Upgrade Up North

A 1.076Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE

As the economic recovery plods along in the U.S., growth in the Canadian economy is continuing at the brisk rate that has been evident for quite some time. While certainly good news, there is something of a downside to that steady, ongoing progress. Companies working in support of it have, in many cases, been hard pressed to maintain the labor force needed keep pace. Staffing up, once the answer to such situations, is getting increasingly difficult as fewer new faces seek livelihoods in construction, surveying, and the skilled trades. For companies like Lovse Surveys, that very problem was met by employing the clichéd but never-morefitting adage, "Work Smarter, Not Harder." A major purchase of new advanced-grade total stations and data collectors, coupled with employment of Topcon’s MAGNETTM software suite, has streamlined the entire survey process. The effort has proven so successful, the benefits so far-reaching, that company officials estimate an impressive 1.5 year payback on their investment.

Cowtown Credentials
Under its current ownership, Lovse Surveys has been meeting the needs of clients and customers in the Calgary, Alberta, area for better than three decades. While the firm tends to focus on municipal work, it provides a full range of services from construction layout, to subdivision work, to development permit surveys, etc. According to Dave Hill, one of the company’s project managers, they’ve been users of GPS products since about 2007, but recent issues with some of the software driving that gear–and other factors–prompted major changes.

"We have been fairly long-time users of Sokkia on the hardware side of things and that’s never been an issue for us. In fact, we’ve upgraded to their GRX-1s and are very pleased with the job they do for us. But not only were we starting to find the thirdparty software we used to be increasingly `buggy,’ we also wanted to make overall changes in the way we deal with work crew allocation, so we decided to make a dramatic shift in our approach."

The shift that Hill refers to included the upgrade to the Sokkia GRX-1 units, as well as the purchase of a pair of Topcon PS-103 total stations and seven Tesla field controllers. The whole package is rounded out with the addition of MAGNET, Topcon’s productivity suite of software products. He says those moves were made after a good deal of research.

"We tested different makes and configurations of systems for six to eight months," he says. "It’s important to keep in mind that we weren’t even using external data collectors for total station surveying at the time. We were using older instruments that had internal data collectors, but nothing with an interactive touch screen on it; nothing that would allow major manipulation and calculation of the data. So, one of the criteria for us was ease of use and we got that in every Topcon product we’ve added."

GPS Doesn’t Call in Sick
When Hill says there were "other" reasons for bolstering their survey and data collection capability, he is referring to dealing with unplanned crew shortages. One member of a crew calling in sick, he says, can wreak havoc on scheduling, equipment rental, etc.

"In surveying operations like ours, one of the main things that can impact job progress is having someone not show up for work, leaving one of your crews shorthanded," he says. "We deal with a lot of larger builders who have times when they need work to be done; postponement or rescheduling is not an option. So, adding the PS-103 robotic total station essentially allows one man to do the work of two–or two the work of three. Now, when a man calls in sick–or worse yet, goes home sick–we can simply make sure the impacted crew is equipped with a robotic total station. That way the worker is not missed; our productivity stays the same, the crew chief can be where he needs to be onsite, and the client is happy. It’s a nice luxury to have."

Designed as a true professional-grade robotic total station, the PS-103 provides Lovse’s crews with a host of options including an onboard data collection interface; Topcon’s exclusive LongLinkTM communication technology which provides a 600m wireless communication range to allow effective system operation from the prism pole, and an extremely powerful EDM with an effective non-prism range of 1,000m and a prism range of 6,000m.

"This has totally revamped the way we do business," says Hill.

Accuracy is the Attraction
While Lovse Surveys was certainly looking to offset the effects of crew shortages, it was also seeking improvement in the way information is exchanged between the office and the field. Up to that point, a good deal of the info coming in from their crews was through hand-written field notes. Adding Topcon MAGNET, says Hill, has changed all that as well.

"We’d heard that Topcon was offering a productivity suite and Kevin Burrill, the engineering services manager from Brandt Positioning, got us up to speed with what he felt it could do for us," he says. "I really liked the fact that the quality of data going back and forth between this office and our crews in the field could be dramatically improved. Up to that point, the workflow looked like this: we would do the drafting here, send it out to the field, they would manually calculate things like point layout, and send it back for us to verify. If an error of any kind was caught we would make the correction and send it back out."

By comparison, with MAGNET Lovse’s project managers can do all the calculation in the office and, after ensuring accuracy, send the job to the crew’s Tesla controllers or PS-103s–crews no longer have to handle onsite calculations.

"As a result of adding MAGNET, our number of field errors has gone down dramatically," says Hill. "In the past, if an error got by and workers had already started excavating a hole, we would have to stop production, bring in material to tamp it back in, the developer would have to hire an engineer for a compaction test, and so on. In terms of time and money, eliminating those risks is huge for a company like ours."

How huge? Hill says a typical house layout is a good example. Using traditional survey techniques in the past, the average layout took about 2 ¼ hours; that’s been reduced to about an hour and a half. "Though that’s only a savings of about 35 minutes–factoring in 10 minutes of office time–when you’re doing 50 to 60 such projects a week, the amount of time savings really starts to add up. And remember, that data is verifiably accurate now, so the risk of a `re-do’ has been all but eliminated."

Works Both Ways
Hill says the value of the data being streamed into the office from crews in the field is equally important. That’s particularly true in light of the fact that so much field-based manual record keeping was done in the past. "It has made a big difference for us," he says. "Just by looking at the raw data we can verify what’s happened at a job site. Consider this scenario: a client says they have a problem. A house has been excavated too low and, as a result, the grades aren’t going to work. They suspect the error is ours. In the past we’d only have that crew’s field notes to look at and see what happened. A surveyor can swear he did something but simply forgot to enter it in his field book."

By comparison, he adds, with MAGNET Tools they can go back an
d look at everything that has transpired on that job, they can verify that their surveyor followed procedure and they can determine immediately if the problem was a result of something their crew did or did not do. "Not only does that benefit us by not having to `eat’ the costs of redoing the job, because we have such a much better control of the data, it actually helps us better serve–and keep–the clients we have."

Game Changer
To make the equipment transition a reality, Hill worked closely with Brandt’s Burill. Hill says the degree of product knowledge the salesperson showed weighed heavily on their decision to go with them.

"We were looking at a number of different options and when some of the other salespeople came in, they couldn’t answer many if the questions we had," he says. "Kevin was very knowledgeable about the products, their capabilities and how he felt they could benefit us. And now that we’ve had some time to get our feet wet, so to speak, it’s possible he may have even undersold how much it would change our business."

"He adds that one of the features of MAGNET they’ve found particularly helpful is its ability to allow them to calculate point-to-line work.

"When we are shooting on the corner of a building, using the MAGNET Field software, we can do a calculation to show the perpendicular distance from the building corner to the property line to make sure it complies with city by-laws. In the past, that would have been done with a two-man survey crew, set up in the front and back, sighting down the property line. Now we can shoot the house from anywhere, even if we are not set up on that side of the property. Being able to do topos and see real-time elevations–shooting once a second and seeing the difference as the field technician is moving, giving us on the fly survey results–is also a very nice advantage for us."

Success by the Numbers
According to Hill, it took a fair amount of convincing to get owner Thomas To onboard with the changeover to MAGNET. To help make his case, Hill put together figures showing how long certain functions were taking them at that time versus what it could be with the new approach, underscoring the cost savings.

"For example, I pointed out that we could probably save 30 percent on our house layout alone. And that was being conservative. Using a robot would allow us to do the job with one man versus two, so we could really cut our costs in half on a job like that. It worked, Tom gave us the green light and the new approach has not disappointed in the least bit. In fact, I estimate that, after everything is implemented and everyone is using the equipment, we could potentially see savings of about $25,000 to $35,000 per year per PS-103 system. We figure there will be about an 18-month ROI, including the time it takes to get everyone up to speed, etc. And there’s no doubt that we can now be a lot more competitive–and confident–in our bids. How can you argue with any of that that?"

Larry Trojak is a communications writer for his own firm, Trojak Communications, in the town of Ham Lake, Minnesota. He is a frequent contributor to The American Surveyor.

A 1.076Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE