Technology gets dirty

GPS systems allow contractors to cut time and costs

Dirt hasn’t gotten any smarter, but the tools used to move it have. Innovation in technology is making its way outdoors as contractors realize the potential for saving time and money.

In particular, global positioning systems are being used in the field for more accurate and efficient site grading.

Matt Gebarowski, president of Portland-based Dirt Logic, began his company about four years ago. Gebarowski formerly worked as an excavator, where he realized the potential of GPS technology. Dirt Logic now has seven employees. Gebarowski said the staff and revenue have doubled each year.

Dirt Logic offers a variety of services. The company’s work begins in the estimating phase by turning a 2-D site plan into a 3-D "earthwork take-off" used by a contractor to submit project bids. The take-off measures existing site elevations and, when compared to the site plan, provides precise measurements of where and how much earth needs to be cut or filled. Gebarowski said Dirt Logic performs about 500 take-offs each year. A take-off typically costs between $300 and $500 and can be done in eight to 10 hours, said Gebarowski, versus 15 to 20 hours using physical plans. From engineer-created site-plans, a visualization can be created, and when combined with a specialized GPS system, workers are able to pinpoint specific locations of a work site and perform the grading accordingly.

A base station is set at a known, surveyed location near the site, which enables the operator of a "roving" GPS unit with a downloaded site-plan model to determine the location of its grading equipment, such as a bulldozer, to within fractions of an inch.

GPS eliminates the need for staking a site and reduces the chances of having to move dirt more than once. And the system allows the work to be done solely by the machine operator, without guidance from a second worker on the ground.

Dirt Logic creates the 3-D models for contractors in two to three days for as little as $1,000. But the big cost to contractors is the price of the GPS equipment, which can be a barrier for smaller companies. Initial cost of the equipment can be between $80,000 and $100,000.

Getting employees to buy into the idea and become trained to use it effectively can also be a problem, said Gebarowski.

Employees’ "level of education and resistance to change" can be a problem, he said.

Despite initial hurdles, contractors are making the use of GPS the rule, rather than the exception.

Vancouver-based contractor Alan Park, owner of Division 2 Services, has utilized Dirt Logic’s services since 2002. He also works as a construction consultant to train other contractors on the technology.

Park said the equipment manufacturers have not done a good job of supporting their products through training and education. In the past, users of their equipment were only trained surveyors who knew what the equipment was telling them. Contractors unfamiliar with surveying techniques and equipment may not be using the systems to their full potential, said Park.

Despite the hurdles, contractors "get it," he said, and want to incorporate the technology into their processes.

"GPS is getting to every job," said Park. "Everyone will have something like this."

Battle Ground construction firm Tapani Underground Inc. has used GPS for four years, said Shane Tapani, chief estimator. He cites quality control as the greatest benefit. By providing a visual layout for the operators, dirt only gets moved once, and they are able to make decisions at a faster pace. Surveying costs are reduced and employees and equipment work more efficiently, he said.

Tapani Underground has four GPS systems, and he said the company’s employees have embraced it.

"Our operators ask for it on every project," said Tapani. "They don’t want to do a job without it."

He estimates less than half of all contractors are using GPS technology, but he expects that to grow.

"If you are not embracing it, you are going to get left behind," said Tapani.

Gebarowski said Dirt Logic continues to grow at a quick pace.

"For the last four months we have been buried," he said.

He expects to market the company nationally within the next year.

Parks said the price of the equipment will drop, or become more accurate for the same cost.

Tapani sees a number of ways GPS technology can improve construction management.

Permanent base stations, similar to cell phone towers, can serve as control points for large areas, allowing users to pay by subscription. It could also serve as a system for tracking equipment. Contractors can follow the location of equipment, the number of hours it has operated and even check its fuel level or maintenance schedule, all from a computer.

New landscape poses problem for surveyors

The emergence of global positioning system technology may lead to a decline in demand for certain services provided by surveyors. With GPS, contractors do not have to wait for surveyors to stake projects telling machine operators where to remove or add dirt, saving time and reducing surveying costs.

Bruce Towle, manager of the surveying department at Olson Engineering in Vancouver, said it was inevitable as GPS technology progressed that construction layout would begin being done by contractors.

It has become a sensitive issue with contractors and surveyors.

The laws differ from state to state. In Washington, surveyors do not have to be licensed, but in Oregon they do, said Towle. And the question of whether construction layout by contractors using GPS should require a license has not been answered.

But some contractors, unwilling to shoulder all the responsibility for placing boundaries, have surveyors back-up their work or have them set control points and stake fine boundaries, such as curbs and utilities.

Dirt Logic, a Portland company providing 3-D site models for GPS systems, has brought a surveyor in-house. Tapani Underground chief estimator Shane Tapani said GPS gives the company the capability to perform work only surveyors used to, but it still calls on surveyors to set control points and certain boundaries.

"It’s the contractor’s choice," said Vancouver-based contractor Alan Park. "Where do you draw the line? What risk are you willing to take?"

Towle said GPS is very reliable and that surveyors also use the technology. Heavily forested or valley locations create limitations, as GPS relies on line-of-sight access to multiple satellites. But he said the technology is sure to get even more accurate.

He said professional surveyors are still used for checking work or doing fine staking for virtually all projects, but as the use of GPS progresses, it ultimately will make surveying staffs smaller.

– Shane Cleveland

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