How Small Earthworks Contractors Can Use Machine Control to Increase Profitability



Earthworks companies have used machine control systems since the mid-90s. Once considered a hefty investment affordable only to the industry’s biggest players, this technology is becoming the standard for jobs and companies of all types and sizes.

The number of demolition and construction companies that rely on machine control in the U.S. varies by region, but according to Viewpoint, a construction software solution company, experts estimate that roughly 10 to 20 percent of companies utilize specialized software in their heavy machine operations.

Paul Hahn, co-founder and associate editor of Machine Control Online, has observed an uptick in market penetration of machine control products in the past few years. “Adoption is growing,” he says. “Machine control has the best return on investment of any new technology that has hit the construction industry in decades. Technology-wise, there’s far less to fear than there used to be.”

Small and midsize businesses in particular have a lot to gain from putting more dollars toward digital tools. Whether it’s employing grade lasers to lay stone with better accuracy, or allowing a GPS-enabled 3D system to expertly guide an excavator, machine control can help increase productivity and reduce costs.

“The small and medium sized contractors are sort of forced to adopt this technology, or else they’re not going to keep busy,” Hahn explains. “They need to be in this game of improving efficiency and productivity as well.”

To find out how small earthworks contractors can use machine control systems to boost their bottom line, we spoke with two civil engineers and a machine control distributor who are experts on the technology. They reveal how machine control contributes to lower operating costs and greater revenue, and share tips on how you can achieve the same success.

Start With a Few Machines; Add More as Needed

The number of machine control systems available for motor graders, bulldozers, excavators and four-wheel drive machines, such as loaders, runs the gamut. The price tags associated with the software varies as well, ranging from tens of thousands of dollars all the way up to six figures, with Leica, TopCon and Trimble among the industry’s leading machine control manufacturers.

But not every business needs a top-of-the-line system to begin seeing results. GPS Program Manager Matt Eklund of Sukut Construction says his employer took “baby steps” to implement machine control in its operations 12 years ago.

After determining that the technology would have the most impact on measuring topography and capturing the location of survey stakes to ensure proper alignment and grade, the California-based company tested the waters by putting just a few machine-controlled bulldozers and rovers in the field.

“That was a big deal—solving just those two issues immediately showed value right off bat,” Eklund says. “After that, the next steps [to adopting the technology] became much easier.”

Today, Sukut is a top California contractor with just over 30 computerized machines and rovers on the go at any given moment, and Eklund says the company continues to invest heavily in machine control technology with every passing year.

Sukut construction workers

Sukut Construction workers using GPS machine control technology

David Schafer, the district sales manager for Warrior Tractor & Equipment Co. in Northport, Alabama, says it’s common for a company’s use of machine control to increase as its workload expands—which is one of the biggest benefits of the technology. “You really can start small and grow into it as you see fit,” he explains.

Schafer trains and supports customers on how to automate machinery from manufacturers such as John Deere, and says that a contractor can typically introduce a basic laser system into their operations for 10 percent of the machine’s acquisition cost.

For example, a $200,000 machine can be equipped with sensors and measurement controls for as little as $20,000, Meanwhile, more high-tech systems—especially those involving 3D mapping—can run up to 35 percent the cost of acquisition.

Eklund and Schafer’s advice? Start with a basic machine control system that meets your immediate needs to get a feel for the technology, and make sure you’re comfortable with learning as you go.

No matter what system you choose, Eklund says, machine control is an investment, which means you have to be prepared from an executive standpoint to allocate resources appropriately. “Machine control is only cost-prohibitive to the companies that buy it and don’t use it,” he explains. “To pay those costs up front to get those returns in the end takes a sophisticated mindset.”

Cut Costs By Self-Performing More Work, More Efficiently

Machine control also addresses knowledge gaps resulting from shifts in the labor force. As baby boomers retire, gone with them is the industry-specific knowledge and experience that comes from decades spent operating a machine and working with stakes.

As Schafer explains, long-time employees who know how to weave a bulldozer to hit the right grades are a “dying breed.” On the plus side, however, a crop of young workers familiar with gaming and computer technology are learning the ins and outs of automated construction, made possible by machine control technology.

“A lot of the workforce now is more tech-savvy and college-educated, and used to working with computers in ways that the older generation is not,” says Daniel Price, vice president and founder of Price Civil Services. “You may not have the gray hair, but you do have these guys who can read a computer and understand touch screens. That’s what your workforce looks like going forward.”

Better training manuals, improved training techniques and easy-to-understand user interfaces allow companies today to adequately teach and support employees who work with machine control like never before.

Rather than subcontracting out something like staking, for example, construction teams can learn how to do the work internally with machine control. “By self-performing this work, the contractor saves money and keeps the project going,” Eklund says.

Machine control on dozer

Machine control equipment on bulldozer using Leica software

Using machine control to self-perform work also means fewer workers are required on site. For example, instead of having a grade checker on the ground while the machine is in motion, computer software guides operators in the driver’s seat by delivering real-time data. Machine control thus takes the guesswork out of the job allowing workers to complete tasks more quickly with less manpower the first time around.

But that’s not to say that just anyone can get behind the controls of such large and powerful equipment. “You still need someone with experience who understands and knows how to move dirt,” Schafer says.

Schafer, Price and Eklund’s advice? Take advantage of the up-and-coming workforce’s tech skills and train machine operators on how to utilize the software in the field to reduce downtime. It’s also useful to designate someone as your company’s point person for questions and issues related to machine control—just make sure it’s not your engineer.

“The reality is you need a dedicated person to get [machine control] up and running,” Eklund says. “But it can’t be the engineer who’s occupied with cost estimating and trying to get a bid out while a machine is broken in the field.”

Circumvent Expenses With Third Party Consultants

Companies that are unable or unwilling to make a big machine control software purchase outright can test-drive the technology, so to speak, by renting, renting-to-own or leasing a system. Alternatively, you can hire a third party consultant to do the work, allowing you to take advantage of the increased profitability afforded by the technology without shelling out big bucks to outfit your machines with new technology.

Price Civil Services, Inc. is one such company offering subcontracted construction layout and site preparation work with machine control in west central Alabama. Prior to its formation in November 2011, only one other contractor in the region was utilizing the technology, says Price.

An engineer by trade, Price saw the increasingly technological direction in which the industry was headed. He and his brother formed Price Civil Services with their father, who has 30 years of construction experience, as an offshoot to the family’s other business; Price Construction.

With the new company, Price found a niche. He primarily serves as a consultant, assisting earthworks companies in digitizing their projects. He uses the civil engineering design software Carlson Civil on AutoCAD to create computer files that machine-controlled equipment uses as a reference during work. In addition, Price Civil Services rents out a Leica Geosystems PowerGrade 3D system.

Cad drawing with layers
CAD drawing showing layers and coordinates (click image to enlarge)

CAD drawing showing breaklines
CAD drawing showing breaklines (click image to enlarge)

“Staying on the sidelines and helping [construction companies] do what they do better is a viable business model right now,” Price says. “We’re making money and they’re making money.”

One of Price Civil Services’ first big projects involved the development of a sprawling retreat center near the Cahaba River. The company was allotted four months for building pad preparation work. But with the aid of machine control, it got the job done in two and a half months time.

“As we worked through several more jobs, [machine control] made a believer out of us very quickly,” Price says. “It’s an economy of scale thing: cutting a few days or weeks off a project equals more savings.”

Price’s advice? Incorporate machine control into your operations by renting equipment or subcontracting out the digital prep work. If you do buy your own software, choose a product that offers a strong dealer support network. Robust support from local software distributors makes a difference, Price says, which is why he and his brother spent two full days working with a dealer to see their system in action before purchasing it.

“We got on a job site and got to test something that was meaningful to us, workwise,” he says. “We weren’t on a demo site pushing dirt just to push dirt.”

The benefits of successful machine control implementation are abundant. With an understanding of what your company needs from a system and careful planning and training, this technology can help your company cut costs and improve profitability by completing more complicated jobs in less time, with fewer employees needed to get the work done.

Sukut Contsruction image courtesy of photographer Rick McCourt, Leicia image courtesy of Warrior Tractor & Equipment Co. and CAD drawings courtesy of Price Civil Services.

Caterpillar D8T Bulldozer” created by Shaun Greiner used under CC BY / Resized.

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