Small Contractor's Gamble on New Technology Pays Off

Mark Ballard was considering ways to improve his company’s efficiency, productivity and profitability and was looking at an investment in GPS machine control as an option.

📅   Wed January 27, 2016 - Midwest Edition
Jeff Winke - Special to CEG


Mark Ballard of R.A. Alexander & Sons Inc., Owensboro, Ky., was considering ways to improve his company’s efficiency, productivity and profitability and was looking at an investment in GPS machine control as an option.
Mark Ballard of R.A. Alexander & Sons Inc., Owensboro, Ky., was considering ways to improve his company’s efficiency, productivity and profitability and was looking at an investment in GPS machine control as an option.
Mark Ballard of R.A. Alexander & Sons Inc., Owensboro, Ky., was considering ways to improve his company’s efficiency, productivity and profitability and was looking at an investment in GPS machine control as an option. Joe Kiesel, a machine control specialist of Total Positioning Solutions and Glenn Etienne of CES helped R.A. Alexander & Sons select a Topcon 3D-MC² GPS machine control system for the company’s Komatsu D61 crawler dozer. Due to the wet soil, R.A. Alexander had to frequently move around the site in different fill areas to allow drying time for the soil.

Trying something new involves risk. Risk can be scary. In a quiet, safe spot it can be easy to be brave and proclaim what an unknown source once said: “Never be afraid to try something new. Remember, amateurs built the ark, professionals built the Titanic.”

However, bravado needs to be tempered with reality. Take third generation construction company owner Mark Ballard of R.A. Alexander & Sons Inc., Owensboro, Ky. Ballard was considering ways to improve his company's efficiency, productivity and profitability and was looking at an investment in GPS machine control as an option.

“I've been intimidated by GPS machine control,” said Ballard. “To be honest, it is scary to think we could spend a lot of money on technology and not know how to use it.”

Ballard was aware that GPS machine control is becoming inevitable to remain competitive in his market. The market and his company are different than when his grandfather started in 1947. With only four employees, the company has remained small, by design. It maintains a small fleet of mid-size machines. When it needs big heavy equipment or specialty machines, Ballard smartly rents them — letting the rental source shoulder the carrying and maintenance costs of the occasional-use machines.

Ballard knew he needed help when it came to diving into technology. He trusted his local Komatsu machine dealer who he had worked with over the years. The Komatsu dealer recommended that he work with Total Positioning Solutions, headquartered in Louisville, Ky., that sells, rents and services Topcon products and also with Construction Engineering Solutions (CES), based in Leopold, Ind., a construction technology consulting, training, troubleshooting and 3D project site modeling service. TPS is the authorized Topcon distributor for the Kentucky and southern Indiana markets.

Joe Kiesel, a machine control specialist of Total Positioning Solutions and Glenn Etienne of CES helped R.A. Alexander & Sons select a Topcon 3D-MC² GPS machine control system for the company's Komatsu D61 crawler dozer and a Topcon X-63 3D excavator system for the contractor's Komatsu PC490 hydraulic excavator. The company wanted a good match to its existing equipment.

“Both Joe Kiesel with the Topcon dealer and Glenn Etienne were thorough and patient in explaining how the systems work,” Ballard said. “We quickly became comfortable with the technology and learned quite a bit on a small first job we used it on, but this large Caymen Ridge Subdivision project is where we experienced the tremendous benefits of GPS machine control.”

The Caymen Ridge Subdivision project, located in Evansville, Ind., was a 24-acre expansion of an existing residential development that will double the number of homes there. The site is former farmland featuring silty soil with high moisture content because of the local high water table.

Due to the wet soil, R.A. Alexander had to frequently move around the site in different fill areas to allow drying time for the soil. With the GPS machine control Ballard said: “We knew exactly where we were placing the dirt from start to finish of each day. The start-up each day was very easy.”

For the project R.A. Alexander & Sons moved 156,000 cu. yds. (119,270 cu m) of soil to create approximately 100 finish-grade house pads and landscape-ready yards. CES created the 3D site model that governed the machines and helped track project progress.

“We found greater precision with the GPS machine control, which meant that we didn't need to move dirt twice, which was a big time waster for us in the past,” said Ballard. “We also greatly reduced our surveyor costs since this huge job was stakeless, which also meant that we didn't have irritating work stoppages every time a stick got knocked down, requiring a surveyor to come on site and pound a new one.”

A big challenge on the project was the creation of an 18-ft. (5.4 m) deep retention pond that measured 400 ft. (121 m) long by 300 ft. 91.4 m) wide. The pond had three different slopes that gradated from 4:1, 3:1, and then 2:1.

According to Ballard, the Topcon system “really proved its value by making the retention pond build far easier than it would have been without. The excavator operator could dig very close to grade requiring minimal effort for the GPS dozer to place on final grade.”

R.A. Alexander finished the job three weeks ahead of schedule.

“We were blessed with good weather, which helped,” Ballard said. “But the main reason we got done so quickly was because of the GPS machine control. All told, we achieved more accurate grade, faster, and with less effort — and, we're still learning about everything this technology has to offer.”

Additionally, Ballard said, “There was more time spent on the machine working than off it studying the staking or site plans to figure out the next step. We knew what the next step was, because it was on the screen right in front of us.”

Compared to traditional methods, R.A. Alexander now has ready access to project data, such as the measure of the amount of cubic yardage moved each day.

Looking back on the Caymen Ridge Subdivision project, Ballard said, “You know both of my parents still work for the company….my mom is the company bookkeeper and my dad still operates a machine. As you can imagine, I was nervous about making a big investment in GPS machine control, fearing they'd be old school and think I was nuts. After seeing how well we did on the Caymen project — completed ahead of schedule, we made good money, and the finished results are better than expected — both of my parents said to me: ‘If we knew how good this GPS machine control was, we would have bought it years ago.'”