GPS Proves Perfect Outlet for Buffalo-Area Contractor’s Success

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While many large companies were quick to capitalize on the benefits GNSS technology brought to their respective industries, just as many, it would seem, held off making a move to the then-new approach. For them, prudency was the order of the day. They felt that, until the right workload was in place, or the demands for accuracy and speed could no longer be met using traditional methods, the status quo would serve them nicely. But the combination of an improving economy, an increasingly competitive bid process and the aforementioned demand for projects done "yesterday," has resulted in companies, like Mark Cerrone Inc. (MCI), deciding their time to upgrade had come. And on a recent major outlet mall expansion project in Niagara Falls, N.Y., working with area engineering, architectural and survey specialists Wendel, the company put that technology to work, helping complete a challenging project on time and under budget.

Outlets are Thriving
Contrary to a common perception, outlet malls did not stop being relevant sometime in the 1980s. In fact, these purveyors of deal-priced shopping are actually undergoing a renaissance of sorts and are, in most cases, doing far better than their traditional retail mall counterparts. That resurgence is evident in a recent outlet expansion taking place in Niagara Falls, N.Y. There, locally-based MCI just recently wrapped up site work for a $75 million, 175,000 sq. ft. expansion of Fashion Outlets of Niagara Falls, already a shoppers’ mainstay in the Western New York/ Southern Ontario region.

"That mall is one of the busiest properties in this entire area," said George Churakos, MCI’s owner and vice president. "On most days, finding a parking spot can be extremely difficult; on weekends it is next to impossible. So the expansion–which also includes a good deal more area for parking–will be a huge improvement for area shoppers."

When they found out about the project, added Churakos, they knew immediately that it would be an ideal fit for their GNSSbased equipment. "We’d only been using that technology for less than a year at that time, but we bid the projects with its benefits in mind and were anxious to put it to the test."

A Good Fit
Churakos said their decision to forego "business as usual" and make a serious investment into GPS was driven both by the inevitability of where the industry seemed to be heading and having pending projects that warranted it.

"We’ve always bid larger projects, but the price tag of a job doesn’t necessarily make it GPS-worthy; we feel you still have to have the right size and demands. There came a point, however, when we knew we’d be landing a number of jobs perfectly suited for GPS and we made the move."

Because reps from Admar Supply, the area Topcon dealer, had already been pitching the benefits of GPS and machine control to MCI for the better part of two years, the construction firm’s decision was not altogether unexpected. However, the degree of commitment was still impressive, said Evan Spencer, Admar’s positioning solutions sales representative.

"Once MCI commits to anything they do it wholeheartedly and this was no exception," he said. "Right off the bat they took delivery of a Topcon 3D-MC2 machine control system for one of their dozers, a pair of X-63 3-D systems for two of their excavators and a Topcon HiPer-V base and Tesla controller. It was an impressive way to hit the ground running. My colleague Mike Conley and I helped MCI personnel through the initial learning curve and they did the rest."

A (Super) Model and More
The transition into GNSS was also helped significantly by Williamsville, N.Y.-based Wendel which created the digital terrain models (DTM) used at the Outlet Mall site. According to Marshall D. Wilson, PLS, PMP, their long relationship with Cerrone was important in helping ensure success in that facet of the project.

"Good communication and understanding between the contractor and the firms creating the DTMs is key," he says. "We understand that we have to be very precise with the 3-D surface model we present to the customer. The end-user for that product is generally not a surveyor and doesn’t understand surfaces the way we do–he is looking at a screen and getting his direction from it. That machine, however, relies upon a very good surface model and we work hard to ensure the customer gets one."

To make that happen, says Wilson, they take in the engineer’s design drawings in an electronic format–AutoCAD or MicroStation compliant files–and, in order to confirm and check for any obvious errors, compare them to a hard copy of the actual construction drawings that exist. With that complete, the files are output using Topcon 3D-Office software and ready for use in the GNSS-equipped machines.

Wilson adds that they also set control for MCI’s crew at the outset of the Mall project, then worked hand-in-hand with them to ensure that a steady flow of design changes were implemented.

"This was almost a design-build project in some areas and, at times, it seemed changes were coming every day," he says. "We were continually updating our models and coordinating with MCI’s field crews to make sure they had the correct data downloaded. It was a challenge given the tight time frame they were facing, but this is all a part of what we do for our clients."

Sloping at the Mall
By the time site work on the Fashion Outlets started in November, 2013, MCI’s machine control capability had grown to four systems and they brought it all to bear at the site. According to Jeff Rodino, MCI’s site superintendent, the project’s size–40 acres–coupled with some challenging onsite features played to the strengths of the new technology.

"Having GPS for location, earthmoving and surface grading was definitely huge for us at the mall site," he said. "There were acres of parking lots that were a snap to grade using machine control on our Cat D5 and Komatsu D39-PX dozers. We just balanced the site, and then used the 3D-MC2 to handle grading the aggregate subgrade; it was fast and extremely accurate with everything working off a single Topcon HiPer-V base."

The site design also called for creation of three sizeable retention ponds, one of which was more than two acres in size and had to have 100,000 cu. yds. of material excavated and hauled off. "If we needed to have a rod man down below, that part of the project could have been a nightmare given the muck in which we were working," said Rodino. "But we did it all, excavating and sloping, using a Cat D5 dozer and a Komatsu PC240 equipped with a Topcon 3D-MC system. The speed and efficiency of the two units working together were pretty impressive."

Knowing Your Place
While Churakos and Rodino won’t quantify just how much faster they are as a GPS-powered contractor, they’re quick to acknowledge that they are a better company because of it.

"For us it’s the onsite efficiency that has shot up," said Churakos. "Because our guys know where they are at all times, things are getting done right the first time. They are not running over work that was important but wasn’t obvious because the survey wasn’t in yet–curbs for example. They know how to move around and maneuver on the site–over the course of the project, that efficiency creates time savings."

Adds Rodino, "Our dozer operators are really comfortable with Topcon 3D-MC2 and like the fact that they don’t have to stop to wait for survey verification. If they are digging perimeters or foundations they can see their cuts and fills–they have it all in the cab. As a result, they can move along at their own pace, and right now, with machine control, that pace is very quick."

When they were first talking to Evan Spencer at Admar about migrating over to GPS, Rodino said he was told that many of their future job sites could be stakeless ones. "I had my doubts about that but we saw it firsthand at the outlet mall–we didn’t pound a contour or boundary stake," he said.

MCI’s crews also quickly learned that the value of GNSS extends far beyond what they can do with their iron onsite. Throughout the project they utilized their HiPer-V and Tesla controllers to not only create topos of various parts of the job but also to generate as-builts; tasks which were once the sole domain of contracted survey teams.

MCI’s newfound GPS capability will also have long-term benefits for them, said Admar Supply’s Spencer–benefits which they are already realizing.

"This technology can provide a huge edge to any company’s bid process," he said. "We always try to stress this point when we are first selling the equipment. To go into a bid knowing exactly how much material you have or you need, how much it’s going to cost, how much time you will save, and so on, allows a company to bid more accurately and more aggressively."

As part of that initial sales presentation, he added, they specifically like to ask their customer: "What if, as a result of all these efficiencies, you could land one more job a year–how much is that worth to you?"

"MCI got a quick answer to that question, he said. "They recently landed a sizeable NYSDOT job for which GPS was a prerequisite. In the past they wouldn’t have even been able to bid that job, so they’ve already seen a really payback on their investment."

The Fashion Outlet Mall expansion was officially complete with a grand opening celebration in early November, 2014.

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 416Kb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE