Summit Industries Improves Project Performance with Stingless Paving
In 2000, when Jacob Cunningham formed general contracting firm Summit Industries to build roads and install utilities, he understood the benefits a concrete paver could bring to the curb, gutter and sidewalk phases of their projects. So he made its use a key part of his operation, albeit initially on a subcontract basis, doing roads, sidewalks and curbs. However, when automated paving began to tap into the strengths of GPS, which he was already using for Summit’s survey and earth work, the Alabama contractor knew that a commitment to paver ownership was in order. Today, using a Power Curbers 5700-C Paver equipped with Topcon Millimeter GPS, he touts – and has proven – the impact that teaming the two technologies can bring to the paving component of any company.
Adding a Paver to the Fleet
The debut of paving machines in the 1930s was hailed as a milestone event that would redefine an industry. Over the next three-quarters of a century, paving equipment would continually evolve, becoming better, safer and more sophisticated. For most contractors, this meant the ability to replace a time-consuming, labor-intensive paving operation with one that was faster and infinitely more efficient. Doing a large amount of subdivision and commercial work, Cunningham, President and Owner of the Summerdale, Alabama-based company, knew a paver had a place in his work.
“I don’t make a major capital equipment purchase without first looking into it, seeing what options are available and examining how it will impact our business,” he said. “We did that with GPS before diving in to it back in 2011 and today we have a fleet of dozers, excavators and graders which utilize GNSS machine control technology and give us outstanding results. After researching the possibility of using GPS machine control technology to pour concrete curbs and sidewalks without using traditional string line methods, it appeared to be viable and I became very interested.”
Until recently, to meet his concrete paving needs, Cunningham said their subcontractor was forming up and pouring sidewalks conventionally and pouring curb using string line. He cited one particular shortcoming to the subcontractor approach.
“I don’t like our job schedules to be at the mercy of a subcontractor,” he said. “Regardless of how reliable a company might be, there are always times when you need them and their schedule doesn’t allow it. We operate in an area that averages 68 inches of rain annually. Since concrete pouring is very weather-sensitive, it can be costly to miss our ‘weather windows’ and get rained out, potentially causing weeks of delay on our projects. So we eventually purchased our own curb machine in 2005 which solved that problem for a while.”
Summit ran its own curber, with stringline, for about three years and was fairly successful in doing so. With the downturn of 2008, however, that all changed.
“We were fortunate enough to make it through the economic downturn without any layoffs,” he said. “We were able to diversify and keep busy until things could pick up again. However, we did decide to sell the curb machine since our workload did not allow our crew to stay steady and proficient. After that, we were once again subbing out curb work to the same company we did in the past. That seemed to be the way we would be doing things for the foreseeable future, until the last year when I started seeing what was developing with stringless paving.”
A Nice Match-Up
The development to which Cunningham alluded, was the successful teaming of paving technology with millimeter-grade GPS. Introduced by Topcon Positioning Systems, the company’s Millimeter GPS Paver System combines the benefits of GPS positioning technology with a zone laser reference to afford contractors like Summit an unparalleled level of freedom and productivity. According to Cunningham, the potential he saw in the approach was enough to make him re-think his position on paver ownership.
“Simply put, I would not have bought another curb machine were it not for the stringless capability this technology offered,” he said. “Since committing to Topcon GPS equipment through Earl Dudley & Associates several years back, we’ve been huge believers in what it could do for us. If we could get that same level of accuracy, speed and efficiency in our concrete paving operation, we saw it as a definite plus. Speed was the key attraction, from set up to finishing the job, but accuracy was also a significant benefit we anticipated. We now build our jobs, including curbs, from start to finish with GPS, so all our grades tie in perfectly on each phase of a project.”
In the past, he added, after their curb subcontractor would set the string line, there would occasionally be discrepancies between Summit’s grade work and the subcontractor’s string line, resulting in extra work, and oftentimes, additional material cost to match their string line.
“Now, because everything is built using the same GPS model, much of the risk of human error will be removed from the construction process,” said Cunningham.
With those goals in mind, Summit contacted Power Curbers, Inc. to secure its curbing machine of choice, a Model 5700-C. That decision was based both on the size and volume of jobs they typically encounter and those they envision for the future. During roughly the same time frame – working again through Dudley’s Birmingham branch – they purchased the Topcon Millimeter GPS system. Representatives from Topcon and Power Curbers then worked together to get key Summit personnel trained and the unit production-ready.
Great Out of the Gate
If Cunningham had any initial doubts about the impact a GPS paver could have on his operation, they were quickly dispelled on the first job they tackled: nearly a mile of curb work at a subdivision in nearby Daphne, Alabama. Despite the newness of the technology and a total lack of experience with automated curbing, Summit’s crew, working alongside Topcon and Power Curber representatives, did an impressive 2,100 feet of curb in two half-day sessions. Then, working alone on Day 3, they proceeded to pour 2,600 feet of curb without a single glitch. Cunningham said they were blown away by what they could do, adding that they now had the confidence they needed for their next job, a development called Firefly in which he had a special interest.
“This is a low density, low impact development that I own and am developing,” he said. “Unlike many subdivisions in this area, Firefly will only have 27 lots –ranging in size from one acre to 17 acres – on its 80 acre footprint. That approach has resulted in very little community opposition because of our focus on minimizing the impact on the area. The project includes about 3,000 feet of sidewalk and 6,000 feet of curb and gutter.”
To achieve the most effective coverage in support of the Topcon Millimeter GPS, Jeff McKenzie, Summit’s GPS Specialist, first established control, then using those points set the Topcon LZ-T5 Laser receivers at 500-foot intervals, thereby ensuring that the Power Curber was never more than 250 feet away from a receiver. The LZ-T5 uses zone-beam laser technology to continuously provide high accuracy elevation information, thereby ensuring the highest level of GNSS positioning.
“We actually found that range to be effective as far away as 350 feet,” said McKenzie. “But we wanted to err on the side of caution and it worked out well. We were getting tremendous production from the unit and accuracies were never in doubt.”
It’s often been said that numbers don’t lie and, by the completion of the sidewalk portion of the Firefly project, Cunningham had some impressive numbers to validate his purchase decision.
“There is a great deal of prep work that goes into getting an area ready for sidewalk, even one using a stringline-based curbing machine,” he said. “There is grading, staking, setting the string, and so on. Pouring sidewalk conventionally, without a machine and in the heat with which we’ve been dealing, our subcontractor generally averages about 300 to 400 feet a day. So this 3,000-foot section of sidewalk could have taken as long as two weeks. Instead, using the GPS-equipped Power Curber, we did it in just about three days. That is an impressive time savings that will allow us to move on to other projects quicker.”
Cunningham added that the level of support he received from all parties involved in their transition to the new paving approach proved invaluable.
“Everyone’s efforts were key, from Earl Dudley’s Brian Singleton, who put together our digital model; to Peter Henty the Field Service Technician from Power Curbers; to Topcon’s 3-D Application Specialist Dane Peters. These guys spent a few days with us to get us up to speed and the training was a success. Granted, we were helped significantly by our prior knowledge of GPS. But we had no experience at all running a curber, yet we came away from this feeling great about what we could now do. Implementing this technology will remove weeks from our job completion schedules over the course of a year – it’s turned our weakest area of performance into one of our strengths.”