Taking a New Approach

June 6, 2012

The expression, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” refers to the idea that any attempt to improve something that already works well is pointless and may even be detrimental. Many established construction contractors abide by this idiom. After all, if they’ve been successfully making money for 15, 20, 30 years or longer, what is there to change?

Plenty, according to Delta Construction of Oahu, HI. Established in 1978, the 30-plus-year-old company has changed its approach to its business, resulting in dramatic savings.

“We formed a new Survey and GPS Department to implement GPS machine control throughout the company,” states J.R. Chambliss, GPS survey manager for Delta Construction. “Since we’ve implemented Trimble technology, we’ve saved the company at least 90% of our outside survey costs alone.”

When new jobs come in, a “SWAT team” is formed to collect the site data, create a 3D digital model, and match the right GPS-guided machines for the job.

“This is a whole different business approach which departs tremendously from what we’ve done in the past.” Chambliss says. “The introduction of Trimble technology to our company is allowing us to conduct our business
differently…and better.”

Chambliss has been the internal champion for the GPS grade-control systems. “I had owned a construction company for seven years in Colorado.
At that time, machine-control technology was in its infant state. We kept taking my company to the next level as the technology matured.”

Photos: Trimble
Delta’s heavy-equipment fleet includes a mix of approximately two-dozen scrapers and largesize dozers needed for the rocky Hawaiian terrain.

When Chambliss joined Delta Construction in 2008, he noticed that the company had a couple of Trimble systems but they were not being used. “I knew the kind of productivity increases and cost savings we achieved with my small company using Trimble systems on every project we could, so I could see tremendous potential at Delta-we have one of the largest equipment fleets in Hawaii, and the work to use it.” Delta’s heavy-equipment fleet includes a mix of approximately two-dozen scrapers and large-size dozers needed for the rocky Hawaiian terrain.

Chambliss continues: “We can really make this beneficial for Delta. With a company this size, the savings dollar amounts add up fast. If you’re a small company and you have one job and can save a couple hundred thousand dollars on a job, that’s huge. But with a company of Delta’s size, if we continue to control costs on multiple jobs, by the end of the year, we’re saving in the millions of dollars.”

Because Chambliss had equipment technology experience and understood the potential of the systems, he became the advocate for it. “Initially there was resistance to using the 3D machine control because it wasn’t fully understood,” says Chambliss. “I know when I came on board that I became very pushy about implementing the technology, but I knew from past experience that it could help us be more productive, save money, and achieve the quality results that our reputation has been built on.”

Chambliss persisted with his management team and was given the opportunity to develop a program that “not only takes care of our work, but ensures that we don’t have
mistakes.” As the successes piled up, Delta Construction has seen many of its managers and workers shift from being unbelievers in construction technology to true believers. The goal now is to fully incorporate construction technology into its fleet and practice. The company’s business approach has pivoted completely.

Chambliss heads up a department whose sole responsibility is to be working with the approximately 10 Delta project superintendents at each work site to implement, monitor, and document the results from the GPS grade control systems. “We’re involved with each job from day one. We need to be,” Chambliss states.

The Trimble construction technology helps create a stronger sense of “ownership” of the project and performance accountability. “We have project superintendents who have been working for this company 20 and 30 years who are being asked to help change the way the company does construction,” says Chambliss. “We’re also adjusting our manpower needs. We’re changing the way we traditionally survey. And we’re changing how they traditionally manage their material. For some, that’s been a big challenge-because we now have the ability to look over their shoulder and track material use. Previously, the site engineers would track their quantities and, unfortunately, have to deal with the outcome-good or bad. Now we can help them easily and quickly perform topos and check production daily if needed. Changes can be recommended to prevent material overruns-or underruns-before they become a costly issue. The costs are in materials, as well as in the trucking. “

It is hard to place dollar savings on production costs. “I do know,” Chambliss says, “that we have a high-quality product with little overrun on materials, virtually no rework, and we’ve made our workers more efficient.”

“Labor costs here on the islands can be one of our biggest expenses on a job,” states Chambliss. “Wages are higher than the mainland, because it costs us more to live here-from the price of candy bars to TVs to pickups. Therefore, when we bid a construction project, the cost of labor can be quite significant. In Hawaii, labor costs can be more than equipment and more than our fuel, so if we have the opportunity to reallocate workers to other jobs without sacrificing productivity and quality, we’ll do it.”

Chambliss continues, “If we buy a new Trimble system, a whole setup for a machine, we will recoup the investment within the first year if we count nothing more than the ability to allocate personnel required for the job to other tasks,” Chambliss says. “Plus-if you toss in reduced survey costs because a GPS-guided machine doesn’t need it and we’ve eliminated overruns of very costly materials and add in the very real, but difficult to document, savings we achieve through better quality, no rework, and faster completion-it becomes a “˜no-brainer’ purchase.”

Delta Construction has shifted the way it conducts business, and they also found a way to survive… even thrive during the economic downturn. “The Trimble technology is helping us bid more accurately, win the jobs, and manage them more profitably,” Chambliss concludes. “By changing the way we do business, we’re fighting smarter for the fewer projects available in this economy. We are definitely further ahead than if we hadn’t changed.”