Technology in Construction: All Together Now

May 1, 2010

Perhaps we expect too much too quickly. That would be like getting into a vehicle or machine for the first time in one’s life and operating it perfectly, at once; it doesn’t happen that way. The most successful contractors, when it comes to connectivity at their job sites and offices, have learned to start at the beginning and to progress at a reasonable and attainable speed. If you talk with manufacturers and software designers, you soon learn that their customers must have training for new approaches to their business management. The best manufacturers insist that their dealers have training before selling the products. You don’t just buy some magical software and off you go, just as you don’t jump into a wheel loader or excavator and become an instant, expert operator.

Connecting is about the same as communicating, keeping in touch. “The goal of a job-site communication system is to exchange information from a rover, such as a machine, truck, or surveyor, to a central office or to other rovers,” explains Brian Longobardo, product manager for 3D machine-control products at Topcon Positioning Systems. “Topcon’s Sitelink provides onsite communication between all machines, people and the office through a Wi-Fi or cellular network connection. The “˜connected job site’ can prove to be beneficial to all size contractors, job sites, fleets, and applications. A dirt contractor that has a small crew of surveyors and only a machine or two can benefit. Because Sitelink can be global and does not have to be job-site based, surveyors can receive new project files, design surfaces, or stakeout prints without having to go back the office. The same applies to the operator on the machine. If he is at a job site without his surveying crew, he can receive these updates without the time and costs of having to go back or waiting until later.”

For the site preparation bids for the recently permitted Rosendale Dairy operation in Wisconsin, a huge site for 8,000 cattle, Mueller Excavating was not the lowest bidder but it was the winner. “We won it in large part because we use GPS machine control,” comments Nick Mueller, president of Mueller Excavating. “The site owners were very impressed with our capabilities and understand our use of GPS systems, which include a new John Deere 750J Crawler Dozer shipped from the factory Trimble Ready so that the base-level requirements such as mounting brackets and system cables could be pre-plumbed before their delivery, a significant reduction in installation downtime.”

A Cat motor grader and Cat Track-type Tractor also have Trimble systems on board. “We got into machine control in 2007 and began experiencing benefits almost immediately,” says Dusty Mueller, project manager. “We have virtually eliminated rework. We do it once and it’s done.” The grading and excavating in Wisconsin were for the two 1,340-foot-by-400-foot barns and milking parlors, digging three manure pits with a total capacity of 74 million gallons, digging feed bunkers that measure 300 feet by 400 feet and 800 feet by 800 feet, digging a 100,000-cubic-yard stormwater pond, and laying 3 miles of pipe. Of peripheral note is that the construction standards established by the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture for this project are the most stringent ever.

One point made by some operators is that all the new and useful equipment is cutting down on space (and comfort?) inside the cab. Topcon addressed that problem by introducing the GX-60 control box, 50% lighter than previous control boxes and smaller, so it fits more readily into excavator cabs. It has more computing power, too, than previous models, with larger design files, fast 3D contour loading and improved cut/fill mapping. The GX-60 has a vivid color display with automatic brightness control that enables operators to adjust the display to whatever is perfect for a given job situation.

Connecting Step by Step
There are, then, different levels of connectivity. Even the contractor whose company has only a few employees can attain a level that will quickly show him or her that being connected with machines and people is worthwhile, profitable. The grading and excavating are completed more quickly and more accurately. Bids can be more profitable when you know exactly what you can do at the job site. Being connected, then, is another way of saying being organized, and proving it. “Connectivity is scalable,” is how Brent Steffen, a manager at Caterpillar, who is an expert on the subject after years of experience, explains the basic value of the concept. “A contractor could start with Product Link from Caterpillar, which is now standard on machines, and understand the value of knowing where equipment is working, if it is working or idling, if it shows signs of needing maintenance and repair, and basic machine knowledge like that. Such a basic program helps any contractor, whether he has two or two thousand machines.”

Volvo offers CareTrack for its machines. Whether you are at the office, on the road, or at home, anywhere there is Internet access, you have a direct line to your fleet of machines and vehicles. You can see their location, their operating status, and approaching service needs. Yes, you know more about a machine than its operator. You can see where the machines are, at what speeds they are being driven, and how much fuel they are using. Volvo reminds us that our machines represent a large capital investment, possibly the biggest for our business, so it is sensible and practical to know that we are getting the best return on investment from them. The specific information you receive is better than you could get from the driver or operator. Every 24 hours CareTrack makes available the previous day’s operating information in an easily understood manner. It’s as if you received a technical update on each machine. Or, if you prefer it, CareTrack can email that same helpful information (to be collated once a day, once a week, or once a month). It can tell you how many hours an excavator has spent working in the different work modes available, or it can show you how much time an articulated hauler spent using the retarder or differential lock. And you don’t have to be an expert to interpret the results! You can also, with Volvo’s CareTrack, establish time and geographical barriers for each machine, so that you will know quickly if it has left the work zone where it should be or if it is being operated at a time when it shouldn’t be.

Product Link from Caterpillar, already mentioned, uses wireless and satellite technology to collect and transmit information related to machine usage, location and maintenance. The information can be accessed through a secure, Web-based application, Equipment Manager. Some contractors fear they lose control of their equipment and operations with new technologies they do not completely understand, but that anxiety can be banished because Product Link is flexible. Your Cat dealer can monitor the machine data and manage your service or maintenance through a Cat Customer Support Agreement. Or your Cat dealer can monitor the machine data and suggest appropriate service or maintenance interventions. Or you can monitor the machine data yourself. The program communicates problems at an early stage (before the excavator is miles away at a remote site) and provides diagnostic codes based on machine-specific parameters. Your machines can be kept in operation at their best levels of performance. Daily updates will show how many hours your machines have worked (even if they are at those remote sites). Product Link gives you access to planned maintenance histories.

From such a simple, basic equipment program a contractor reaps instant, understandable benefits. That wonderful ingredient of profitability, uptime, is maximized. Productivity is maintained. A fleet (which can be a few or many vehicles and machines) is managed more simply, yet more efficiently. Problems receive faster resolution. Maintenance planning keeps everything going smoothly. With a little progress up the levels of coverage you can have not only machine location, location history, machine hour reading, and hour history, but also information like fuel levels, fuel used, fuel used history, refueling history, and event and diagnostic code troubleshooting. You can progress as you are comfortable. Ask your favorite manufacturer if such programs are available on its machines, and if those programs can be added even if they were not installed at the factory when you bought the machine.

Some manufacturers have systems integrated with their machines (Caterpillar, John Deere, and Volvo, for example, with Product Link, JD Link, and CareTrack respectively). Sitelink from Topcon can work with any machine brand or make, new or old. All machines at a site can be equipped, including trucks, rollers and scrapers. The amount of information given and received depends on how the control system is integrated. A scraper, for example, may be equipped only to send its position so that its productivity can be tracked with the number of passes, while a dozer with the appropriate control system may provide blade information (cut and fill) back to the office for volume reporting.

Coping With the Changes and Progress
The word training sends shivers down the spines of some workers because they think, and not always positively, of years in a classroom. Show your employees how programs can work, and they will follow you. A perfect example of this was the experienced grader operator who knew that nobody, and no new-fangled contraption, could make him better. “The seat of my pants can tell me when I’m doing it right, and I always am,” claimed Clark. Against his better judgment, because his boss insisted, he tried a machine-guidance program for three days, and then they couldn’t pry it away from him. Not only did he end each day without a backache, but he also could see that he had achieved better results than ever. He wanted to use the program. He was excited by his results. He wanted to stay with the company.

The amount of training required, and who requires it, depends on the connection system you choose. “If there is interaction required from the operator, some training is needed if the operator has never used machine control before,” observes Longobardo. “If the system is only monitoring position and is hidden from the operator, then little or no training will be required for that operator. Most of the training for Sitelink would be focused on the person or persons in the office, those who analyze the data and support the system in such matters as IT issues or software updates.” Some of that training or education, of course, would be in the meaning of the information gathered as much as in the operation of the connection system.

Machine guidance and machine control have been accepted by many contractors as useful tools for better efficiency and profitability. Mention project management and some faces will show frowns and disbelief. We live in a society in which brainwashers like the news media keep thrusting buzzwords and initials at us. Is it to confuse, or is it to educate? Project management may be one of those phrases tossed around job sites and offices, but it is a phrase that makes sense for every contractor. “Running your business the right way” could be an alternative for a similar idea, but perhaps that’s too long, not snappy enough. What does good project management achieve? Profit. Workers who want to stay. Profit. A company that runs smoothly. (And profit.)

Meridian Systems introduced Prolog some years ago. More than 5,000 organizations use the program now, so it is hardly surprising that it is perceived as the market share leader for project management software for general contractors.

With Prolog you can automate day-to-day tasks and processes (all the way from product design to close-out). You will keep your mobile workforce up to date with secure online and offline access to project information; it will stay connected. Manage all your construction projects in one system so that they, too, are now connected under your one company umbrella. Keep the costs of the project on target with cost management in real time and tracking of the budget. Get rid of all that manual data entry and those time-consuming work processes based on paper; you eliminate the inaccuracies that such business practices generate, too. You can see the progress and records of all those important cycles in a project, such matters as change orders, submittals, RFIs, drawings, contracts, and minutes of meetings between all parties involved.

Christa Construction is one of New York’s leading builders. Among recent projects awarded have been a $73 million capital project for the Penfield Central School District, the Rivers Run Active Adult Living Community at RIT on 38 acres by the Genesee River, and the Visitor’s Quarters at Niagara Falls Air Reserve Base. When it was time to change from an older project-management program that was no longer being served, the company looked at several new solutions and chose Meridian’s Prolog. “Prolog’s functionality and ease of use stood out from other solutions,” commented Dan Kinsman, director of information technology at Christa Construction. “It opens the door to new opportunities and there are definitely jobs that we’ve been able to pursue simply because we have Prolog in place.”

A key help in the implementation of the new program for this contractor was the support of PSS Group, Meridian’s authorized reseller, which provides software consulting plus integration and training services. “PSS was a tremendous help,” says Kinsman. “I was extremely impressed by the caliber of their people and their knowledge of Prolog and the construction process. I couldn’t have asked for better support.” PSS helped Christa design custom reports to deliver targeted information, a custom one-page report that gives project managers the current status of the project and a more in-depth report that lists the entire history of a project, from bid through construction. The historical data have proved useful for improving the contractor’s estimating work.

“New project management systems are user friendly,” says Sue Watkins, director of marketing at Meridian Systems. “While our main customers are general contractors, our programs are not beyond the talents or means of smaller companies. Contractors with small- or medium-size workforces can use Meridian to determine project costs and to control the scope of a project, where you show you are building what you said you would.”

Meridian is another leader who insists that its partners are well trained and able to give their local contractors the full benefit of any program. For the best start, says Watkins, a contractor should visit with, and learn from, the local system provider, confident that he or she has been taught adequately and shown proficiency in the performance of the system. As with the equipment itself, it is the local knowledge of the dealer/partner that proves so useful to the contractor.

Good Connection Stays Firm
Trimble’s LM-80 Layout Manager is pocket size. With it you can carry, manage, work with, and lay out your job-site blueprint. Trimble calls this little device “the heart of the connected construction site.” The perfectly connected contracting company sees results at every stage of any project, even before the project begins, when it is bid. A contractor may have started as a grading and excavation contractor but the local economy demands that he become involved in further stages of the job. One excavation man I spoke with last summer told me that his company had expanded because his customers wanted him to do more than just the excavation. Now he does excavation, grading, and the normal preparation work, but his reputation for good work has led him into paving, too, most for parking lots and smaller jobs, but all good business. His excavation started becoming good when he bought a basic machine-control unit. He found he could estimate how much he could do, how much he should charge, and how long it would take. All those obvious bits of knowledge led to better bids and better, more profitable jobs.

As there are levels of connectivity, you wouldn’t expect to be involved in everything immediately. Not all instruments or programs for the connected job site will be appropriate to every contractor and his work. The connections available may derive from site-positioning systems, or asset management, or GPS machine control, or telematics. You may eventually use them all, but your first steps will not try to do everything immediately.

If corrections are needed, these connecting technologies can handle them well. At the site for some new apartments in southern California, Roxwell Construction, with just a six-man crew, was well ahead of schedule when the developer discovered a mistake in the site plans. “We had completed a major part of the job and the grading was dead-on,” advises Charlie Hollingsworth, site manager and machine operator at the site. “We simply reloaded the update design onto the machine and regarded the site to the new specs in one day!” This contractor has a Trimble GCS900 grade-control system on a new Cat D4K Track-type tractor. Roxwell Fontenot, president of the company, estimates the system makes grade checking at least twice as fast as grade checking with lasers. “I don’t ever have to stop my machine, climb out, and check the grade,” adds Hollingsworth. “I can set the blade down and know where I’m located at all times. That saves a lot of time in a workday.” Since Roxwell Construction acquired its Trimble technology, it has enabled the company to bid successfully on more complex projects and compete on projects where GPS grade control is a requirement. “GPS machine control is the way of the future,” adds Fontenot. “I felt that, if we didn’t jump in now, we’d be that much further behind.” Wise words from an experienced contractor!

Even the basic work of “connected job-site technology” has proved its merit, and the expansion of technologies we’ve seen lately has only confirmed that the contractors who have the ability to connect people, machines, and sites will be the successful ones tomorrow.