Editor’s Note: This first installment of a two-part series investigates the potential upsides of automated 3-D grade control systems, along with the challenges of implementation. Next month, we will examine what is needed behind the scenes to work with the software and electronic files.
Various size contractors performing differing types of construction are proving the value of using automated 3-D grade control systems. The main benefit cited is speed. And as the technology progresses, so does the productivity. Several end users share their experiences with this equipment.
A faster finish
Steven Counts, Inc. (SCI) has first-hand experience with the evolution of automated controls. SCI is a site development and roadbuilding contractor with 248 employees and over 200 pieces of yellow iron. It has been using Topcon GPS equipment for a little over two years. “We are utilizing GPS with machine control on four pieces of equipment,” says Chuck Counts. This includes John Deere 650J, Caterpillar D5N and Komatsu D39 dozers.
When SCI first started using automated controls on a John Deere 650 two years ago, the operators were a little skeptical. “The biggest hurdle initially was getting the operator to understand how he was saving time using this system,” recalls Counts. “When we first got the system, the operator had to run just a little bit slower than he normally would in doing his grading. Where he may have run in a low third gear for normal grading without it, he was having to run in high second gear.” This was due to the processing speed of early control boxes.
Counts pointed out to the operators that, while they were working a little bit slower, they no longer had to get off the dozer and pull a string to measure the grades. The work was actually getting done faster. “There is quite a bit of difference when the operator doesn’t even have to get off of the machine to know that he is on grade,” he explains. “And when he is done, he can just move straight over to the next project.”
Evolution of the technology has since eliminated the need to work at a slower speed. “The technology has been upgraded to the point where there is no difference,” says Counts.
SCI runs its own survey crews. “Right now we are running five survey crews and we have three additional subcontracted survey crews working for us,” Counts notes. The GPS equipment has reduced the amount of staking required. “If we didn’t have this GPS equipment, I would probably need three or four more crews to keep up.”
The dozer operator knows exactly where cuts and fills need to be made. “A lot of the dozer operator’s time is spent directing the pans and the bigger earthmoving equipment — just driving around and showing them where the cuts are,” says Counts. To make this even more efficient, supervisor units are now being added. “The supervisor can just drive around and put out flags where the cuts need to be to direct the pans.”
Some may assume that automated grade control systems replace the need for a skilled operator, but that is simply not the case. “The operator still needs to be a skilled operator,” says Counts. Until you get close to finish grade and turn on the automated system, the operator has a direct influence on productivity. “The savings come with that operator being able to see on the screen where he is with certainty. You move the material from where it needs to be cut to where it needs to be filled in one move.”
A recent project for a major retailer illustrates the time savings. “We had a GPS dozer and a GPS grader on the site. The [retailer] was able to open 30 days earlier than projected because we got our site work done quicker,” says Counts. “There is definitely a measurable benefit to the customer and also to us. “The speed at which you can complete jobs and be assured that everything is graded right is just a great boost,” adds Counts. “At this point, 95% of our business is negotiated because the word is out that if you need your job done, and you want it as quick as you can, we are the people that can do it for you. It is a marketable advantage.”
Automated dozer systems are not just for large earthmoving companies. Allen Steele Co. Inc., Lake Delton, WI, performs sewer and water work, as well as dirt work. “The utility work is our primary and the dirt work is secondary,” says Allen Steele.
The company was looking for a faster, more efficient way of completing the finish subgrade in preparation for the gravel. However, many of its jobsites are in heavily forested areas. “The canopy was such that the GPS was not going to get through it,” says Steele.
The solution came in the form of a total station from Leica Geosystems. “The total station is more complex than the GPS as far as setting up,” Steele admits. “Frankly, the motivator is we wanted to use it on sites that had the canopy of trees. The fringe benefit has been that the accuracy is really great. With this system, it is safe to say that our accuracy is within four hundredths, plus or minus. The disadvantage is you can only put it on one machine at a time. Right now, we have it on a Caterpillar D6M with a six-way blade.”
The dozer operator has been trained to set up the system. This took about five days of training. “We had telephone backup after that, so there were a lot of calls being made,” says Steele. “But every day there seemed to be less and less. Now I don’t think he calls them at all.”
The system takes the operator 15 to 20 minutes to set up in the morning. But then the operator can work on his own. “You don’t have to get somebody running stakes. He is on his own and he is taking care of everything,” says Steele.
“We are using stakes to double-check ourselves, but nowhere near as many as we would,” he continues. “The side benefit is you do not worry if you knock one out. As far as saving the engineering costs of staking, maybe down the road that will be an issue. But at this point it was not our motivation for buying it. The big issue is moving dirt once and moving it absolutely the first time.”
The accuracy has reduced aggregate costs. “When we bid a job and say the gravel is going to be 1-ft. thick, that is exactly what it is,” says Steele. “It is not 18 in. or 9 in. [in certain areas]. It is 1 ft. everywhere.”
The contractor was able to sell its motor grader after installing automated grade control on its dozer, thanks to the increased accuracy provided. Since earthmoving isn’t the company’s primary business, the return on investment for the automated system will take a little longer. “It is going to take less than three years,” says Steele. “It will be much closer to two, depending on how much work we get. If we were able to keep this going on site work all of the time, as it has been going since we bought it, then I would say a one-year payback.
“If I had it to do over, I would do it again,” he adds. “We are justifying it because it is faster and more accurate.”
Crossland Construction is a 25-year-old Columbus, KS-based site development contractor that has also experienced the benefits of increased speed and reduced staking. “You eliminate three-fourths of your staking,” says Jim Martin, site prep manager. “If half of your stakes get lost in the first week, you aren’t out there re-doing them just to keep everybody going right. There is a tremendous savings on layout.”
Topcon 3-D automated grade control systems are installed on a Caterpillar D6R dozer, as well as Caterpillar 140G and 160H motor graders. But prior to the finish grade, a Caterpillar D8 with a Topcon indicate system is often used to rough out the site. “Getting within a half a foot with it manually [using the Topcon GPS with indicate system] works really great,” says Martin. Automated systems are then used to finish the job.
Martin agrees that you need skilled operators despite the use of automated controls. “The only time the automatics compensate for the operator is the last pass,” says Martin. “All of the time before, he still needs maximum production out of the machine. It just enhances the good operators and makes them even better. You are going to speed up the process of finish grading with the automatics.”
The accuracy has proven more than adequate for most jobs at a tenth horizontal and a tenth vertical. “It is real tough to get any closer,” says Martin. “I don’t care who the operators are.”
If closer tolerances are required, the contractor sets up its Topcon laser and mounts the receiver to the same pole that holds the GPS antenna. “Your tolerances are real tight then — as tight as the machine is,” says Martin.
Return on investment depends on the amount of earth moved. “I would say you have to move 50,000 yds. and more to be worth having,” says Martin. He cautions that you may not see a return on your first job. “You have to get used to using the equipment and get familiar with the 3-D systems.”
But time constraints on projects put a premium on the technology. “As tight as the time frames are that we have to work under, you just have to have a couple of guys who can be efficient with using it,” says Martin.
Increased fine grading efficiency
Paul Reed Construction, Scottsbluff, NE, is a general contractor that performs everything from residential to light industrial work. “In the past, we have done a lot of railroad work,” says Ben Ryschon. “Just lately, since we got the GPS, we are starting to take on larger earthmoving jobs, like landfills.”
The company initially purchased its Trimble GPS systems three years ago. It currently has fully automated grade control systems on a Deere 850 dozer and a motor grader. “We have used it pretty solid for the last two years,” says Ryschon.
The accuracy is within a tenth, but Ryschon claims you can get even closer in the right conditions. “With the dozer, it really depends on the type of material you are pushing,” he explains. “If you are pushing in very loose soil, it gets you within a tenth real easily. With a little bit of work in the right material, you can get within about half a tenth.”
But dozers do have limitations when used in solid underfoot conditions. “If you are on really solid ground, we have found you get a lot of movement from the grousers that just shake the whole machine,” explains Ryschon. “Your tolerance goes up. It is going to be around a tenth. In order to get good fine grading, you have to go with the grader.”
The automated GPS has changed the way Paul Reed Construction approaches projects. “Obviously, not all of my equipment has GPS,” says Ryschon. In the big cuts, the contractor does minimal staking to allow the rough cuts to be made with non-GPS equipment. “Once it is roughed in, my GPS equipment comes in. It only takes off the last foot to foot and a half.”
On jobs requiring small cuts, the GPS equipment is often sent out by itself. “If there is only a foot to a foot and a half to cut on a jobsite, I will just use the GPS equipment for all of it,” says Ryschon. “I will not even set a stake in the ground.”
Ryschon is a surveyor/civil engineer tech, so he understands the savings possible with automated grade control. “We don’t need blue tops anymore, other than for a spot check here and there. Right now, we use very minimal staking. If you can eliminate a $20,000 or $30,000 surveying bill, that is a pretty good savings on a job,” he points out.
Eliminating blue tops and hitting grade on the first pass have made Paul Reed Construction a very efficient operation. “We have increased the efficiency of fine grading by 40% to 50%, or even higher in some cases,” says Ryschon. “When you get down to grade, you run your dozer or grader across there and you are done with it. You may have to take a couple of passes to make it perfect, but it is a lot better than having to go out there and pound blue tops.”
The contractor is extremely satisfied with the system. “Of course, it is not cheap,” Ryschon admits, “but we see the dividends it pays out. To be a competitive dirt contractor in the next 10 years, you are going to have to be running GPS of some sort.”
J.E. Liesfeld Contractor is a site development and road construction firm currently experimenting with a Leica automated grade control system on a Caterpillar D6N dozer. So far, the results have been promising.
“You become far more efficient using this system,” says Kenny Liesfeld. “You move the dirt once and you are basically on grade. When you are fine grading, you only make two passes and it is on grade. Then you go on to the next area.”
The key advantage has been the streamlining of the production process. “I would not really say I would buy it because it is going to eliminate my staking,” says Liesfeld. “You never eliminate your staking. But it does reduce it and it reduces the amount of time you have to wait for it. It takes some of the steps out of your work.” It also eliminates a lot of the restaking traditionally done between roughing in and final grading.
The accuracy has proven very good. “We are running within a tenth,” says Liesfeld. “But there are times that we run tighter than that. We have checked behind it and we have been within a couple of hundredths.”
Yet, the initial cost is a major hurdle. “There is tremendous cost getting yourself set up for it,” notes Liesfeld. “And to be real effective, I think you need to have multiple machines.” It is also a challenge to track ROI. “We go from job to job and that makes it difficult to track the cost and the savings. But I am happy with it to this point.
“It is going to be the wave of the future and I think everybody is going to end up having it,” Liesfeld adds. “It is a big risk for people — it might drive the price of the work down. That is my biggest fear of it.”