The Hills’ Have Eyes

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Desert Hills Construction could just be the ideal poster-child for GNSS technology. The company has been avid users of machine control solutions since about 2004, they regularly update their systems to keep pace with changes, and they are continually looking for new ways to put the technology to new uses. At a new residential development in St. George, Utah, the company is utilizing a dozer, motor grader and excavator–all running 3-D machine control to streamline production. However, at that site, they are also seeing some impressive results tapping into that solution to improve production on the sidewalk grading phase of the operation. GNSS? Literally an oasis for this Desert.

Growth, By George
To non-Utah residents, the St. George area is virtually unknown, overshadowed by Salt Lake City, Provo and ski resorts such as Park City and Sundance. However, the city of St. George, located in the far southwestern part of the state, has become seen tremendous growth of late, with the U.S. Census ranking it the 5th fastest growing city in the country, behind such perennial favorites as the Villages in Florida, Myrtle Beach, S.C., and Austin, Tex. A mecca for retirees, residential development is also thriving, resulting in a steady stream of projects for Desert Hills Construction (DHC).

"Doing subdivision work is where we got our start back in 1994," said Jason Rogers, DHC’s founder and owner. "With just two or three machines and a few employees, we slowly built ourselves up to where we were doing many of the subdivisions here in Washington County."

Though they’ve had periods in which they could no longer be considered a smallto medium-sized contractor–peaking at nearly 80 employees and better than 100 machines in the early 2000s–DHC currently employs about 24 people, a number that Rogers said feels right.

"I’m not saying we won’t get any bigger, but the size we are at now–coupled with the technology we’ve embraced over the years–is allowing us to tackle some decentsized projects and do them faster and more efficiently than some companies larger than us. From a bidding perspective, that’s not a bad position to be in."

Huge Improvement
One of those projects, a 12-acre 49 lot subdivision called "The Reserves at the Terraces," has allowed DHC to showcase its GNSS strengths in a big way. Nestled against the Red Cliffs Desert Preserve, the development work includes clearing, grading for pads and roads, and all utility work. One of DHC’s operators, Greg Naegle, a recent addition to the company’s onsite staff, has a solid familiarity with almost all of those facets of the job.

"We are small enough where no one is a specialist, but everyone is very good at just about everything onsite," he said. "As a result Mike Dalton, one of our superintendents, and I have been in just about every machine out here. And, because all of our major equipment is equipped with 3D machine control, I’ve had to hit the ground running since I came onboard last year. Luckily for me, we’ve had incredible support from Rocky Mountain Transit & Laser (RMTL), the area Topcon dealer and the Topcon technology that Jason, our owner, has chosen is extremely userfriendly–especially when compared to the system I was using with my last company."

The GNSS solutions in use at the St. George project include a Cat 349F excavator with Topcon X-53i, an indicate GPS system; a Cat D6K2 dozer running Topcon 3D-MC2 with a Cat/CAN Interface as part of a twin control system; and a similarly-configured Cat 120M2 motor grader. According to Joe Micklos, RMTL’s co-owner and sales engineer who calls on DHC, the company also uses Topcon HiPer V receivers and FC-5000 data collectors running Topcon Pocket 3D software.

"Desert Hills is one of those companies that learned early on what GNSS could do for their operation and they have been continually finding new ways to put it to work for them," he said. "The box they fabricated for sidewalk grading is just the latest example of that."

Walk on the Wild Side
Grading for sidewalk work in the latter stages of development work is, according to Micklos, a recurring reason for loss of productivity on that type of project.

"One of the biggest nightmares in construction is sidewalk installation after the fact," he said. "Largely because of all the things a company has to work around– utility boxes, drainage structures, etc.–I’ve found that more construction firms lose money building the sidewalk late in the development than in any other single phase of the construction. To remedy that, DHC has built a box-shaped blade that attaches to the outer part of the motor grader blade and, because the blade is already controlled using 3-D machine control, so too is the box."

Micklos said he has seen many attempts to achieve similar results in sidewalk work, but none as successful as the one DHC has put forth. "What makes their approach unique is that the operator is running the machine in automatic, working off the grade of the walk and the line is also automatic so he is not cutting over or bumping against the curb," he said. "As a result, the production he is able to achieve is incredible. One particular section in the Reserves development that would have taken about an hour and a half using a mini-excavator, was done–with impressive accuracy–in about five minutes. This will totally change the face of sidewalk grading for them."

Early Adopters
If DHC seems comfortable with 3-D machine control technology and its inherent benefits, it’s because the company has more than a dozen years of implementation under its belt. Not surprisingly, Micklos sold them their first machine control solution back in 2004, said Jason Rogers.

"At that time, almost no one in the area was using the technology, but we were aware that it was gaining acceptance," he said. "Joe sold us a Topcon 3D-MC system, a machine control system that is still running on a Cat D8T–it’s pretty hard to kill. To date, our primary use has been with the dozer and grader–the time savings getting to grade and the ability to move dirt just once without having to re-grade are both huge benefits for us. Here at The Reserves, we’ve used the dozer to grade every staircased pad onsite and the motor grader has been key in finish grading, particularly on the roads. But we are really excited for what we’ve already seen from the Topcon X53i system and the potential it holds for our excavator."

What Rogers has already seen includes some impressive results in a commercial job not far from the subdivision site. There, the Topcon solution opened his eyes to its real promise.

"At a project to build a new Smith’s Food and Drug, we used the Cat 349F with the Topcon system to dig all the footings and, despite being in some very hard sandstone, production was through the roof," he said. "It would have taken an eternity to dig those footers if they were traditionally laid out. Instead, our operator, looking at things on his screen, moved right along–I think we did the footings in half the time we’d bid. To this day I still can’t believe what we did in that short amount of time. We beat our projected completion date by about a month."

DHC’s Mike Dalton added that, based on what they’ve done already, he too sees a great deal of future use for the excavator system.

"Joe likes to say that an excavator is always either digging slope or grade somewhere on the site–and he’s right," he said. "So if there is a digital model attached to a project, the uses for a machine like this are almost endless. Already on this project, in addition to finishing up some underground work, I accurately sub-graded a road that Greg couldn’t touch with his motor grader because of existing utilities put in place before the road was cut to subgrade. To me it is the most versatile piece of iron on a job site."

Location, Location, Location
The penchant for all things GNSS is shared by Jason Rogers’ son Jeremy who heads up the onsite location effort for DHC. Prior to acquiring the Topcon HiPer V receiver and FC-5000 data collector, he said the effort to locate utility structures onsite was often an exercise in frustration.

"In the past, we used a tape measure and a small metal detector which, when it did find something, could be off by several feet," he said. "We’d often end up digging up asphalt everywhere. Using the Topcon rover to establish location points in advance, however, gets us right on the money."

On the Reserves project, Rogers is locating all the water valves, manholes and some sewer laterals. After shooting the manholes, the info really proves its value.

"I can download that data into the excavator or blade for their use–they can even set avoidances if they want," he said. "The interesting thing about the rover is that it has become our eyes on the job site. We can take it out anytime and anywhere on the job to check grade, stake out a polyline, whatever. After you see how much you can do and how easy it is to do things, it becomes indispensable."

Support System
Jason Rogers said the GNSS solution–both in survey and in machine control–have become an integral part of their operation and they are grateful for the support both Topcon and Rocky Mountain Transit and Laser have provided over time. "Joe has bent over backwards to make sure that my people understand the Topcon solutions better so that they can utilize them better," he said. "He’s put on classes for our operators, comes out to job sites to help them get up and running and is always available for help via phone or text.

On that last point Jeremy Rogers says Joe Micklos’ ability to help by phone is uncanny. "When you’re in a machine or on the rover, Joe can hear you click the device and know if you’ve gone too far or not far enough. That’s pretty impressive."

DHC is expected to complete its work at The Reserves at the Terraces in late 2017.

Larry Trojak of Minnesota-based Trojak Communications, is a freelance marketing content specialist. He writes extensively for the geopositioning, utility, aggregate processing, recycling, construction, and demolition markets.

A 3.463Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE