Growing Into GPS

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South Texas contractor eases into GNSS technology, then surges ahead to meet area growth.

One of the biggest concerns facing any business person today, given the still-tenuous economic climate, is over-buying/ over-building/over-extending. The boom-to-bust lessons of 2008 and beyond have been hard ones to learn, so decisions that were once made fairly easily are today first researched, then considered and reconsidered. Such was the case for New Braunfels, TX-based MC Ethridge Company, as it mulled the pros and cons of adding machine control to segments of its equipment fleet. Once that decision was reached however--the deciding factor being, not surprisingly, a job large enough to warrant it--the company worked with the San Antonio branch of GeoShack and purchased its first system. When it got the results it had been promised, they quickly moved ahead to equipping additional units--because 2008 also taught that you have to strike while the iron is hot.

Relatively Small
A self-proclaimed smaller general contractor with 20 full-time employees and as many as 30 workers during peak summer periods, MC Ethridge Company was founded in 1972 by Michael and Donna Ethridge. The company offers a broad range of services (general contracting work, underground utilities, earthmoving, sewer and water mains, pump stations, etc.) but of late has really been focusing on the earthmoving and site clearing facet of its business.

"The work we are doing today is largely in response to the incredible growth we are seeing throughout Comal County, but particularly here in New Braunfels," says Marcus Ethridge, the company's vice president. "The county doubled in size between 2000 and 2010 and it will probably do so again by the next census. Ideally located between Austin and San Antonio, it has great school districts, great recreation areas and outstanding natural beauty--it really has it all. People and industry are catching onto that and relocating here, so our workload has picked up to match that growth."

Wellness is Developing
One of the bigger projects which reflect that upsurge is a 36-acre mixed-use development known as the Creekside Wellness Center, in New Braunfels. When complete, the site will offer medical office building, restaurants and retail health and wellness shops, as well as walking trails, meditation gardens and community gathering spaces.

"This project is being done in several phases," says Ethridge. "The first and third segments included clearing, site prep and utility work. Phase two, which we are currently involved in, is a massive threeacre, 450,000 gallon retention pond/ water feature that will serve as something of a focal point for the development. This is a huge undertaking, given that it is 27-feet deep and has a number of unique slopes and contours in its design. But we've anticipated those challenges and countered them with onsite GPS and a John Deere 350D LC excavator running Topcon's 3D-MC, an indicate-only machine control system. That's made all the difference in the world for us."

While its benefits were apparent in the water feature construction, Ethridge adds that GNSS equipment played a key role in the first and third segments as well. In the initial phase, having a 3-D model of the entire site proved beneficial in a number of ways they hadn't anticipated.

"Aside from obvious benefits of control and accuracy during excavation, we were able to use that model to help us in the utility portion of the job," he says. "Because we do the model ourselves and make certain to include sewer and electric locations on it, that really came into play. This site needed about four feet of fill in a number of areas and, rather than having to dig through that extra material to lay sewer lines, we used GPS to lay them out before we did the fill portion of the job. That, and the fact that we didn't have to risk mowing down and replacing stakes, streamlined the process considerably."

Consistent Lifts
To create the water feature at the Creekside Wellness Center site, Ethridge excavated more than 17,000 cu. yds. of soil--material that was used elsewhere on site to get the profile necessary for drainage to the pond. The structure is designed with 3:1 slopes on the sides and a safety rim around the perimeter, as well as some additional shelves and contours.

"As big and challenging as this job is, our guys love the fact that with machine control they know exactly where they are at all times, so there's no risk of overexcavating. In this business, moving material unnecessarily is a waste of both time and money--that's all eliminated with machine control and the savings goes right to the bottom line."

Once the pond is built to grade, Ethridge's crew will top it with a liner needed for soil stabilization. The liner, a clay-based mixture which changes the plasticity index of the soil, will be 18-inches thick up to a certain elevation, then reduced to a thickness of 12-inches up to about five feet from the rim. The clay material will be added in six-inch lifts.

"To keep those lifts consistent would be a headache and take a whole lot of time in staking," says Ethridge. "Instead, we are utilizing machine control to its fullest--the dozer operator simply has to dial in the vertical offset and keep rolling. That alone is a fifty percent savings over what it would take to hard stake and complete the job."

Hit the Ground Running
Savings is what Marcus Ethridge and his brother Matt, co-principal in the business, were after when choosing GPS and they have not been disappointed. For them, the increase in efficiency began immediately and extended throughout each facet of the job.

"First off, we save time not having to wait for staking to occur--other than a few laths that are in place for final inspection, the entire site is stakeless," says Marcus Ethridge. "Often on a project, once you get the go-ahead, you usually have a week or two waiting for staking and creation of cut sheets. Now, in that same timeframe we can have our model done and be out on the job site and I can generate a cut sheet--again using the vertical offset on the machine--in about 35 seconds. So, in the time we used to wait for staking and cut sheets, we've done one to two weeks of work. That's anywhere from a 15 to 20 percent time savings and can make a huge difference."

Efficiency on the jobsite can take many forms and Ethridge says an ability to make the fullest use of the equipment onsite was yet another one. Having several machines on hand to do various jobs is a plus--having them all machine control-ready maximizes that impact.

"Topcon designs their systems to be fully compatible between machines," says Ethridge. "So, even though we have three Topcon GNSS-based machine control systems and four GPS-capable machines, it is very easy for us to take a system from our motor grader and switch it over to one of our dozers, or take the system from the excavator and put it onto the grader. It opens up a whole world of opportunities for us. And now, with the recent purchase of a GPS-ready John Deere 850K dozer we acquired through RDO Integrated Controls, we've really seen productivity reach heights we hadn't imagined before."

In Good Hands
RDO Integrated Controls is handling service and support for that GPSready machine and Ethridge says he's impressed with the support programs they have in place. For the balance of his GNSS-based iron, since making his first purchase, he's solely relied upon GeoShack for help--and he says they've always risen to the occasion.

"GeoShack has a technical support system that is second to none," he says. "If we need something out in the field, we can bank on getting a service call the same day. They truly understand the importance GPS has to our operation and respond accordingly. A single phone call to one of the techs at the GeoShack office can help facilitate a `screen session' during which they can almost always troubleshoot an issue for us."

GeoShack's 3-D machine control specialist Bill Gunter says there is a special relationship between his company and MC Ethridge and that bond is based on shared values.

"We learned early on that Matt, Marcus and Casey Ethridge treat their vendors with a good deal of respect and that approach mirrors our own philosophies," he says. "In addition, the honest way in which they've dealt with us over the years has enhanced their overall credibility. For example, occasionally we will get a call from them saying they are having an issue, but it can wait until the following day. However, if they call to say they need immediate help, we know that's really the case; it's not just an attempt to get our attention. We've seen them grow in the area and we couldn't be happier for their success. And to help keep the technology working for them, between our organization, Topcon and RDO Integrated Controls, they're in very good, very supportive hands."

The Creekside Wellness Center project is slated for a Fall 2014 opening.

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 construction and survey magazines.

A 2.034Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE

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