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Rainy Situation Eased by GPS at Ark. Project

Thu June 05, 2008 - Southeast Edition
Mary Reed

Record-setting rains in central Arkansas have been conquered by a family construction company with the aid of advanced technology.

“We started work on Aug. 6 last year and it started to rain on Aug. 30,” recalled Larry Cox of Larry Cox Construction, “and it’s been raining ever since. It’s the worst I’ve ever seen!”

The $500,000 job involved site and storm drain work for eight baseball fields and five soccer fields at the city of Heber Springs’s Mare Square Sports Complex and Heber Springs High School’s physical education facility.

David V. Dow, vice president of TrenchSafety & Supply Inc., based in Memphis, Tenn., and Little Rock, Ark., supplied Cox Construction with GPS equipment. He said the technology makes it easier to work in inclement weather.

“That’s the beauty of using satellite signals — you can work 24/7 in just about any weather. The caveat is ’if the machines can get in the field.’ With all the bad weather Arkansas has had, getting in the field was the problem, not the equipment,” Dow said.

Even before the torrential rains hit, Cox Construction had encountered problems with the project. The company purchased a 2-D grader system a year or two ago, but discovered that the sites had too many elevations to permit its use. Cox therefore decided to use a Champion 720 grader fitted with Topcon GPS as part of a 3-D set-up also involving a base station and a survey rover. 2-D machine control uses laser or sonic sensors, whereas 3-D machine control uses GPS and GLONASS (Russia’s Global Navigation Satellite System) satellite systems for greater accuracy. The advantage of the latter type of excavation control system is that it allows grading without the need for stakes.

“In addition to our GPS-controlled grader, we also used a 330 Kobelco trackhoe, a D61 Komatsu dozer, two [International Harvester] four-wheel tractor and pans, two dump trucks and an Ingersoll Rand 100 padfoot roller for this project,” Cox noted, adding that the job is now about 90 percent complete.

Dow said it’s not the larger contractors who are forging the way with GPS technology.

“TrenchSafety has been selling machine control since 1997 and involved in GPS machine control since 2001,” he said. “What’s been interesting is that smaller contractors, like Cox Construction, have been some of the first contractors to adopt this technology.”

Dow believes there are a couple of reasons why this is so.

“First, smaller contractors have to find ways to do more, with less,” he said. “Second, they’ve got to find some method of obtaining a competitive advantage when competing against larger contractors, and third, frequently the owner of the small construction company is actually running the equipment. They see the benefits of this technology first hand. They also see the benefits sooner than a larger company, where the information has to be passed upwards through the chain of command.”

Cox Construction is a good example of the smaller companies to which Dow referred. Founded in 1972 and based in Heber Springs, Ark., the company is run by Larry Cox aided by his two sons, Lance and Matt. It has three full-time employees, and Cox’s wife, Connie, keeps the books.

“In this instance, one of Larry Cox’s sons has repeatedly made the comment that he no longer has to worry about where his blade is located, relative to grade, or where he’s positioned on a job. He can check the screen of his system, at any time, and immediately answer these questions. This is a common comment,” Dow said.

When talking about this technology, Dow frequently refers to machine shops.

“If you go back 20 to 30 years, the typical machine shop had a lot of older men who spent their days leaning over a lathe or a drill press, etc. These older men were true craftsmen,” he explained. “Today, unfortunately, most of those older men have died. Even smaller machine shops have invested in computer-controlled equipment. The end result is they make better products — the products are more consistent, they can produce these parts quicker and they make more money.”

The same is true with construction, he said. “One of the biggest problems in construction — or any industry — is finding good people. Historically, the construction industry has relied upon ’good operators.’ Unfortunately, ’good operators’ are getting harder to find. This technology allows even smaller construction companies, like Cox, to be more precise, to get to grade quicker, and to make more money.”

Another point Dow finds significant is that this technology allows contractors to carry out more themselves.

“Historically, site-prep contractors have been dependent upon surveyors to stake their jobs. Surveyors, like all of us, get busy. The end result is sometimes contractors can’t start their jobs, because the surveyors haven’t finished theirs. This technology does away with a lot of the staking, which means the contractor isn’t as dependent upon others.” CEG

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