Smallest State, Biggest Payback

Here’s an inside, dollars-and-cents look at how a small project-planning and construction firm in Rhode Island gains savings and efficiency by using GPS and a robotic total station.

By Larry Trojak
Although a fairly new company, Site Resources, LLC, has quickly established itself as a major player in the Providence-area market for site development and construction. It did so by combining equal parts hard work, good planning, and wise use of available technology. They provided the latter part of that equation first in the form of GPS and shortly thereafter with a robotic total station (both units were from Sokkia).

While each instrument has made an indelible mark on how Site Resources does business, the robotic total station’s impact has been particularly telling. Since adding the instrument in early 2011, the company has seen a dramatic upturn in efficiency—so impressive an improvement, in fact, that payback on the station was realized faster than they’d envisioned. Now, with the two pieces of equipment, not only have they streamlined many areas of their onsite effort, but they are also easily able to tackle larger projects than ever before, setting them up for even more growth.

Different Directions

Based in North Kingstown, Rhode Island, just south of Providence, Site Resources was born from a larger firm when two brothers, former co-owners of a large home building/site work firm, parted ways. Glen Skurka, project engineer for Site Resources, said, “The other company still does all the home building, but Mark DePasquale, our owner, chose to focus instead on the site work portion of the business.

“That was about four years ago, and at the beginning it was just Mark, a foreman, a single piece of heavy equipment, and a couple of employees. About a year into the venture, they brought me on board from a local engineering firm to add surveying expertise to their expanding list of strengths. Today we are up to about 35 employees and keeping busy, even in this tough economy.”

Prior to his joining the company, Skurka says the company generally paid original designers for all the layout work. Adding a GPS-based capability to the operation, they felt, would be the first step in eliminating all such costs. With that in mind, they contacted Bob Girard from Eastpoint Lasers in Hooksett, New Hamphsire.

“Mark already had a 15-year history of working with Bob and Eastpoint, and we’d also purchased Carlson’s Takeoff software from them,” says Skurka. “We really liked the job they did for us, and in a business like this, finding the right person and company to help when making a shift in technologies is important.”

Sky’s the Limit

With a game plan in mind and a couple of larger projects looming, the company demoed a Sokkia GRX1 GNSS system, liked what they saw, and purchased the unit. Skurka says doing so essentially changed the way they did business.

“We were in the early stages of doing site work for a new BJ’s, a large wholesale chain here in the region, and felt it was the ideal job to make the move on,” he says. “We were impressed right from the outset and, based on what it saved us in terms of survey costs, changes, and overall efficiency, we knew this was the direction in which we needed to be headed.”

From there, he adds, the company was able to bid more aggressively on projects that once seemed out of reach, an effort that landed them a trio of new Walmart stores. They followed that with work for a new Lowe’s home improvement store and a Kohl’s department store, as well as a CVS pharmacy, a dormitory at the University of Rhode Island, a community center in Providence, and a Jewish Temple not far from their office.

“The workload has been pretty amazing,” says Skurka. “Having GPS has helped us grow at a pace that was way beyond our projections. In fact, it got to the point where we knew we needed to add another unit to keep things going, so earlier this year we started contemplating an additional purchase from Eastpoint.”

Bring in the Robot

Much of the area around Providence is heavily wooded—great from both an aesthetic and an environmental standpoint, not so much for optimum GPS use. Having been stymied on several occasions when heavy tree cover degraded their satellite signal, the company began considering an alternative to a second GPS system to meet their expansion needs.

“Again, we talked to Bob Girard and started looking at a robotic total station,” says Skurka. “While our GPS was irreplaceable on larger jobs and those with a clear southern exposure, we needed something for our smaller projects and those jobs in really wooded areas. The robot really doesn’t care about trees—it works no matter where it’s sitting. It was the obvious choice for us, we made it, and it’s been paying dividends almost since day one.”

Foremost among those dividends is an ability to now perform their own “limit of disturbance” work, the function that establishes the boundary to which trees can be cleared and at which silt fence can then be placed. In the past, says Skurka, that work used to be subcontracted out to a survey crew.

“Even on a smaller job, that would cost us about $4,000 in survey costs to lay out for the silt fence,” he says. “On larger projects, the savings are even more dramatic. On the Walmart job, for example, we had to mark trees for 6,000 feet through the woods; that would have cost us about $20,000 to lay out. Now, instead of paying someone to do it, we did it ourselves for about $3,000. In a matter of about two weeks’ time, that’s a savings of $17,000 made possible by a $30,000 instrument. A couple of jobs like that—which we’ve already had—and it’s easy to see how the technology has paid for itself.”

One-man Crew

According to Skurka, the robot’s appeal can be found also in its ease of use and ability to capitalize on single-person operation. “There was an upcharge in going to a robotic total station versus a manual one; there’s no denying that,” he says. “For us that was about $15,000. However, I would have to pay a second man at least $45,000 a year to help run a manual station, so the difference—and then some—is immediately offset. In addition our unit is much faster than shooting it manually, which means we can get into and out of projects quicker. And, on a typical job, we can probably get 200 to 300 shots versus only 100 with a manual station, so accuracies are much better.”

The accuracies and ease of use to which Skurka refers are made possible by what Sokkia cites as its advances in laser technology, an optimized optical design, major advances to the unit’s motor drive mechanism, and a more refined tracking algorithm—all of which combine to provide a robust auto-tracking capability. The unit is designed to track a moving prism even in strong backlight or with repetitive interruptions in the line of sight, thereby reducing the possibility of losing a prism lock. However, even if the lock is lost, the on-demand remote-control system allows the robot to instantly recover the prism lock.

“We’ve had no trouble maintaining a lock at all, even when we are well into the woods doing a limit of disturbance measurement,” says Skurka. “They’ve designed the instrument to deal with a lot of things that would normally mess with a prism and total station. That’s helped us out quite a bit.”

Good across the Board

Versatility among instruments is yet another benefit Skurka cites as being helpful to their operation. He says that the data collector on the rod of the robot is interchangeable with the GPS. “So if we are working on one of the larger jobs and I need to get into the woods for some reason, I can set up the robot and switch right over to it with the same data collector, the same file, shoot my points, and go right back to the GPS, all in the same system.”

Although the company currently does not have machine control on any of its dozers or excavators, Skurka says they would also be able to take that same file, load it into any machine, and work off it. “And that might still be an option one day,” he says.

“Right now, however, we are really pleased with the new capabilities this equipment has afforded us—and the savings that came along with it. We are also confident in knowing that a simple phone call to Eastpoint Lasers will get us what we need and ensure an excellent level of support. That’s a really good thing to know as we move forward.”

Larry Trojak of Trojak Communications is a Minnesota-based freelance writer who specializes in writing for the construction, recycling, and municipal industries.

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