Use or Lose

May 1, 2011

Do you have a telephone? A cell phone? A pickup? A remote control for your TV? Once they were all new technologies and millions of people knew they would never work. What about hydrostatic transmission? Things change constantly in our personal and business worlds, and we try to make everything work better: less greedily for fuel while more quiet and comfortable for operators. We would do ourselves a grave injustice if we did not investigate the merits of new technologies for our machines and our business management, because their goal is to improve our business (and our enjoyment of it) and to make our work more efficient and more profitable.

Technology is no longer a luxury for contractors—it is a necessity. This is how Maxwell Systems, a world leader in construction-related technologies, puts it. From creating on-target bids to efficiently managing projects to ensuring that jobs are billed accurately, technology is an essential element to be competitive in a market where there is little wiggle room for inefficiencies or errors. For the most part, contractors have adopted various technologies to operate more efficiently in one area of their business or another, but that is not enough anymore. Construction organizations must streamline their processes across the board—from takeoff through project execution to the completion and billing of the project. An all-in-one construction business management solution like Maxwell Systems’s ProContractorMX is the answer for contractors looking to improve operational efficiencies, reduce costs, and increase profits. Providing end-to-end control of critical business operations, ProContractorMX handles the complexities of the entire project life cycle and provides versatile features that meet the business requirements of every role within a construction organization. ProContractorMX can help contractors see a day’s profit potential at a glance, identify and prevent potential financial losses, spot discrepancies and errors, and manage projects with accurate information in real time. Having quick and easy access to critical information as well as wide and deep visibility for every project, owners can hone business strategy, improve control of cash flow, and keep financials in the black with accurate ROI. Steven Pope, administrative manager for Mid-State Paving & Excavation sums it up: “We really like that everything is tied into one solution with Maxwell Systems ProContractorMX. The flow between the estimating, accounting, and other components is tremendous, and the navigation is smooth. All the tools of the trade are there. We can start small and gradually use more features as we need to and as we become more familiar with the solution. ProContractorMX is comprehensive, and we can grow with it.”

Fifteen years ago, getting detailed cost information to the field in time for decision-making was virtually impossible. Management was more hierarchical, with decisions flowing primarily from the top down. Today, via technical devices, information is available almost instantaneously. Organizations can become more flat (and more efficient) with decision based on high quality, accurate and timely information flowing through an efficient set of software communication and analysis tools. A foreman or project manager who can change the composition of a crew or address production rate issue at the end of the day rather than at the end of the week will be more effective. The result is lower cost more efficient companies with a competitive advantage. Companies expect software to connect the job site, safety officers, equipment managers, and other key areas to the main office in almost real time. This poses real challenges to software companies like HCSS, which has specialized in construction for 25 years and offers six software products and a fully integrated GPS and RFID solution that can put your company at a competitive advantage in the years ahead.

“HCSS, through extensive on-site field experience and utilizing the latest communication technologies, including cloud computing and web services, is able to help companies achieve operational efficiency,” explains Steve McGough, chief operating officer at HCSS. “Whether it’s calculating labor and equipment costs, tracking job-site information that includes diaries, time cards, and documents, to tracking where resources are, where they have been, where they need to be, the ability to compile and analyze information quickly has made companies much more productive, more efficient, more competitive, and ultimately more profitable.”

…And There Is More to Come
A most positive and encouraging note came to me from Wayne Newitts, marketing director at Dexter + Chaney. “The construction industry has always been accused of slow adoption of new technology,” comments Newitts. “In truth, our industry is often on the leading edge. Processing and communicating large volumes of complex information have always been at the heart of construction, from the building of the ancient pyramids to today’s huge infrastructure projects. Contractors have been using computers and specialized software since the 1970s. I know this because Dexter + Chaney has been developing software tools for the industry for the past 30 years. Over the past three decades, I have seen two major waves of change shift the technology landscape for contractors. The first was the advent of personal computing, the second was the emergence of mobile computing and communication. A third wave of change is headed to shore, and it’s shaping up to a big one. Web-based computing is coming, and it holds great promise for contractors who take advantage of it.

“You can’t easily see a very big wave in deep water as it makes its way to shore,” he continues. “But when it gets there and breaks, you can do one of two things: You can run from it, or you can ride it. A wave of Web-based—also known as cloud—computing is about to break. Those who choose to ride it will benefit from lower costs of technology ownership, faster communications, and better collaboration with clients and subcontractors. Those who run from this wave will eventually find themselves isolated, tied to proprietary systems that do not play well with the rest of the world and that continue to require them to make regular updates and upgrades. Web-based computing technology is not new, but because the wave hasn’t hit the shore—of construction—yet, not many companies have made their plans. Ask your software vendors if and how they plan to support you in this next large and inevitable shift in information technology. But be careful. As with most technologies, there will be pretenders. Some companies will try to pass off a remote access solution as the true cloud computing. Don’t get lost in the fog. Head for the cloud!”

The Version 10 of popular InSite Sitework includes 3-D Live, which provides a high-resolution 3-D model built from InSite’s TIN surface and allows estimators to see changes immediately in both 2-D and 3-D when adding or editing data. The instant feedback gives the estimators confidence that their takeoff will be precise and error-free. “One outstanding feature is the 3-D Live drive through,” advises Steve Warfle, product manager at InSite Software Inc. “You can take the simulated bulldozer for a drive through the site from the operator’s vantage point and see a level of detail previously unavailable. 3-D Live also offers the detail required when making GPS machine-control models with our Field General construction layout software.”

InSite Sitework eliminates your need for a digitizer by allowing takeoff from PDF and CAD files. This capability frees the estimator from the office and makes an employee productive anywhere a computer can be used. “We’ve had calls from estimators out at job-site trailers, home offices, bid rooms, and even sitting in their pickup trucks out at the job site,” notes Warfle. “Printed plan fees, plotter ink, and transportation can add up quickly for any contractor. Doing takeoffs digitally eliminates all that.” To allow large, complex takeoffs on computer screens, InSite Sitework supports dual windows and coordinated cursors. This lets the estimator see and trace detail with precision at a high zoom level, while still keeping perspective of the overall plan. This feature also aids alignment of plans and joining of adjacent sheets into the takeoff.

As we advance in 2011, what factors will drive technology initiatives forward for construction professionals? “Construction and infrastructure executives are adopting technology to differentiate themselves from the competition and to optimize their operations for the ‘new normal’ for the construction industry,” answers Sue Watkins, director of marketing at Meridian Systems, whose Prolog project management software has been praised for several years. “There is still great need to build and renovate infrastructure assets all over the world. There is a lot of industry consolidation going on and those acquiring companies must standardize on global systems in order to manage their business well. Construction companies are more willing now to invest in technology platforms that will allow them to implement project control systems but also allow them to integrate their project data to various other applications and computing devices. In 2011 we see the market advance farther down the technology adoption curve for Web services, where we are through the innovator phase of market adoption and now moving into the early adopter phase of the market.”

In that surge to differentiate themselves from their competitors, contractors are implementing technology that will improve their processes and business development capabilities. “If they can show project owners how they can provide them with real-time reporting or consistent, repeatable processes, and how they can support an owner’s latest technology initiatives (such as green building practices and BIM), they are better positioned to win the business,” says Watkins. “Meridian will continue to build out our offerings on Web services. We are in heavy investment mode! Meridian has always offered all our solutions in both on-premise and on-demand deployment models, and we will soon have some exciting news about cloud computing. Despite the economic downturn, construction of infrastructure is really developing into a global business with many ‘megaprojects’ going on around the world. Our technology has to keep up with not only the demands to build and renovate the regional and local infrastructure that supports our communities and states, but also with major infrastructure projects that will enable economic growth for future generations. Our leading technology companies are already developing the help we will need in future years. They are not temporary solutions, they are the foundation of future stability in our industry.”

The old fear that all technology is impossible to understand and run has faded beautifully in recent years. Version 2.2 of Business Center—HCE Powered by Trimble includes advances that make using, implementing, and learning the software both easier and more efficient. This desktop software is used by contractors to prepare data and designs for heavy and highway construction projects. In addition, Business Center—HCE manages data for machines and site positioning instruments, routes data to and from controllers and field crews, and tracks and analyzes site activity and productivity. Contractors can simplify the user interface by changing menu and toolbar layouts to make using and navigating the program easier and more efficient. The available layouts are Field Data, Data Prep, Takeoff, Construction, and Construction plus Survey. Improved Workflow Guides on this version can reduce the learning curve by guiding the user through typical workflows that include all the needed steps and commands in the right order.

Technologies Include Machines!
Technology is not always software and computer programs. Technology is the reason that today’s machines are better, so let’s not ignore the technological innovations offered in dozers, graders, excavators, and all those machines that work for us tirelessly in our everyday projects. Consider VitalTRAC from Gehl Co. It’s a preventative monitoring tool that can protect equipment owners from costly equipment downtime. “The VitalTRAC fluid analysis program helps to determine the root cause of an engine failure,” observes Michael Jerred, customer satisfaction manager for Gehl Co. “It may even prevent unnecessary installation of new parts on an engine that is likely to have those parts fail again. Even greater value can be achieved by consistently using this fluid analysis program to monitor and help extend the life of the engine and other equipment systems.” It is, therefore, a technology that can save lots of money. You may extend the machine and component life, optimize the fluid change intervals, get extra uptime during critical work periods, prevent equipment failure, and even increase the resale value of the machine.

Volvo Construction Equipment has a fine array of successful machines. At this time, I’d look beyond the booms and tracks and ask about the technology of simulators, where Volvo is a leader. Trained operators are essential to success and training simulators can provide the necessary instruction without many of the dangers. There is less risk for both personnel and machines when you use simulators rather than real life practice and you don’t get any of the normal distractions of training in a classroom. The learning operator is there, exactly as if it were a real job site, but he or she can make mistakes with no costly penalties and no damage. All kinds of situations are addressed—some of them situations that you do not want to fake in real, in-the-field conditions! Some of the peripheral costs that are eliminated with simulator training are those for fuel, damage, wear, and training supervisors. Weather does not affect simulated training, nor are you constrained by the availability of equipment (that could be working) or freedom of movement at a job site. Does it work? Tests have shown that students do learn faster for the first few hours of training when using simulation techniques rather than real machine operation, and the performance of each trainee is logged in the system so you can tell how an operator may succeed in production, fuel consumption, and other costs. Check with a manufacturer like Volvo for advice about and availability for simulator training. It’s another technology that can save you money—and show you employee strengths and weaknesses.

In a similar frame of mind, I would admire all the equipment presented by Caterpillar. Some of the machines offer new technologies (often hidden, so ask about them) that make performance and economy better than ever, but I would ask about Caterpillar’s Product Link Initiative. Delphi Corp. has supplied telematic transceivers to Caterpillar for construction machinery. The technology helps to connect work sites with a web application, using machine-to-machine (M2M) communications. With this technology you can track and manage machinery at remote sites. Caterpillar’s Product Link uses onboard systems to collect machine information and send data wirelessly from the machine to a web application that customers can access anywhere they have an Internet connection. Imagine how that can improve fleet management. “With telematics-equipped machinery, businesses can rapidly send and receive mission-critical data from the work site,” explains Tom Puza, marketing director of telematics at Delphi. “Users can manage maintenance, performance and the logistics of machinery remotely, saving time and money.” At Conexpo, Caterpillar will present a new telematics solution that builds on Cat Product Link. Additional hardware options enabled with cellular technology and a new user-friendly, web-based application with enhanced features and new capabilities will improve overall fleet management effectiveness. Look in the North Hall for a demonstration.

Last fall, Case introduced a complete update of its loader/backhoe product line, with four new N Series models. “Stronger everywhere” is how the new machines were described, with powerful increases in backhoe breakout force and lift, plus increased loader breakout force, lift, and reach. The new strength came, of course, from new technology. One user, Dennis Zentner of DRZ Contracting in Delta, British Columbia, says: “The 580SN WT backhoe performed well on grading, trenching, backfilling, heavy lifting, hole-patching, and rock-breaking. Its heavy-lifting ability is fantastic! It will save me from using an excavator for lifting.” The new models have Case’s Power Lift, which channels the hydraulic power directly to the boom with the touch of a button. As a result, the backhoe’s lifting capabilities can outperform similar, competitive machines by as much a 39%, with the engine still running at low RPMs.

The DX190W wheeled excavator was introduced by Doosan late last year, with features and benefits that may make it ideal for municipalities as well as contractors. How much technology makes this possible? The bolt-on design lets a dozer blade or outriggers be mounted on either end of the excavator. That blade can serve to level or backfill material, or it can stabilize the machine during operation. There’s a minimum of ground pressure, too, and the outriggers can be controlled individually to level your excavator on slopes. The DX190W has fully hydrostatic drive with a three-speed power shift transmission, and a top travel speed of 22.4 mph. Getting from one job to the next is possibly the most obvious benefit of this wheeled excavator, but consider the front-axle technology that gives wide oscillating and steering angles for transport but can be locked rigid for better performance in digging and lifting. An aspect of Doosan equipment which strikes me as an innovative technology of practical value to users is the 48-hour parts guarantee. It guarantees that if a “machine debilitating” part is needed, Doosan will deliver this part to the end user within two business days or Doosan will pay for a replacement machine rental.

Technology That Gives Direct Help
A perfect example of technology improving equipment performance could be the SP Technology from Leica Geosystems. “One small step to install, one giant leap for the contractors’ productivity,” is how Andre Ribeiro of Leica Geosystems describes this new technology for bulldozers. “It revolutionizes the way contractors move dirt and fine-grade. The innovative SP technology opens new opportunities for dozers, combining ease-of-use, unrivalled flexibility, and the highest precision at the fastest speeds available in the market. Contractors can now boost their productivity and performance even more while benefiting from new ways to use existing equipment.” Leica’s SP technology provides improved hydraulic control that allows faster grading with outstanding smoothness and precision at high speeds, dramatically increasing machine utilization and productivity. Bulldozers can now take on even more fine grading jobs, completing work with less in the way of heavy equipment onsite and helping contractors to finish their projects ahead of schedule and under budget.

By using inertial guidance with responsive hydraulic control, GPS performance is also significantly enhanced. “Machines equipped with SP technology reduce the need for rework and increase machine uptime during poor GPS/GLONASS coverage or temporary interruptions of correction signals,” explains Ribeiro. “This allows for consistent and precise grading even under the most difficult conditions.” SP technology is an available upgrade or option to the Leica PowerGrade platform. Along with the unique PowerSnap concept, which allows easy and quick exchange of machine control panels, customers can enjoy superior flexibility and speed. Contractors can simply upgrade from the 2D panel to a 3D panel as the job demands, or easily move panels between sites rather than losing time and money transporting machines. The cable-free snap-on/snap-off system is easy and convenient for operators, helping them work more efficiently, and now, with SP technology, this work is faster than ever before starting with the very first inch. “All dozers equipped with Leica PowerGrade and GPS can be easily updated to get the full benefit of the unique SP technology,” assures Ribeiro. “No additional complexity is added, compared with a regular control system, in regard to installation or operator usage. A simple sensor swap, upgrade of software, and recalibration of the machine, and SP technology is ready to go!”

It’s not a matter of will you or won’t you have good machine control eventually. It’s a matter of when. Simply put, as stated by Topcon Positioning Systems’ Ray O’Connor, president and chief executive officer, in a recent state-of-the-industry message: “If you are a contractor and you don’t have precise-positioning machine control or definite plans to get it in the near future, you will find it increasingly difficult to compete in a marketplace readily embracing this technology. Right now is the perfect time to invest in new technology.”

O’Connor tells us, without hesitation, that the companies with the best machine technology are able to tackle bigger jobs, save time and money, and drop more money quickly to the bottom line. “We’ve been through some tough times,” he says. “But those forward-thinking companies which invested in machine-control technology are finding out that technology is the difference between success and failure.”

O’Connor is emphatic that embracing revolutionary technology will be the difference in being competitive and trailing the competition—now and in the future. “Taking advantage of new technologies and making conscientious and researched investments in equipment and instruments when prices are affordable for almost any budget will be the difference in exponential growth and simply existing as the economy continues to get stronger.” Being successful is not just a matter of investing in “technology,” but making sure that technology helps manage time for optimal results. “It’s a simple business philosophy: Save time and you save money,” O’Connor says. “If you can buy construction technology that will enable a single dozer to do the work of two 3D machine control dozers and give you the accuracy and speed of a grader, would you jump at that opportunity?”

From Topcon, that innovation could be Topcon’s 3D-MC2, using the best hydraulic control software, inertial sensors, and the market’s best GNSS receivers. It is at work today at job sites around the world. This technology provides more than 100 blade corrections per second, five times the industry average. “That’s not science fiction. That’s science fact,” O’Connor says. “Invest in technology, and your chances of success rise exponentially. Miss the curve, and you are gambling your future.”