With GNSS quickly becoming the de facto technology for efficient grading, layout, excavation, etc., the focus for many construction professionals is toward finding the best way to manage onsite assets and productivity. Companies for whom the volume of those assets is large, or the resources to manage them are minimal - or both - are looking for solutions designed to rein it all in and allow improved efficiencies and true control. For Dixie Construction, the need to do so was serious: on average the Maryland-based company can be found working 40 active projects at any given time, jobs which typically represent more than 14 pieces of iron at work. One person at Dixie is charged with heading up the entire GPS effort and after finding the ideal tool to provide the asset management solution needed, he says they are not only a more productive and responsive company, they are finding uses for the technology they never anticipated.
Anniversary is Golden
Based in Churchville, Maryland, with more than 300 employees working out of three locations, Dixie Construction is a force to be reckoned with in the four state area in which they work: Maryland, Delaware, Virginia, and Pennsylvania. Though avid proponents of GPS for about a decade now, the company only recently started looking for a tool to improve the project management effort, according to Lyle Ballou, the company's GPS Manager.
"We celebrated our 50th year in business in 2016 and the principals involved with Dixie have always been committed to staying abreast of new changes taking place in the industry," he said. "That's why we have more of a GPS edge than most and why we were so proactive in looking for this latest solution for on site management. I've been working with Topcon on this for a while, but when their Technology Roadshow came through Baltimore last year, it really opened my eyes and made me realize that this was where we needed to be."
The Driving Force
Because Dixie operates in such a broad geographical area and Ballou is the sole GPS manager, having accurate and effective remote access was one of their key demands from any new asset management solution. In the past, he said, a good deal of time and effort was expended driving to and from job sites for issues that largely could have been avoided.
"Here's a good case in point," he said. "If one of my operators calls in saying he's having an problem with his machine, I have one of two choices: either drive out to the site to resolve the issue, or try to talk him through it on the phone. Over the phone, however, that operator doesn't necessarily know what to look for, or might not fully understand what I'm saying. As a result, I can only lead him through so much before finally opting to drive out there and handle it in person."
In addition, he added, if changes were made to a job site design, there has really been no other choice for them but to load that new data onto a jump drive, go out to the site and manually download it.
"The new capability we were looking into would allow us to do all that from here in the office," he said. "So we knew we needed the benefits that a remote access system could provide and, based on what we saw at the Roadshow, knew that Topcon provided just such a system."
Valuable Demo Days
With that knowledge in hand, Dixie Construction secured a deal with the Topcon Solutions Store (formerly Mid-Atlantic Positioning Systems, LLC - M.A.P.S.) to demo the system they initially saw at the traveling seminars - a Sitelink3D system from Topcon - for 45 days. Though they were fairly certain about purchasing it outright, Ballou said the ability to try-then-buy was a nice luxury to have.
"This was an important component to add to our workflow and we knew it could really change the way we do things. We are extremely lucky to have had the help of Chris Eby and the team at the Topcon Solutions Store (TSS) to help us transition into the technology. We connected Sitelink3D with two of our dozers and starting looking at what it could do - the results impressed us right out of the gate."
Dixie had a pair of specific projects in mind for proving out the effectiveness of Sitelink3D: a site work job for a major snack foods distribution center and a combination closing/expansion for a regional landfill. At the landfill, Ballou says they immediately zeroed in on an area that they knew would prove beneficial.
"Sitelink has a feature in which a machine's pass count is indicated, with the progress of areas that are being graded represented through different colors. With that feature, I can look at the screen and see that, if my operator is doing good on his pass count, coverage is also good. If Sitelink3D was indicating different shades, we would know that there was a variance in grade which would need to be addressed. At the landfill, we saw an entire area indicated in green, showing him at a 1.8 feet below finished grade. Based on vertical datums supplied by onsite foreman, Mike Joines, we knew we needed to be at 1.8 feet to maintain a 2-foot cap on the slopes we were grading, so we were right on the mark."
TSS Sales Specialist Chris Eby said that, when Sitelink came out, Dixie Construction immediately came to mind as the perfect candidate for its strengths. "So many things lined up with Dixie's needs: their workload, their efforts to be more efficient in the investment that they have, the fact that Lyle has to visit so many places - it just made perfect sense for them."
By way of a quick overview, the technology Eby was presenting to Dixie, Sitelink3D, is an on site communication solution that affords users real-time data control, as well as machine tracking and reporting. Working through a user-friendly, secure internet link, Sitelink3D provides real-time visualization and communications including access to job site status, the ability to create new job-specific parameters (or update existing ones), and view the on site movement of machines, anytime, from anywhere. While all that capability is valued, Ballou said his needs for the technology can be reduced to very simple terms.
"I need to know that our equipment is moving and what they are doing at any given time," he said. "If I can quickly calculate what they did versus a previous day, I can identify any "˜red flags' and see what we can do to resolve the issue. Even if a person goes out to the project, once they get on site, there's no denying the old adage that "˜dirt is dirt.' This shows me so much more clearly what's been done, what needs to be done, how many passes have been made, where we are at with regard to different grades, etc."
As anticipated, at the conclusion of the 45-day trial, Dixie purchased Sitelink3D outright and shortly thereafter, found a unique use for its strengths. Ballou said they had a job on which a grade pole had broken and they needed to GPS-locate an abandoned, 20-foot-deep cistern that had been uncovered.
"The operator called me and asked if there was a way he could just take the dozer over to the cistern, position the blade, get a northing, easting and elevation, and give that data to the job superintendent. I started leading him through it on the phone then said: "˜I'm in my truck now; give me a few minutes to pull over.' I pulled it up on my laptop through Sitelink3D and could see right where he was on the job. I told him to put the right part of that blade over the cistern and he was able to quickly get those points. Now, they can cover that cistern up and navigate to it whenever its needed. To be able to do that remotely was not only a huge time savings, it also helped the operator learn how to perform that function better."
In addition to the 14 dozers Dixie has equipped with Topcon machine control, the company's crews also work extensively off Topcon Tesla field controllers. Ballou said that helping newer crew members use those tools to the max has also been simplified with the new system in place.
"Now if I have a person on the ground that's not sure how to do a site topo or offset a line, I can just say, "˜Click a point,' and I can remote in. I'll be able to click on a line, offset it, and stake out to the as-built point. And, because he's seeing what I'm doing, he's learning as well. In the past, I'd have to stop what I was doing and head to the jobsite impacting my workflow and costing us money. The Teslas are very popular with our crews. We are constantly rotating personnel because everyone wants to get their hands on those units."
In addition to Sitelink3D, Dixie Construction is also using MAGNET Office from Topcon to handle its pre-processing needs, for cleaning up CAD files they receive from engineers, etc.
"Not only does it open up many more files than our previous software, MAGNET Office also offers us a lot more capability," he said. "A good case in point: it has tools that allow us to offset a poly line to points for curb layout; something my guys can't do onsite. Because we utilize CAD line work for our stakeout, if there's a poly line there, we will just walk to the poly line and generate the data. And again, once that's done, with Sitelink3D I can just send it to the Tesla of one or more of my crew members."
When Dixie was at the three-month mark on the landfill project, Ballou said they had an instance in which Sitelink3D's value really became apparent. They were in the process of installing a clay liner, had sent out their as-builts and had just gotten word back from the engineering firm with the areas that had been approved for that liner.
"But my guys in the field at that time didn't know what areas had been approved and which ones hadn't. I drew line work off of a PDF plan sheet and sent it back out to them with instructions to stay within that specific area. Again, it was fast, it was efficient and it avoided any potentially costly errors."
He adds that, between the overall functionality he feels Sitelink3D provides, the ability to communicate directly with the machines and the operators and the huge reduction in both travel time and expenses, it's far exceeded their expectations.
"And we haven't even touched upon what it can fully do yet," he said. "Our formula for maximizing production here is to keep our machines in motion. To do that, I continually tell our operators that if they are ever uncertain of anything, they should contact me. In the past, that's meant me driving out to job sites - some of which are three hours away. For the most part, that's being largely eliminated; this could be one of the biggest, most impactful changes Dixie has seen in some time."
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