Sweeney Excavation Looks to the Sky for Direction

Wed October 08, 2003 - Northeast Edition

Robert Sweeney founded Sweeney Excavation in 1986 and from the very beginning, he’s had his eye on the future of the industry. Now there’s an eye in the sky helping him do his work.

Originally, Sweeney worked with the owner of a pool company installing swimming pools. Over time, his company has grown into a substantial site development business, which also does septic work, sewer and water systems, asphalt paving and maintenance. What’s more, Sweeney owns and operates the Blue Diamond Quarry, with locations in East Haven and Meriden, CT, which manufactures and sells aggregate products and topsoil.

Currently, Sweeney Excavation is involved in two major projects:

• One is a $4-million site job that includes the construction of 9,000 ft. (2,743 m) of roads, 95 homes and all infrastructure work, which is being done for Baker Residential at a site in Wallingford, CT.

• The second is a $2-million project for Avalon Bay Communities, a nationwide builder who is putting in 250 luxury apartments.

To accomplish these two projects, along with several other smaller ongoing jobs, Sweeney employs a fleet of 30 pieces of earthmoving equipment, plus crushers and screeners.

Currently, Sweeney also has launched a new company called Sweeney Residential, which will be performing residential projects including landscaping and design, retaining walls, brick pavers, stamped concrete, asphalt driveways, etc., on a residential level.

Sweeney Excavation has always been a company that unfailingly positions itself to be in total control of its projects. Approximately six years ago, the company began doing its own total station site layouts, which gave it the advantage of being in complete control of the site, giving it the flexibility of laying out stockpiles, and so on, before excavation even began. Shortly after that, however, Sweeney became aware of global positioning satellite (GPS) technology and decided to take some of his key operators to ConExpo to get a first-hand look at the equipment, knowing that if he elected to use GPS, it would be rendered useless unless his operators embraced the technology.

At ConExpo, Sweeney was so impressed with what he saw that he subsequently put in a call to Tom Hogan, of Keystone Precision Instruments, to find out how his company could get started with GPS. (Manufactured by Spectra Precision, the Trimble product is carried by Keystone Precision Instruments, a dealer based in Whitehall, PA.)

“We felt that Trimble was the industry leader and we also knew that their equipment had been used on the Big Dig in Boston,” Sweeney began, “and from what we understood, they had given the contractors tremendous service and support.” Soon, Sweeney became the first contractor in Connecticut to invest in this equipment.

The Trimble system uses GPS technology, which allows a contractor to upload the plans of a job site or development into a computer that is installed inside the cab of a bulldozer. GPS tracks the exact location of the bulldozer and the depth at which it is digging, showing the operator what grade and depth he must maintain to precisely adhere to the specs on the plan for that particular site.

For example, in an open lot that has yet to be developed, the operator can accurately see where his machine is positioned in relation to what the finished site will look like, which tells him exactly what grades he will need to maintain to correctly complete the project.

According to the manufacturer, “the equipment allows a contractor to achieve acute machine and blade positioning in real time as well as automating fine grade earthmoving. By taking design data from the office and into the cab, operators can grade complex designs, such as vertical curves, transitions, super elevated curves and complex site designs all without surveyor stakes, straight lines or layout. And, because the data is there in the field, the foreman or operator can quickly set the new grade or pad elevation right in the cab, without waiting for grade stakes to be set or re-positioned.”

The Trimble system employs two antennas, which are mounted on the blade of the bulldozer. This allows positioning so precise that grades can be maintained while moving both forward or in reverse. As a result, grades can be monitored within an elevation of less than an inch, whether dirt is being pushed or pulled.

“This system also allows us to make a three dimensional blueprint of the site,” said Sweeney. “The process is called making a digital terrain model, which allows us to ’drive’ the customer through a 3-D enhanced model of the site on the computer before work ever begins. This model also will often bring potential problems with the layout of the site to our attention before the work has ever begun. For instance, we may see grades that just won’t work or land elevations that are too severe, all of which can be addressed between us and the customer before utilities have already been laid and retaining walls placed, which would drive the cost of those changes through the roof.

“We also can easily do an existing topography of a site at the start of a job. This allows us to verify as the job progresses how many cubic yards of material have been moved from the site. This is particularly useful if payment to us is being staggered as the job progresses.

“At the end of a job we can present to the developer an ’as-built’ plan that shows exactly where every single aspect is, both horizontally and vertically, within an eighth of an inch of this job. For instance, this plan could show a water shut-off valve in a 100-acre site and precisely where it is located, including the precise elevation. Down the road as utilities are maintained and repaired this information is priceless to the developer,” Sweeney concluded.

Currently, Sweeney Excavation is using GPS technology on some very significant projects, such as large multi-unit apartment complexes.

“With our new technology we strategically market ourselves to customers that need and appreciate what we offer,” began Sweeney. “Particularly, customers that demand an aggressive schedule and a high-quality product. Today’s customers are demanding extremely high efficiency and insist that you don’t sacrifice quality. Our system from Trimble has allowed us to meet those demands, and further separate us from our competition.

“Reaching this level has been a progression for us. Six years ago we started doing our own site layouts. Now, using the Trimble equipment and our layouts, it’s giving us significant advantages in meeting our customer’s needs. As an example, we can pre-stockpile material and know exactly where that stockpile is going to lie in terms of elevation, location to completed utilities and buildings before the project has even started and without surveyor stakes on the site. We can be confident once we place those stockpiles that it will not need to be moved. The combined results of doing our own field layouts and the GPS technology has separated us from our competitors,” he said.

Sweeney also noted that the Trimble system has virtually eliminated the need for surveyor stakes because the operator knows exactly where he is and at what depth.

However, was learning the Trimble system difficult? Sweeney answered:

“One of my chief operators is 60 years old and his name is David McKosky. He is, by far, the best operator I have ever seen. Typical of any heavy equipment operator and even more so at the age of 60, David was not very excited about this new technology and he did not want it imposed on him. Two weeks after the installation of this equipment David was addicted. Now he doesn’t like to even strip topsoil without it. He loves it, he no longer has to work around surveying stakes and he can sit behind the controls in his air conditioned cab all day long and just make grade,” he said.

But the bottom line for anything is how it affects productivity and efficiency, which, of course affects the bottom line. Sweeney answered this:

“Our overall efficiency has been increased by 50 percent due to the Trimble equipment. This equipment takes a great operator and makes him even better. It makes a mediocre operator a good operator. That’s value.” he said.