The Future Is Here: The Digital Job Site
Digital technology lets you
do what you’ve always
done, more accurately and
cost effectively, while adding
tasks that were once beyond
Five years ago contractors might have thought digital terrain mapping, 3D machine control and computerized data management were too far down the pike to be bothered with, and in any case would divert time and money from the real business of moving dirt. But technology and the software that makes it sing have continued their relentless march across the landscape.
In case you have any doubts, technology now exists that enables you to cut a swath from site assessment through project management and performance evaluation and onward into billing without generating a single piece of paper. And except for fingers on a keyboard, the data that make this possible remain largely untouched by human hands.
The electronic generation, transmission, manipulation, and interpretation of data generated on construction sites holds immense promise for you to increase productivity, improve job performance, and more effectively manage your assets The objective is to standardize best management practices and amass knowledge and expertise that can be leveraged across an organization, and in the process generate a database that allows more accurate cost projections and improved financial results.
And while it may seem contradictory, manufacturers and suppliers agree a critical fallout of paperless digital technology is how it puts people (yes, people) front and center by bringing all employees into the loop and providing each the wherewithal to make informed decisions about their piece, thereby enhancing job satisfaction and identification with the organization’s goals.
Leica’s ScanStation C10 combines all-in-one portability with the ability to traverse, resection, or use scan targets.
Bryan Brady, application specialist at Caterpillar, thinks the path down which the industry is headed is not only to provide project personnel with the appropriate data to do their jobs, but also to have this information come to them automatically without a lot of legwork. Brady sees large contractors already importing job-site data into existing ERP and in-house project management systems where as many as 15 people may use bits and pieces of the information, including engineers and surveyors, job-site foremen, personnel in estimating, fueling, and transportation logistics and accountants on the billing and tax side, not to mention the guys in quality control and assurance.
The good news is that contractors don’t have to jump in on such an oceanic scale to make this work. “Smaller companies may be more interested in productivity as opposed to asset management,” says Brady, “because they’re not working on multiple projects simultaneously and don’t have a large fleet. In fact, with telematics [such as Caterpillar’s Product Link], contractors can take advantage of data-feed capabilities to bring raw data into a system they are already using without employing the Web-based tool designed for asset tracking.”
According to machine-control product manager Rich Calvird, Leica Geosystems wants to make it possible for all the major players to see the entire job rather than be boxed in at one phase, and to do this by “providing the tools that give contractors not only the big picture but also the complete job cycle so everyone, not only the engineer, can understand it.
“We know our customers buy this equipment not to complicate their lives but to save money and make their lives better. Our aim is to blend in with their existing operations, mesh our product with their business practices and ensure that what we do generates payback directly without adding overhead. What this means is a system that is not just focused on generating data but also solving problems.
Steve McGough, chief operating officer with HCSS, wants to make contractors more efficient by relieving them of multiple data entry and making whatever data is generated “transparent” across an organization. “The more information you can get to the people who are actually doing the work, the more you have them thinking about your business, and the better business you’re going to have.”
More About Why
For their part, technology manufacturers can hardly contain their enthusiasm for this new digital world. “We’re headed for 100% integration,” says Tony Vanneman, construction products marketing manager for Topcon Positioning Systems, which has brought SiteWork machine control and Tierra asset management technology to the table. “Topcon wants to make it simple, providing products from field to finish—total stations, imaging stations, GNSS receivers, field controllers—all brought to you by the power of the latest software technology.” But Vanneman warns that now’s the time to jump on the bandwagon—or risk being left behind. “There is a window of opportunity for contractors who use these tools. But the markets are going to mature. So contractors who get in early have a chance to be much more profitable.”
At Loiselle & Fréres, based in Salaberry-de-Valleyfield, Quebec, Patrick Loiselle gives this idea more teeth. The company, which does civil work, highway construction, and environmental remediation projects, has been using GPS machine control for five years (Cat’s AccuGrade and also Trimble systems). “I know the construction business is a very conservative business and people don’t want things to change very fast,” says Loiselle, “but right now we have a system that gives us the ability to take us to another level.”
Trimble is in on the momentum with its Connected Jobsite and Connected Community, which makes it possible to build information portals, share information, and collaborate between head office management, site office teams, field crews, engineers subcontractors, suppliers, and clients.
In the Beginning
Randy Noland, vice president of business development and marketing for positioning and machine control at Carlson Software, sees the ability to do digital takeoffs as “an absolute critical step” in developing the digital job site. Not the least because it provides more than a takeoff. Prebid topos? Absolutely, says Vanneman. “You can go out there and topo the site to verify the quantities are what the engineering firm says they’re supposed to be.” And with takeoff software like Carlson’s and InSite’s, which can import CAD files, contractors have the opportunity to proceed from takeoff to layout and even onward into machine control, something Vanneman thinks the industry is going to see a lot more of.
At the capture end, Leica Airborne LiDAR project manager Ron Roth describes scanning technology capable of 200,000 topic measurements per second with a precision of 5 centimeters or better, which top-of-the-line technology contractors can use to verify existing terrain and establish preexisting conditions. “Besides the specifics of the local topography, Airborne LiDAR also provides the context,” says Roth. “This enables you to create a digital model of what’s there now and forecast the effect your project will have on its surroundings, which might include such factors as runoff.” But visualization is only the first step. “Now that you know what the terrain looks like, you can take a look at what it would mean in terms of cut-and-fill to do something like wrap a roadway around a hillside. This three-dimensional representation can be imported into a CAD system, and the design data in turn can ultimately end up in a machine control file.”
One significant feature of Topcon’s GX-60 is built-in integrated cellular and digital radio technology.
Before he joined Lecia as scanning product marketing manager, former surveyor Mike Harvey used laser scanning to “enrich” job proposal packages, visiting a site for a quick scan, then including images and potentially dimensions in the proposal. “A pretty dense scan, which is 8 million points, takes only six minutes, plus 10 minutes to set it up and break it down.” To help make this information usable, Leica offers TruView, a free attachment to Internet Explorer that gives anyone with access the opportunity to view the scanned image and point cloud of a site, take rudimentary dimensions, make mock-ups and add comments, all of which are stored at a central site, making for a practical collaborative tool.
The RLS Group LLC, surveyors in Hixson, TN, uses stationary scanners to do onsite certifications for pads and roadways for contractors and at sites where tolerances are high, such as airports. Owner Shane Loyd thinks newly available mobile scanning will be important in the future, in particular for contractors doing DOT work. “You can basically drive the site in a few days and then process the data to verify cross-sections.”
Murray Lodge, Topcon’s vice president of construction sales, goes further. “Think if you could incorporate this technology into a machine. The cost would be prohibitive out of the factory, but if the machine comes ready for it, you could plug it in through a CAN interface. Then you could use it to help monitor your position if you’re working inside a building or in places where you can’t get a satellite. You could also use laser scanning for real time inspection of a surface you’ve just graded. The advantage is you would have not only 3D data but also pictures to help you envision what the site looks like.”
“The big money is made when you engage the automatics,” says Vanneman. “You’re going to be able to reduce your rough-grading costs, slash your finish-grading costs, and place your materials more accurately and consistently. Being able to control the material spec in the contractor’s favor is a huge advantage. You’re making a lot fewer passes to get on grade. And if you’ve got to put half a foot of rock on a 100,000-square-foot project and the spec is a tenth of a foot, and you can cut that spec in half in your favor, that’s a lot less material you have to buy and place.
“We’re also getting to the point where contractors are going to be able to monitor the type of material they’re moving. They can go out and topo the site, get the borings from the engineers and then determine what the volumes of those different kinds of materials are going to be. So if I notice a dozer’s productivity is down 20% but then see it’s working in clay, I understand. And if my next job includes 40% clay, I know my productivity is going to go down X percent, and I can bid it accordingly.”
And because all this data feeds from the machine back to a central location, you get a heads-up on where the problems are. Do you need more equipment on the job site? Maybe you don’t need those extra machines you rented. And because you have the ability to monitor the amount of material cut or placed in a section and so can determine how much material you’ve moved that day or week, you can track where you are versus your bid.
As Loiselle puts it, “It’s better for us because we’ll have less competition, and in the end I’m pretty sure the client will win.”
“The ability to react to changes is one big thing we see,” says Calvird, “and being able to monitor what’s going on with the work, which means giving the engineer and the office staff eyes in the field. This also helps build relationships between contractors and engineers. Breaking down barriers is another thing we see a lot.”
Leica utilizes the workhorses of the digital world, GPS and wireless technology, to give the engineer and the office staff field data in real time. “We present the machine operator a numeric display plus a very concise map-type display that allows him to see where he is on the site and get the data from the machine to the office and back. If he finds himself working in an area where what’s on the ground doesn’t match what’s on the screen, he can talk to the engineer, who can see where he’s at on the site and might ask him to drive it. With the data coming back from the machine, the engineer can confirm the difference and give the operator guidance, or send him a revised plan.”
“After you estimate the job in the office,” says HCSS’s McGough, “our software sends the budget information over to our Heavy Job product for the field and also to the contractor’s accounting system. This gives a contractor the ability to check right then, that day, on the job site if a foreman is working on a particular cost code. Let’s say he lays 300 feet of pipe, he can see exactly how that compares to what he should have done given his makeup and crew—and whether he’s earning or losing money. The foreman, in turn, has the ability to go in and run what-if scenarios. For example, what if he changed his crew makeup? The idea is to put that information in the hands of a knowledgeable worker so he has the decision-making ability to help himself.”
Quality Control and Assurance
Brady sees regulatory and governmental bodies also looking to digital technology to verify production as well as requiring historical records as proof of how a project is built. “Globally we’re starting to see more of a push for using machine control to document every part of road building, from the subgrade work to building the base and the finals all the way through to paving.” At Topcon, Vanneman points out that this ability to document work also helps contractors receiving interval payments because they can prove they’ve moved what the contract specified. Likewise, the capability to document what you’ve done is useful when you’re operating machines remotely on remediation sites, or the opposite, to inform you when a machine gets into an area where it’s not supposed to be, such as a wetland. These are data you may end up needing for insurance purposes.
Contractors can take advantage of the wireless exchange of electronic information for fleet monitoring and tracking machine conditions to planning maintenance, tracking planned maintenance issues, and checking hour escalation, location information, and utilization. These data, assembled at a Web site, help make decisions that in managing assets and operating costs.
On the other hand, if housing data at a centralized site is not the way a contractor wants to go, HCSS has an alternative. “We have a Web portal where you can go look at the information, but the beauty of our system is that we take information such as meter reading hours that you’re using for equipment maintenance and post that data not only into The Dispatcher but also into our FuelerPlus product and our Equipment360 product,” says McGough. “The contractor doesn’t have to go to a Web site and print a report with data that he then has to enter somewhere else, such as his accounting system.
“What contractors have to look at when they’re faced with all these data feeds is what’s important to them-what they can make business decisions about and what’s out of their control-so they are not distracted when there are no proactive steps they can take to make something better.”
McGough cites as another example of the application of asset management technology a client who is using third-party trucks to haul asphalt and had installed GPS units on the vehicles. “We used our software to establish a geofence that marked each end of the commute from the asphalt plant to the job site. This made it possible for them to use the time the truckers are coming and going for payroll. From there, it gets into the business application. Maybe one truck drops an asphalt load at the paver at the end of the day and then goes back to the asphalt plant. If you’ve hired him by the hour, you’re paying him to do that. You may also have people who are rounding their hours. Using GPS to keep track stops this kind of thing.”
Forget about lasers and GPS,” says Calvird, “ concentrate on what you’re trying to do, how your operation works, the type of machines you use and what you consider your biggest problems.” Murray likewise recommends “walking before you run—determine your hot points, your limitations and areas in the organization where you’re not being as productive as you want to be or are potentially losing money, and focus on these.”
At Cat, Brady recommends machine control over asset management as the initial piece of a digital operation because given potential productivity and efficiency gains, even smaller businesses will see a rapid return on investment. The reasoning behind this is the ability to easily implement this solution on the job site. The telematics solution requires someone to understand and interpret this data for the contractors. While some will be progressive enough to do this, many are sticking to older methods.
On the other hand Mark Moldenhauer, president of Moldenhauer Landscape Inc., a landscaping and excavation contractor in Chapel Hill, NC, did just the opposite, installing Product Link on his mixed fleet of Cat, John Deere, Hyundai, and Ingersoll Rand machines, including two excavators, a dozer, and a vibratory roller. Moldenhauer’s Cat dealer uses the technology to schedule maintenance and monitor vital signs to head off problems. “My mechanic was overwhelmed, and I couldn’t afford to put on another full-time position, so I let Caterpillar take it over for me. It’s worry free, saves money on maintenance, helps increase the longevity of the machines, and improves resale because the dealer has all the maintenance records.” It also helped Moldenhauer when his bulldozer went missing. “It’s embarrassing to lose track of a piece of equipment, but I called the dealer and they told me exactly where I would find it, which turned out to be my landfill. It was parked behind a big dirt pile.” Next up is Cat’s AccuGrade, which Moldenhauer expects will help bring down labor costs.
Vanneman says he finds most contractors initially invest in machine control with a base station, survey rover and one machine, usually a motor grader or dozer and add on from there.” Because Loiselle & Fréres finds excavators versatile for the work it does, it was the first to be equipped with machine control. “I know that it will pay for itself on a bulldozer,” says Loiselle, “but I always have in my mind that if I can make it work with an excavator, the system will pay for itself.”
Loiselle says he’s interested in Topcon’s new 3D MC2, but figures he’s too far along with AccuGrade and Trimble. Herein lies one of the challenges of today’s digital world. Brady describes the current situation as “piecemeal—there are probably contractors out there using different pieces of different products very well, but they haven’t figured out how to put everything together. They may be really good at using the data they get off the machine-control side to make their job a lot easier, but they’re disconnected from the telematics, such as knowing the health of their assets and being able to effectively get maintenance and productivity information they could use out of that side.”
To help remedy the situation, Cat has established an integration initiative for providing training and support through its worldwide network of dealers. “We’ve realized that customers don’t want to pay for two GPS receivers on a machine if they can get by with one,” says Brady. “And they don’t want to have to deal with more than one office package to get productivity out of their machines.” Vanneman is of the opinion that because integration is essential, it will come: “You’re going to see more and more crossover and merging and marrying together of these different technologies as time goes on.”
“The way I see it,” says Calvird, “Leica is going from taking tools that were originally designed around having an engineer—survey systems, where you got good data but you needed a lot of specialized education to know what that data was telling you—to systems where we can put enough horsepower and enough application software into a machine that it can now take that data and put it in a much more humanly accessible and readable form.”
And what this means, says McGough, is more and more information in the foreman’s hands and in the hands of the frontline workers. “The digital job site means first and foremost the decisions on a job site are not going to be made exclusively from the main office. More and more information is going to be pushed down to the frontline people so they can make the decisions they need to do their job.”
Penelope Grenoble writes on issues concerning waste operations, equipment, and technology.