Technology Helps Broaden Capabilities

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In the survey world, diversity of skill sets is more critical today than it’s ever been. As GNSS technology continues to make inroads into traditional survey territory, survey professionals are being pushed to find new revenue streams, often in areas far removed from what had been their stock-in-trade. And a steadily-growing number of surveyors– companies like Deckard Engineering/Surveying–have embraced current technology, resulting in strengths and capabilities they never envisioned. For Deckard, using a core selection of equipment, the west-central Indiana-based company has developed into one of the area’s go-to sources for everything from traditional boundary surveys, to massive tract work, to industrial survey for one of the world’s largest steel manufacturers. As diverse as it gets.

Home Field Advantage
Established by Dave Deckard in Crawfordsville, Ind., in 1986, Deckard Engineering/Surveying, like many other Midwest survey firms, has its roots in boundary work for large rural tracts. In that capacity, they developed a reputation for accurate, reliable, high-quality work. That reputation paid dividends in 2000, when a call from steelmaking giant Nucor Corporation dramatically changed the complexion of the firm.

"Nucor has a sheet mill steel plant right here in Crawfordsville and, at the time, they’d been using a survey company out of Indianapolis," said Reese Harpel, Deckard’s owner and chief surveyor. "But they wanted a survey team that could offer a better response time to issues when they arose–unfortunately, the 60 mile distance cost that firm the account. So we got into our first industrial work in a big way."

Their debut project was a formidable one indeed. According to Harpel, at the time they started working with Nucor, the company was building the first mill of its kind for producing specialized steel strip directly from liquid steel. "We got in on the `greenfield’ side of that project, doing all the topos for the dirt work using a Topcon APL-1A total station. Today, better than a dozen years later, we do almost everything for them, right up to survey for machine sets. And our equipment has made the move forward as well; we are currently using Topcon’s PS-103A total station. It’s been an amazing experience for us."

What Lies Beneath
The earlier mention of companies needing to work outside their comfort zone, must have surely applied to Deckard when the company was tasked with doing onsite utility locates for Nucor.

"The Nucor plant here is so massive that it has its own full range of private utilities onsite," said Harpel. "And, because portions of the plant were built more than a quarter century ago, much of that utility infrastructure has been buried. However, when new site work is proposed or an expansion is needed, the fact that the utilities are private means they can’t simply call `Indiana 8-1-1′ to locate and mark any cable or piping. They have to handle it themselves–or find someone to do it."

Deckard saw an opportunity; purchased some radiodetection equipment designed to locate any conductive materials, and quickly added utility location to its list of strengths. "It’s not what you usually think of a surveyor doing, but it really does help us in our layout and, at the same time, makes us a better, more valued subcontractor to Nucor."

Supporting Steel
Just how valuable Deckard’s efforts in support of Nucor’s Crawfordsville operation have become is evident in the list of services the firm now provides to them. Harpel says the plant is seemingly in a continuous growth mode and Deckard is there at almost every step to provide survey support.

"Nucor takes its environmental stewardship very seriously and, in an effort to even further improve emissions control, is doing an expansion to a bag house stack and we are doing the original site detail. So, when the foundations are planned, we will not only lay them out, but also assist with survey for the pile-driving phase of the project. To improve our onsite productivity–not just in this work, but in everything we do– we made the switch to the Topcon PS-103A total station about a year ago. Cliché as it might sound, it really has changed the way we do things. We now set steel with it, we set bolts, we determine column lines–literally everything we do revolves around that instrument. The accuracies are amazing; even with a mini-prism, you still have about 0.02′ variance just trying to keep the prism still. We can now remove the variable of keeping the prism plumb. In fact, the tolerances on the PS are so tight, we index our prisms with it."

On a recent project involving installation of new equipment at the plant, the benefits of their newfound prismless capability became immediately evident. Harpel said Nucor was installing a state of the art conveyance system that would allow direct alloy injection into the furnace.

"These are all elevated conveyors, on slopes," he said. "We had to go in and shoot the existing structural steel, then also help them position mounting saddles for the conveyor supports. In the past, that would have entailed setting up a total station, getting a man lift, getting all our tie-offs made, taking a mini-prism up, and shooting what we could while leaning out of a basket. That approach is both time-consuming and dangerous. By contrast, using the PS-103, we were able to simply set up on an adjacent deck and shoot all those entities with amazing accuracy."

PS, It’s Productive
Harpel notes that the strength of the PS is as much its versatility as its degree of accuracy. They can (and have) used it to set equipment at Nucor, moved to another construction site for dirt work, then laid out a corner on a 1,000 acre boundary survey– all in the same day.

"That technology is a huge plus for us in so many ways," he said. "On some of our larger tracts, we often have a 500-foot walk before we can even shoot evidence of a corner, say a fencepost. With the PS, we can set up 500 feet away, aim the instrument at it and save the walk. A simple benefit, but one that pays dividends over the course of a large project like that. Paired with the Topcon GR5 network rovers there’s not much we can’t accomplish in a short amount of time."

The prism-free capability to which Harpel refers is actually accurate to a range of about 1,000 meters (using a prism, that range extends to 6,000 m). Other features the PS offers include sub-one-second fine measurement, easy-access USB memory and, for Deckard’s prism-based applications, The Topcon PowerTracTM engine to ensure steady, uninterrupted tracking in even the worst conditions.

Drawn in by MAGNET
While Deckard’s move to the PS-103 was performance-driven, it was helped by an earlier decision to incorporate Topcon MAGNET® software into the operation.

"Every survey instrument we own, we purchased through the Indianapolis branch of Positioning Solutions Company and they’ve been outstanding, not just in migrating us over to the technology, but also by providing the necessary support for us to hit the ground running. That holds true on the software side of things as well. At the time, we were using a Topcon DS Series total station in conjunction with MAGNET Field software and both were outstanding. We got to the point where we were using MAGNET for everything; it became our GPS software, our robotic software, our conventional gun setup. It worked so well that we
really saw the potential of teaming up MAGNET Field with the new PS. It was a natural progression for us and, with the addition of the Tesla controllers for all of our prism work, it’s given us some incredible capabilities. All told, we’ve done well over 20,000 shots out at Nucor alone, so improving our ability to gather and control all that data is great for a smaller firm like us."

Harpel finds MAGNET Office helpful for their work in county corner perpetuation, particularly its ability to incorporate aerial underlays from Bing or Google.

"It’s great to have a composite drawing and get a much clearer picture of how the sections are breaking down; that’s a big plus. You can see that you have some apparent deflections in the lines are real and not just an anomaly"

When Deckard first started, Harpel says it might have taken them a week to do a boundary survey–now they do more than 300 projects a year. "That’s the degree to which the technology has changed us. With two crews and seven employees, we’re a fairly small company, but we’ve made some very big strides forward–and we’ve only scratched the surface of what that equipment can do."

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 1.314Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE