GNSS Technology Brings Huge Benefits to Smaller Contractors
For many years, the general impression among smaller earthmoving and grading contractors had been that GNSS technology and systems were solutions targeted solely to their much-larger competitors. The ability to tap those inherent benefits, they thought, was well beyond their reach. But time - and the persistent efforts of manufacturers and dealers of GNSS equipment - have shown them otherwise. For three South Carolina companies, making the switch to that technology has helped them greatly improve efficiency, reduce manpower costs and, in the process, become some of its staunchest proponents.
The tipping point at which contractors choose to make the switch to GNSS can be as varied as those contractors themselves. For BB Shirley Jr. Construction, a Camden, South Carolina-based company with specialties in grading, water line, sewer line, storm drainage, and more, it was a chance to finally rein in surveying costs. According to Owner Bubba Shirley Jr., however, it went further than simply monetary gains.
"We are a smaller firm and we've been using GPS in one form or another for a number of years now," he said. "Prior to that we were hiring a surveyor to come in and do all our survey work, a situation that was costly both in dollars and time spent waiting for them. We spoke with Arnold Pynion, the salesperson at our local Topcon dealer, purchased a Topcon base and rover and immediately saw the huge difference in being able to stake everything ourselves."
Because a surveyor had done all their staking for so long, they were admittedly a bit clueless at the outset, he said. "But Arnold was a big help during our learning curve and the more we used the system, the more independent we became."
Seeing the Payback
Going from a base and rover to machine control was another huge step for Shirley and his crew, but they completed that transition several years back and, despite some initial apprehension, have not looked back since.
"At first I was a bit hesitant about putting the system on my machines; I actually just used a Topcon HiPer II base and rover in conjunction with our dozers. I felt that my other operators and I ran the equipment well enough that we didn't need the automatics. But Roy Butler, who is now with Marietta, Georgia-based Roper Laser, helped us along and we slowly made the switch, first into an indicate-only system and then finally into a Topcon Hi Per V and 3D-MC2."
A residential development they completed clearly illustrates just how much of an impact machine control has had on their operation. By using it to set building pads, including all the rough-in, excavation and fine grading, what was previously a costly and time-consuming survey effort has essentially been eliminated.
"Doing three of those building pads alone justifies the time it takes to set up for using machine control," he said. "Survey costs out here would have been upwards of $12,000. We still had costs associated with the project, but I'm thinking we saved about $6,000; given that level of savings, the payback is obvious."
GPS Roars in Lexington
About the time that Shirley was realizing those savings, Scott Moore and his crew were laying down a 2-acre bus parking lot for a high school in Pelion, South Carolina. The owner of Carolina Contracting, a small, Lexington-based general contracting company, is also reaping the benefits of an investment he made in a machine control system for his John Deere 700H Dozer.
"We made the move to machine control largely because of Arnold's efforts with us," he said. "He showed us how it could be a perfect fit for the range and size of jobs we have. I discussed it with my father who is actively involved in the business and we pulled the trigger on the purchase of a Topcon HiPer receiver as well as 3D-MC2 for our dozer. We could not have made a better move."
On the job in Pelion, he said, they used GNSS to cut out the subgrade, put in their crushed rock, lay out the storm drain and construct a retention pond - all within a week. Done conventionally, he estimates that would have easily been a two- to three-week job, factoring in having to hire a surveyor to lay out the storm drain, to lay out the lot, do the inevitable re-staking, etc. He added that, because the GNSS solution allows his crew to know where they are at on the job at all times, if one of his men can't work in one area for some reason, he can just move them to another part of the job.
"We have that option at all times now," he said. "We don't have to wait for someone to come in and stake things out for us anymore - a move that can bring production to a halt, costing us both time and money. On a subdivision project, in less than a week and a half we did 2,500 linear feet of road from start to finish - we were just blown away by what we were able to do. A system like Topcon's 3D-MC2 is a decent-sized investment for a smaller company like ours to make. But I know that it paid for itself after just a couple jobs like that one. When they say something's "˜the cat's meow,' that's the cat right there."
While Bubba Shirley and Scott Moore have led smaller organizations all their professional lives, Walt Conder's company, Conder Construction, at one time boasted as many as 45 employees. Impacted by the realities of the economic downturn, it has slowly worked its way back up to 16 employees. However, largely because he made the switch to a GNSS-based solution, he is using that technology as something of a "Great Equalizer" in dealing with larger competitors.
"Better production is one of the biggest changes we've seen," he said. "We do a good deal of utility work and I can't tell you how many times in the past we'd have a whole crew just standing around waiting for a surveyor to come and verify something or pound a stake for us. Now we just take our HiPer V receiver and do it ourselves. In addition, because we don't have to rely on staking anymore - we've already done 100-acre sites without a single stake in the ground - it allows us to keep crew sizes down. That, of course, translates to reduced onsite costs."
Conder knows that, as a smaller firm, having multiple capabilities improves one's chances of landing bigger and better projects. The benefits Topcon's 3D-MC2 system bring them, he feels, have all but ensured that grading will rank high as one of those strengths.
"I don't know if I'd still be in the grading business if I didn't have machine control," he said. "Now, whenever we need to get grade, the technology puts the operator dead-on the first time, no questions asked. This business today is so competitive that you can't do things more than once - if you do it a second time, you're doing it for free. Even my CPA seems to see the value this can bring to an operation. They told me that many of their clients who are dirt contractors were going to precise machine control technology and said that if the technology can help us get a job done quicker and make a profit, it would definitely be a wise investment. I have to agree - I think, any smaller contractor would be foolish not to make the move."