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Contractor’s Decision to Adopt Technology Changes Game

By: Jeff Winke - SPECIAL TO CEG

S. Erwin Excavating uses the GCSFlex for the main cut on projects. In some instances it is used to help ensure the excavation is close for footings on building pads or on drain lines.
With the Ketchum residential duplex sites, just like the coop project, the contractor saved the costs and time of having a grade checker working on the sites or, if they are short a worker for the day, having the machine operator stop production, hop out of the machine, and check grade to make sure the excavating is on target.

There is a point … a point where the realization hits a construction contractor and a decision is made. The decision could be to invest in more heavy equipment. It could be to add a new service. It could be to expand geographically into new markets. Or, as in the case of S. Erwin Excavating, the decision is made to adopt technology —machine control technology — that literally is changing the way they work.

“I was attending a demo show put on by my local equipment dealer and I saw how easy the machine control systems are to run and what they can do for you,” said Darren Exon, president of the Bellevue, Idaho-based S. Erwin Excavating. “What clicked for me was seeing the low-cost Trimble GCSFlex Grade Control System operating on an excavator and thinking that 'this could really help, and is a pretty good deal.'”

Trimble positions its GCSFlex for excavators as an “affordable option to leverage machine control technology and be more competitive.”

“We can work on three different smaller jobs a day sometimes, so I like the flexibility of being able to easily switch my GCSFlex system between excavators at will,” Exon says. “We have three hydraulic excavators — a mini-, a small-size, and a medium-size machine — and two systems to switch between them.”

The system features body and boom sensors designed to provide information regarding the angle and position of the boom and body of the machine. A bucket sensor is designed to provide information regarding the angle and position of the bucket, while a laser catcher can provide information regarding the angle and position of the stick and can be used with a grade laser for elevation information.


The system's software has the ability to create and store an infinite number of machine and bucket configurations and unique operator display settings. The excavator operator relies on visual cues and audible tones from the Trimble CB450 Control Box for real-time bucket guidance.

“Our Trimble dealer showed us how easy it is to use and how to quickly swap the system between machines,” said Exon. “It took us less than an hour to be trained and up and running. And we're talking four experienced machine operators with no prior exposure to machine control.”

Exon admits that one long-time machine operator resisted, feeling with his skill and experience that he didn't need the technology. After seeing the advantages of the technology in use, he has warmed up to the idea.

S. Erwin Excavating uses the GCSFlex for the main cut on projects. In some instances it is used to help ensure the excavation is close for footings on building pads or any drain lines. The company uses a single slope laser, which is designed to achieve a constant grade.

“I like the GCSFlex because it eliminates the need for a grade checker and if you're digging a deep trench you don't need a worker down there,” said Exon. “We install quite a few water suppression tanks which means a 10-foot-deep hole with someone down in there shooting grade. It just saves a lot of time and is safer, which is important to me.”

Of the several recent jobs S. Erwin Excavating has worked on, Exon mentions a couple.

The company is working on a commercial site in Gooding, Idaho — a farm equipment coop building. The $500,000 project requires S. Erwin to dig a 4-ft.-wide by 3.5 ft.-deep (1.2 m-wide by 1.07 m-deep) trench footing around the outside perimeter of the approximately 100- by 80-ft. (30.5 by 24 m) building.

“We also needed to dig a number of footing pads for load bearing in the center of the building,” Exon said. “These are a number of four-foot by four-foot pads with depths that vary from 14 inches to two feet. GCSFlex is allowing us to be more productive since we don't need a worker shooting grade. Work is getting done faster, safer, and accurately.”

At another site, S. Erwin Excavating is digging housing pads for three residential duplexes being built in a subdivision located in Ketchum, Idaho.

“These are 60 by 40 foot building pads we're constructing where we need to take what we're given and take it all down to one elevation,” said Exon. “We're using our hydraulic excavator with GCSFlex to muck out the hole and get it very close before going over it with a dozer for finish grade.”

With the Ketchum residential duplex sites, just like the coop project, Exon saved the costs and time of having a grade checker working on the sites or, if they are short a worker for the day, having the machine operator stop production, hop out of the machine, and check grade to make sure the excavating is on target.

“These projects, and other smaller ones, are typical of the jobs we have,” Exon said. “That's why we like the versatility of the Trimble GCSFlex Grade Control System. We can quickly jump from site to site and easily move the system from one machine to another.”

In this tough economy, S. Erwin Excavating has been keeping its approximately 26 employees busy serving the Idaho market, principally the Blaine County area. The company also completes a lot of excavation work for huge 8,000-to 9,000-sq.-ft. private houses in the Sun Valley area. This includes sewers, ponds, septic systems, river restoration, and demolition.

The company, which was established in 1991, has grown and evolved.

“I see adding machine control technology as another step in our company's evolution,” Exon said, “For a relatively low investment, we've brought technology to our company that's saving us time and money. You can't beat that.”