You just look at the screen and everything's perfect and on grade.
"AccuGrade has changed everything. Our productivity has increased and we're doing it without stakes."