Survey Perspectives – Late January 2008

January 16, 2008  - By
Image: GPS World

3D Machine Control

One of the hotter topics in the construction industry these days is GPS/GNSS. If any of you attend the World of Concrete exhibition in Las Vegas, you’ll see many examples of how GNSS is being implemented in construction environments. The exhibition is expected to attract more than 1,700 exhibitors and 90,000 attendees this month. I’m sorry I’ll miss it this year, but if you do attend, you’ll find the usual GNSS (and related) suspects exhibiting: Topcon, various Trimble divisions, Leica, Sokkia, Seco Mfg, CST/Berger, Berntsen, etc.

Although the U.S. real estate construction market is clearly slowing (or shall I say dying?), the commercial construction market seems to be holding its own for the time being. The demand for construction automation equipment is still there, but I hear more about construction (and surveying) outfits wanting to rent GNSS equipment as opposed to buying it. This makes sense, as confidence in the economy is clearly waning.

Regardless of construction industry trends, there’s no lack of equipment automation opportunities (GNSS-wise) in the construction industry. Of course, precise positioning (topo surveys, construction staking, grade checking, establishing control, etc.) is one area of opportunity, but there’s also not-so-precise positioning, like navigating to job sites (a la “In 500 feet, turn left on Main Street”) and asset tracking (“Yes, Mr. Job Superintendent, we delivered that 2,500 feet of 2-inch PVC this morning at 9:10am; would you like to know exactly which staging area we delivered it to?”).

But perhaps no GNSS automation is causing such a stir as 3D machine control. Actually, it’s not 3D machine control itself, but the matter of who is technically and legally is able to provide the site data that’s used by the 3D machine control equipment.

I think the issue can be summed up in three statements:

1. Construction firms need 3D site data in order to use their 3D machine control equipment.

2. Engineering firms, those responsible for generating the plans, are hesitant to give up/generate the 3D site data because they’re concerned about exposure (errors and omissions).

3. Surveying firms, specifically those specializing in construction staking, aren’t too hot about the 3D machine control concept because it significantly reduces the need for construction staking.

I don’t think anyone knows how this is going to shake out yet, but I believe one thing is certain. The value proposition of 3D machine control for construction firms, when used on the right type of projects, is just too great for it to be ignored. As the old saying goes, just follow the money. As long as you believe that, then the responsibility of the 3D data preparation really doesn’t matter, because it’s going to happen. Granted, there might be a catfight before it’s all through, but it will be resolved.

I’ve sat through a couple of friendly discussions on this subject, must recently at the Trimble Dimensions conference, where folks — construction firms, engineers, and surveyors — had a chance to voice their opinions. I’ve also had the opportunity to work with a number of each of them. One recurring theme that stands out in my mind is the efficiency and resolve of construction companies. Well, maybe not efficiency at times, but certainly the resolve. They understand, as much as anyone, that time is money.

That’s a major reason they are so gung-ho on 3D machine control. The idea of not having to wait around for someone to pound or re-stake grade stakes or construction limits or whatever is like RTK: it’s addictive. In fact, contrary to what some may say, construction superintendents and operators are quite resourceful.

“Joe Engineering Co. said they weren’t going to provide the 3D site data?” Well in that case, Mr. Job Superintendent might just turn around and digitize the 100-foot-scale paper plans they’ve got. Two days later, they load up the 3D site data, and they are off and running.

I know, I know. That raises all kinds of issues. Copyright infringement, liability, etc. By the time you’re done listing the issues and debating them, the construction company has finished the project and moved on to the next job. Is that right — or even legal? Maybe, or maybe not, but that’s reality, at least for now.

The Solution?

To quote Chris Matthews from his book I just read, entitled Life’s A Campaign, “The people who show up get the chances.” I think it’s a mistake for engineers/surveyors to stonewall construction firms and attempt to withhold 3D site data. I think they’ve got to stay in the game and keep the data flowing.

Is it business as usual and just pass the DWG, Ma’am? No, of course not. There’s even an opportunity for generating revenue. Contractors are going to pay for 3D site data that has been certified for 3D machine control, if their other choices are using a dated, non-certified DWG file that’s passed through ten different e-mail threads, or trying to digitize paper site plans.

The game is changing. Are you going to show up?

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