Vol 2 - No 1

Technology Saves Significantly in Costs: Contractor Changes Production and Business Methods

A 537Kb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE

It's not an understatement to say that construction on Hawaii is a Kevlar-tough challenge. The islands are volcanic rock that has been pushed to the surface by a still active undersea magma source making the surface one of the toughest geologies on the planet to excavate and grade.

Hawaii is also very expensive. It is an island--or more accurately an archipelago of hundreds of islands spread over 1,500 miles and dominated by eight main islands. This means that nearly everything from toilet paper to 100-ton dozers must be flown or shipped in. Goods are very expensive and the wages are higher to match the costs. Hawaiian contractors have learned that a necessary tool for every job is an accountant's sharp pencil. They know that with cost overruns, over staffing, and other mistakes, they could easily lose their flowery Hawaiian shirt on a project.

Delta Construction, Oahu, Hawaii has been successfully balancing its costs and investments since 1978. On a recent project, they implemented a technology solution that's helping them succeed in the rocky terrain of today's economy.

"We're in the final stages of a $20 million, 60-acre residential housing site prep project for the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands (DHHL) located on former leased farmland where sugar cane was grown, and more recently conventional food crops like corn, lettuce, and squash," states J.R. Chambliss, GPS survey manager for Delta Construction. As part of an affordable housing program, DHHL will offer residential home sites to qualified individuals who are more than 50 percent native Hawaiian. The house site is free, so all they pay for is the cost of the home construction. "Because land is limited, typical house costs range from $400,000 to $800,000, so DHHL is helping local people enter into home ownership at about half the cost."

DHHL functions as the project management company, controlling the costs on the East Kapolei Two project which includes 1,200 home sites, as well as a youth center, community hall, swimming pool, making it a community within the metro area.

"We have about 166,000 yards of cut-to-fill on the site, and about 150,000 yards of select fill, which is coral," Chambliss says. "The reason we use coral is because it's non-expansive material. It works like select fill or good gravel that you'd use on the mainland."

Because of the site's size and because so much fill will be imported, Delta management recognized that it could benefit from the use of technology on the project. "Overrunning the imported fill material by an inch or two throughout the 60-acre site would cause us to exceed our budget by 10 percent or more," reports Chambliss. "That's why using Trimble systems on this project was essential. Otherwise, we could see higher costs for trucking, fuel, personnel, and on and on."

Trimble GCS900 Grade Control Systems are running on a dozer, compactor, and motor grader. The heavy equipment are equipped with dual-mast Trimble MS990 or MS992 Smart GPS Antennas. Delta is using the Trimble SPS930 Universal Total Station (UTS) to guide the machines to achieve the fine grade they want. The UTS is also used for survey, layout and topos.

Delta also constructs its 3D digital site plans, which are used. "We built the models--both the subgrade and finish grade models," states Chambliss. "Traditionally, our survey budget would be substantial since we'd have surveyors out there pretty much full time, because when we're running that many scrapers, dozers, and compactors, they'll be knocking down stakes left and right. And the surveyors would need to re-set them. "

Chambliss estimates that using machine control and a 3D model has saved the company significantly in surveying costs on this project. There are additional production cost savings of being able to run more efficiently and adapt to the demands of a tough worksite.

The specs mandated by the State of Hawaii restrict Delta to working on only 15 acres at a time, because in Hawaii, dust is a problem. Delta must apply a dust suppression product on top of everything when it's done and contain the worksite within 16-foot-high dust fences. "The benefit of machine control based on a digital plan is that we can seamlessly transition from one section to another with no sacrifice in quality," Chambliss says. "We also can be pretty creative with what we're doing--we can cut in one area and use the fill in a different spot or stockpile it for use in a different 15-acre section."

Delta Construction's contract on the project calls for completion in 12 months. "With our crew of 15, rather than the 20 to 25 we'd have needed without the Trimble survey and machine control, we'll complete everything in six months," states Chambliss. "But on this site, it's not about the time deadline; it's about the material. The money is made or lost in the material. And here's where the Trimble systems really demonstrated their value."

The East Kapolei Two project also includes the excavating and sub-grade for a 100-foot wide, mile-long dramatic parkway entrance into the subdivision. There is a shoulder, eight-foot sidewalks on both sides, with tree planter areas dividing the two lanes running in each direction.

"A challenge on the project was getting the site superintendent comfortable with the GPS technology," Chambliss comments. "He was very nervous about not seeing stakes with ribbons on them throughout the site. To make him feel comfortable and in control, I equipped a Gator 4X4 with a Trimble rover--a Trimble SPS882 Smart GPS Antenna-- so that he had access to all the site and workflow data the machine operators have in their cabs."

Having access to the information allowed the site superintendent to think strategically about the project. "When material is delivered or dirt needs to be stockpiled, superintendents typically would say, `just put it over there,'" Chambliss says. "But with the rover, the super can look and say `don't put it there, because we'll be working there next.'"

Chambliss admits that he was concerned about the site superintendent becoming comfortable with the technology, since he is critical to the success of a job. "In the beginning he was very skeptical. This was his first experience with this type of technology. I spent a lot of time showing him and teaching him how the technology works, how best to use it, and how to best take advantage of it. He turned the corner and began to see how immensely powerful and helpful the Trimble systems are. He now understands that GPS or ATS on machines are tools... incredibly beneficial tools. Now he's comfortable and confident and won't manage a new site without them."

Delta's machine operators have become so comfortable with the Trimble GCS900 Grade Control Systems on their compactors and big dozers that there is the risk of them fine grading when all that is needed is rough grading. "Our operators are so prideful of their work that they are turning out fine-grade results when all we need is a faster rough grade result. The machine control systems are on those machines so they don't overfill or underfill. I want them to be close, but not necessarily exact-- because in the end it's all about speed."

As the project gets closer to completion, Chambliss reflects: "We pioneered some things for the company and the different management techniques to support the production changes. I'm very happy with how the site superintendent on this project grew from reluctant to actively running with the technology. My management was also 100 percent behind the adoption of the technology on this project, knowing that it was the right thing to do, since the project was bid so tightly."

Concluding, "We have seen the benefits of technology and this has been a big step forward for us. We have room to grow... but we're not finished yet." Delta Construction is a bit like Hawaii that way... still growing every day.

Jeff Winke is a business and construction writer based in Milwaukee, Wis. He can be reached through www.jeffwinke.com.

A 537Kb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE

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