Transformers! GNSS-heavy fleet

 GNSS-heavy fleet helps Wilco Southwest Inc. position itself as a civil contractor to be reckoned with.

Most companies, when contemplating the addition of GNSS to their operation, test the waters, starting with a base and rover, maybe a single machine with GPS, and grow slowly from there. Wilco Southwest Inc. is not most companies. Already established as Saskatchewan’s premier large-scale landscape contractors, with specialties in the construction of parks, sports fields, environmental reclamation, etc., the company recently chose to expand the breadth of its services. Seeing civil construction as the most logical area to tackle—and recognizing GPS as the means to best meet the needs of that market—it recently made a dramatic shift from non-entities in the GPS realm to one of the province’s best-equipped firms. The year-long move has dramatically transformed the way Wilco does business and afforded the company a strong competitive edge. It’s a reward of sorts for their foresight, but one that they are wise enough to know will not last forever.

Division With a Vision
Wilco’s decision to grow the construction side of the business must have been at least partially prompted by the impressive growth in their region. For the third consecutive year, according to Statistics Canada, the city of Saskatoon was named the fastest growing city in Canada, adding an impressive 11,200 people in a single year -- 2012. Not surprisingly, area developers and construction professionals have been working feverishly to meet that continued influx of new residents drawn to the Saskatchewan city for its booming “food, fuel and fertilizer” economy. According to project manager Blair Sivertson, the company, headquartered in Calgary, Alberta, and just one division of the Wilco Companies, has been considering GNSS equipment for a while.

“This has been a push we’ve been making for about four years now,” he said. “I come from a decade-long landscape architect background, and as such, I am a big AutoCAD proponent. So I know what technology has done for that side of the business and knew the impact of GPS could be even more dramatic as we moved into construction.”

The Windup and the Pitch
With a road job already on the books, Sivertson said he and area manager, Lawrence Mahon, went to company president, Peter Maat, and suggested what they felt the new technology could do for them—essentially giving them a superior product with less effort and more accuracy. They were equally adamant about the urgency to do so.

“We pointed out that we had to look at where we were at this point in time in Saskatchewan, a place where machine control is rare,” he said. “We recognized that our competition was still bidding based on standard grading and stakeout, over-excavation, multiple passes, etc and that there would definitely come a point in time when bidding with GPS in mind will be the norm. Our window of opportunity is that time between now and when GPS becomes the new standard.”

He added that, in his estimation it was worth making the capital investment in the technology because the initial startup cost is such a small percentage of the window of profit that could be realized.

“From a business perspective it just made perfect sense to do it immediately. Thank goodness our owner is quite savvy, saw our point and made that investment. After some research, we worked through the Saskatoon branch of Brandt Tractor and made our first purchase; a Topcon 3D-MC system that we switched between our John Deere 750 dozer and a Volvo EC-360 excavator. We used it on that one road job and, based on the performance and results, immediately started planning additional purchases. Today, about a year later, we are running Topcon 3D-MC2 , X-63 and 3D GPS+ systems on a fleet of dozers, excavators and scrapers. In addition, our sister division in Calgary is similarly equipped and plans are already in the works for our Regina division to make the move to GPS as well.”

Weather’s No Object
A good portion of that new equipment inventory was immediately put to use at a project on Saskatoon’s west side. Kensington, one of the city’s newest and largest developments, kicked off construction in October 2012 and, when totally completed later this decade, will be home to more than 8,200 residents. A key facet of the job, a retention pond at the center of the development called for the removal of more than 100,000 cubic meters of soil—the bulk of which had to be moved in the dead of Saskatoon’s infamous winter.

“On that job, we were doing five-meter bulk cuts with the X-63 equipped excavator and right next to it, we were finished grading with the dozer—all in -30°C (-22°F) temps,” he said. “That type of work is ideal for the benefits this technology provides because once we broke the frost out, the ground was unfrozen. And with real-time grading, which we get with the 3D-MC2 system, we were able to finish it before it froze again.”

Eliminating an intermediate grading step—during which which they might have had to cut or fill in different areas—kept things on pace and removed any risk of a re-freeze. “Instead, we went right from bulk grading with the excavator to finishing with the dozer. It couldn’t have been better.”

Don’t Give it Away
Sivertson said they are obviously pleased with the fact that they’ve all but eliminated staking—and the labor costs associated with it—on most of their work. But there are other compelling reasons for a company to make the switch to GNSS equipment.

“There is, of course, the operator’s ability to continually know where they are at on the site and what their machine is doing,” he said. “One-pass finish grading is also huge for us. But for me, one of the biggest benefits we’re seeing is eliminating the risk of over-excavation. Any over-excavation is money out of your pocket; it’s material you are moving for which you will never get paid. GPS eliminates that completely.”

He adds that, by streamlining the payment tracking function, the technology continues to pay for itself even after the actual grading or dozing is complete by ensuring accurate payment for work completed.

“What we are now able to do is create a surface file, grade to what the surface is, and generate our quantities in AutoCAD based on that surface. Similarly, consultants to our projects can use that surface file to perform spot checks. From our position, what’s graded is the surface, which they are free to confirm. Armed with that surface file, they simply walk along, do their random checks and phone back to the office to say we are hitting grade everywhere. It’s made that whole process so much easier.”

Initially Reluctant
Like many of their counterparts, management faced some initial reluctance from their operators when confronted with the new technology. Many were intimidated by it; some felt the value of their skills would be lessened.

“I told them GPS was going to take the toughest part of their job and make it the easiest. To address their concerns about losing respect for their skills, I countered with an analogy. I said: pretend you are a house framer using a hammer and nails to do your job and I come to you with an air-nailer. Are you going to insist on continuing to use that hammer? No, you’re going to use the air-nailer. But does that mean I can give anyone an air-nailer and they will be a good framer? No, and that applies here as well. GPS is just the tool to build around their existing skills.”

The operators’ degree of acceptance was evident when, last year, the GSM network which all their equipment runs off, went down for a short time. “The calls immediately started coming in asking when it was going to be back up,” said Sivertson. “That told me they’d embraced the technology.”

Enjoying the Moment
The company’s impressive gains as a civil contractor notwithstanding, Wilco Southwest Inc. is still the region’s largest landscape contractor, and Sivertson is proud of the fact that they’ve incorporated GPS into that part of the business as well.

“We use GPS to lay out just about everything including trees, asphalt pathways, irrigation heads, shrub bed edges, and more. We use the technology to be better at everything we do and it’s not only paid off well, it’s helped transform us as a company. But we are realistic and understand that the edge we have now will not last forever. Other area contractors will research this technology like we did, see the benefits it provides and—assuming they have an open mind and the resources—will make the commitment. In the meantime though, it’s great to have something of a leg-up on everyone else.”

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