Excavation’s New Era: Maps, Machines, Management

Sept. 29, 2016

From GX March/April 2016

If you’re having trouble keeping up with the marketplace for mapping and machine control, don’t feel bad. It’s evolving at a frantic pace, and the technologies keep getting more sophisticated. In fact, taking a walk through a trade show with displays from the major manufacturers can be staggering. So much so that you need a map just to find your way around a single booth! Nonetheless, this technology is the way of the future, and that’s why we’re bringing you our version of a map, complete with guideposts (industry experts) that can help you find the way to a profitable solution.

To start, let’s talk with Bruce Flora, PLS, Flora Surveying Associates, Glenns, VA. Flora has been a surveyor and consul­tant for the construction industry for more than 20 years, and the last 17 have been very busy helping contractors with mapping and machine control equipment. “The technology has grown rapidly,” says Flora, “but it’s only as powerful as the guy at the keyboard. We see that a lot of people need training, and I teach my customers how to do their job using software, so we look at their tasks and workflow, and how they can use software to do the job they did previously by hand.”

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Flora’s point about training is critical to your success with mapping and machine control software. All of our experts agreed that no matter the size of a contractor’s organization, it’s important to have a trained, full-time manager of mapping/digital technology on your staff. As a bonus, the new position can offer a career path promotion for somebody within the organization. For example, Ed Shappell, director technology solutions and services at Trimble, Broomfield, CO, notes that the future resource dedicated to owning the technology is often waiting in the wings. “Many times, we will see a survey manager become the data manager on a project,” says Shappell. Ultimately, they should be dedicated to being responsible for guiding the organization’s adoption of technology, managing projects, and staying on top of the changes in software and hardware.

So, before you buy, make sure you’ve filled the position of technology manager. Now comes the fun part—let’s get some advice on how to go shopping! “I do a lot of interviewing of customers to set up programs to help them grow as quick as possible,” says Flora. “As far as a type of product, we are hardware agnostic. The main thing is to make sure you have a good dealer, because, for those first one to three years, you’re going to depend heavily on the dealer to help get you through it. You’re buying a new technology, and if there’s a problem, it’s the dealer that can supply good backup, inventory parts, and troubleshooting people.”

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Is there a contractor on planet Earth that isn’t familiar with the need for backup, inventory, and troubleshooting? Those requirements are the foundation of any good dealership, according to Johan Larsson, general manager at SITECH Norcal, San Leandro,CA, an authorized Trimble Civil Engineering and Construction dealership. However, adopting mapping and machine control takes the contractor and dealer into entirely new territory, says Larsson. “The biggest thing for us is helping contractors change the process of doing construction. The process isn’t just getting the bid, it’s getting the data out to the field to complete the job. Now an estimating department that has been in charge of coming up with volume calculations and estimates for the job has to create a model that’s accurate enough to use in machine control.”

For many contractors new to the technology, creating a three-dimensional (3D) model can appear to be a daunting task. But manufacturers have been simplifying the process, and with so many global navigation satellite systems (GNSS) based surveying products on the market, it’s within the realm of most any contractor’s capabilities and budget. Moreover, for those contractors that want to take advantage of the benefits from cutting edge technology, there’s the new wave of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) products. Call them UAVs, or call them “drones”—these systems make it possible to accurately survey hundreds of acres in less than an hour. We’ll talk more about them later, but the critical point here is that even if the project bid materials include survey data, it’s risky to use the data for estimating and project execution.

According to Flora, before you develop a bid, the first thing you should do is go to the site, check the control point (the surveyor’s marker), and do a topographic survey. “One of my contractor customers went out and did a survey and checked it against the plans, and found it would cost $60,000 more to follow

the plan that was supplied, because it was wrong. On a 50- to 60-acre site, a couple of inches floating around can equal a lot of money. On a project for high occupancy transit lanes from Washington DC down to Fredericksburg, Virginia, my customer was doing the stone, and another contractor was doing the paving, and if they would’ve followed the plans, they would have been $100,000 apart in cost.”

Steve Warfle, product manager, InSite Software Inc., agrees, adding, “In the dirt industry a big challenge is the quality of the topo data. If there’s a new project such as a high school or strip mall, for the grading portion of it the contractor gets topo maps with basic information. But sometimes they aren’t accurate because they came from historical data or an aerial. So contractors need to get an accurate topo because these commercial projects are typically done as a lump sum, and if you win the bid, regardless of whether there’s more or less quantity, that’s the amount you get paid. Manufacturers such as Topcon, Leica, and Trimble allow a contractor to survey and do data collection by walking the site with a GPS rover or robotic station, or automate it with a system on a vehicle. The technology gives you a very accurate topo of the job site.”

InSite’s product takes that data and imports it directly, so you minimize your risk by having an accurate topo, and you can generate as-built quantities. In some cases in development you may have the need to quantify the portion of the job you’ve already done. So you might want to do as built quantities by shooting a secondary topo and comparing. “Our software allows you to take that data and generate quantities,” says Warfle, “and that’s why our customers use that component of our software. Reducing risk is what it comes down to.”

With all the power of the InSite system, it may look like a heavy investment in learning time, but don’t worry, you can learn it at your own pace—online, and quickly. InSite moved all of their training classes online to fit the estimators’ schedule rather than forcing them to travel and leave the office for training. The beginner class runs about five hours and then additional classes run about two hours per segment. “We can even log into their machine and take over their mouse to show them exactly how to accomplish a task on their job,” says Warfle.

InSite makes an add-on component to export the takeoff file directly to a machine control system. “We support all manufacturers so you can take that information and add detail that the model needs and take it to the field and start grading,” says Warfle. “One of the things we find is that end-users are overwhelmed by the data component, but that’s what our Field General software and training is for. It lets them prepare the data correctly.”

Before we leave the topic of collecting accurate data, let’s take a closer look at surveying. There are many manufacturers, such as Topcon, Leica, Carlson, and Trimble, that offer surveying hardware and software suites. These software suites are very powerful tools. For example, let’s look at Carlson SurveyGNSS, Maysville, KY. The company’s latest software is designed for simple, yet powerful data post-processing. It works with Carlson SurvCE and SurvPC data collection software, and with Carlson’s office design software. Features include the ability to determine candidate vectors for simultaneous calculation, instead of one-by-one, so users will be able to start another task while SurveyGNSS is still working on a computation. Constellation and reference networks are critical to a survey’s accuracy. SurveyGNSS supports the International GNSS Service [IGS] and 10 other satellite networks.

Alphatec Surveyors LTD, Chesapeake, VA, uses Carlson Point Cloud, with their UAV, plus Carlson Takeoff, and Carlson Civil Suite, to create automated machine guidance files. The files are converted with Carlson CADnet to paper files received from engineering firms. Carlson products are used for projects including property lines, boundary lines, topogra­phic, hydrographic, geodetic land surveying, and construction stakeouts, in addition to the creation of automated machine guidance files.

Credit: Topcon
Topcon’s Falcon

Bidding Accuracy Reduces Risk
No matter the surveying system, the bottom line is still developing a bid, and according to Justin Smith, application specialist with Roctek, over the last three years, the industry is saving time and money thanks to significant advances in software productivity. “We handle cut and fill takeoffs and in the past, it took weeks for somebody to look at a set of plans and figure out how much would it take to do the job by hand. But now, thanks to PDF and CAD vector importing, it’s much faster, and in some cases the size of the job isn’t really a factor. There are $100 million sites that I can take off faster than a gas station.”

For sitework cut and fill, Roctek’s WinEx Grade and WinEx Master utilize a high-density grid to yield precise quantities for site development. For structural estimating, Roctek’s SOFTScale and SOFTScale LT offer cutting edge routines. For road takeoffs, RoadEx is a station-based cross-sectional excavation takeoff program. Roctek’s products combine the digitizer, on screen, and Vector PDF/CAD capabilities and functions into a single, seamless platform.

We talked earlier about the importance of training, and Smith notes that, “as long as you know about cut and fill, and how to read plans, you shouldn’t need more than a week tops to learn the software, at your own pace, by one-on-one online classes, or onsite training. In fact, about half of our users are bidding real jobs within the first three days.” Once learned, users quickly see the reduction in time and labor, and equally important, the reduction in risk. “When you can reduce the risk you can take bigger jobs. A large percentage of our prospective customers could have taken bigger jobs than they were doing before they started using our software, but they were not confident enough to bid out those larger jobs, because if you’re 10% off on a small job, it is not critical. But if you’re 10% wrong on a million dollar job, it could tank the company or at least make it harder to win bids in the future. So having software that allows you to verify your numbers allows you to bid larger jobs confidently, quickly, and accurately. Now you’re upping your contract bid rate and win rate significantly. For most contractors, double or triple their bid rate and double or triple their win rate adds up fast.”

Roctek’s software creates data in a number of formats for estimating, but in order to grade what you bid you will need to take the same data to the next phase for modeling. In order to export your 3D model to machine control systems, Roctek’s WinEx Master uses the industry standard LandXML file format along with other options such as point clouds.

Even though the model data is in the LAS file format, for many, it’s still new technology, and the additional task places more emphasis on the office side of the process. If your organization isn’t prepared, getting the data out to the field can be daunting. Moreover, what happens when you have change orders? “You need a communications loop between the field and the office,” says Larsson. “When updates are made to the model they must get to the field in a timely manner to take advantage of the 3D machine control. Historically, the contractor will bid a job and then when there’s a change order onsite, or the design doesn’t work, they would deal with it the old-fashioned way, and do a field fit. But if you’re relying on machine control, that model needs to be updated, and that has to be communicated to the office or the model builder and it has return in a timely fashion so it doesn’t hold up production on the job. We have customers that are relying on the technology, and they estimate the job and bid the job, and if they can’t use that technology it will have an impact on the profitability of the job. Trimble Business Center bridges the gap between the office and the field and it has an estimating tool for bidding. If you get the job it allows you to turn that estimating model into a finished grade model and send it right out to the field.”

Now, if all that talk about model making and office to field communications still sounds daunting, don’t worry, manufacturers are more than ready to show you the ropes. For example, you could call your region’s Trimble SITECH today, and arrange a hands-on demonstration. “SITECHS are regional experts and a lot of them have simulators,” says Ed Shappell, director of technology solutions and services with Trimble. “They have events for customers so they can get experience on machine control, and look at the business center and the software package. And also, the process of managing the design data and asset data of the machine. A contractor can see a demonstration of our Trimble Connected Community—that’s how we move data files wirelessly or via a cellular from the machine to the office. So dealers are the local support team. Also, we have implemented a new learning management system and we have videos out there for some of our solutions. But if you need anything from a training situation check first with the SITECH.”

As long as we’re on the subject of product demonstrations, let’s talk about another option. How about an actual pilot project using the industry’s latest cutting edge technology? You guessed it—UAVs. Why would you want to use a UAV? According to DaveHenderson, director of sales, Geospatial Solutions, Topcon, Livermore, CA: accuracy, lower cost, and a host of other benefits.

Topcon offers a fixed wing UAV, the Sirius Pro, and the AscTec Falcon 8 rotary-wing model, with GeoEXPERT and the InspectionPRO sensing and feature packages. “We recently introduced the Falcon quadcopter UAV,” says Henderson. “So based on the application, our customers can use specific payloads such as for digital elevation models, ortho-mosaics, construction progress monitoring, or infrastructure inspection. So it’s a matter of getting the customer the right product for their application and something they can grow within the future.”

The Sirius Pro UAV establishes accuracy with the site’s coordinates by real-time kinematic (RTK) satellite navigation, a technique used to enhance the precision of position data derived from GNSS. Topcon offers Agisoft post-processing software to produce data files such as a LAS, and also, GeoTIFF (a metadata standard which allows georeferencing information to be embedded within a TIFF file. Useful metadata can include map projection, coordinate systems, ellipsoids, datums, and everything else necessary to establish the exact spatial reference for the file).

“The LAS format is an industry standard file for photogrammetry,” explains Henderson. “It’s just like laser scanning, and it shares the same file format, so now there’s an industry standard that contractors are accustomed to when they use software projects to get their deliverable. After processing the data you have the photos that are stitched together and from those you can generate digital elevation in a LAS format, and any software such as an Autodesk or most any CAD package out there can view it, so you can see what you’re changing.”

Deploying a UAV to record the phases of a project’s lifecycle offers a critical benefit, because the photos provide documentation that can reduce liability and risk. “It depends on the project,” says Henderson. “You could have problems down the road and you could look back at earlier photos and have supporting documentation. So if somebody’s property was damaged, or a structure was torn down, you could look back at the documentation and see what was there before, during, and afterwards, to confirm your activities on the project. This can reduce claims and support the construction process.”

Moreover, the data can facilitate easier deliverables for the as-built phase. They provide accurate elevation models and the photos support the documentation. “We refer to this product as mass data collection,” says Henderson. “Whether it’s a UAV, vehicle mobile scanning, or tripod mounted scanning, we’re gathering a large amount of data and distilling it down for a particular purpose, then archiving it so that somebody can go back and extract further information as needed. So mass data collection becomes a continuous representation of reality. Just think about this during a project, you are continuously representing reality as it changes, and dynamically distributing it to managers, developers, and engineers, and anybody else involved. It’s a massive amount of data, yet it’s available in a very short period of time, and people can make critical decisions throughout the construction phase.”

The ability to review data collecting in near real time could change the way projects are done, because it’s now possible to move the data to the cloud, and then disperse it to everybody on a project, and the machines for machine control. “We would convert the LAS file to a digital terrain model and a specific format or digital elevation model that would be used for machine control purposes,” says Henderson. “It’s all in the Topcon universe, but we also have the ability to create file formats for contractors that are on different systems.”

Ultimately, this technology covers all phases of a project, from pre-bid planning to machine control, and before and after work inspections. The Falcon 8 UAV can fly slow and loiter. With various payloads, it can be used during the construction inspection process on grid sections, infrastructure inspections, or building inspections in areas that are hard to reach. Then too, it can reduce risks where the contractor sees safety concerns. “Think about the process,” says Henderson. “As it stands right now, people are out there on harnesses and bucket trucks and this can eliminate those and get the right documentation. This is the way to do jobs. Contractors are trying to keep their margins the same, but shrink their operating costs. If they can get more information about theproject up front, then they have an upper hand in competing. Information is power.”

As we’ve seen, information is power—when it’s harnessed with today’s mapping and machine control software and hardware. Even though it’s cutting edge technology, manufacturers have made it easy to learn and operate. Moreover, it’s an investment that boosts profits while reducing risk. All of the companies that contributed to this article provide free demonstrations and consultations. Is it time to take a closer look?