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Building with Software

Contractors speak about new software options and ease of use, applications, training issues and more

August 10, 2011  By Treena Hein

Following up on last issue’s look at what’s new in roadbuilding
software, we’ll now get the perspectives of users in the field – why
they chose what they did, what they’re using their software for, how the
training works, best features, tips and more.

Following up on last issue’s look at what’s new in roadbuilding software, we’ll now get the perspectives of users in the field – why they chose what they did, what they’re using their software for, how the training works, best features, tips and more.

Schroeder Construction of Austin, Texas, built a 3-D model of this pond using SiteMaster software prior to using TopCon’s GR-3 and FC-200 hardware to verify volumes as the pond was built. They also used a John Deere 700 Dozer equipped with 3DMC2, and an Iron Wolf Rock Crusher. (Photo courtesy of Schroeder Construction)


In April of this year, Behan Construction in Cobourg, Ont., decided to go with Trimble’s Business Center Heavy Construction Edition (HCE) roadbuilding software, a choice based on previous experience with Trimble and the attraction of simplicity. “We were using three different pieces of software (Terramodel, Paydirt, and Sitevision Office) and HCE promised to combine the functionality of all three into one package,” says Behan’s Construction Supervisor Steve Smith. “We’re still learning the software, but our early impression is that they were successful in attaining this goal.” He says they also purchased HCE because Trimble indicated that they will no longer be supporting Terramodel and no future versions will be coming.


Since April, Smith has so far used HCE to prepare digital terrain models for a few small building sites as well as a large earth-moving job. “The best feature of the software in my opinion is how it deals with 3-D lines,” he notes. “Instead of a ‘set’, which was Terramodel’s definition of two points joined by a line, HCE has created ‘linestrings.’ Linestrings have much more functionality and are much easier to edit if the design changes.”

Smith also really likes the fact that he can watch his model being built in a 3-D view as he adds information to a project. “This lets you see right away if you’ve entered an incorrect value, as you’ll immediately see a ‘spike’ in the model,” he explains. “The other really useful feature is the ‘project cleanup,’ which eliminates duplicate lines, joins line segments, and eliminates zero length lines. This saves a great deal of time when initially cleaning up the engineering drawing.” He says the “drag and drop import” feature is also very useful.

Smith notes that the software is very demanding in terms of hardware requirements and recommends that anyone looking at the software make double sure they have the minimum requirements. “A number of people in the training course were unable to effectively use the software due to hardware limitations,” he says. “In the office, I’ve been using a dual screen setup, which is very useful.”
For using HCE, Trimble recommends using its TSC3 handheld (to survey real-time quantities with the integrated camera and/or automatic GPS geotagging) and the Trimble Tablet (to make design changes in the field, connect to the office for on-the-spot approvals and communicate changes to field crews), but Smith says they use neither. “We have been using the Recon Data Collector for a number of years now with Survey Pro Software,” he says. “We find it works quite well for our applications. I do use a TSC2 with SCS900 just to calibrate our sites for machine controls.”

Jim Hartness says he first started looking into buying 3-D modelling software, grade-checking GPS systems and machine control systems in order to do things more efficiently. Hartness is construction supervisor at Shroeder Construction in Austin, Texas, a contractor that handles everything from planning and management to wet utilities and roads on the subdivisions and infrastructure projects that make up almost all of their business.

Hartness chose Topcon Positioning System’s SiteMaster because it seemed to be “the total package,” in his eyes. “It’s been instrumental in pad grading, which is becoming more and more of a norm as materials and fuel prices skyrocket,” he adds. “We also utilize it to find the manholes faster and more accurately than the good old metal detector, as well as making sure the flow line of the pipe is correct.”

Hartness adds that they’ve had many fewer instances of over-excavation since they started using SiteMaster, “due to the ability to quickly check the grade on the fly, and get the revisions to the field before the cuts have been made.”

In Hartness’s view, SiteMaster was a great fit because it allows him and his colleagues the ability to control projects from beginning to end, and fully utilize Topcon GPS technology. One of SiteMaster’s most important aspects for Shroeder is the ability to create 3-D models from the engineer’s CAD files. “Due to the nature of construction, there has never been a perfect set of plans,” Hartness notes, “and [with SiteMaster], we can make changes to the model as revisions come from time to time. We are then able to rapidly get them into the field to be implemented, thus saving time and money. It has also given us freedom to get the information on design-build items to the engineer and developers with actual quantities, so that we don’t do more work than we are getting paid for.”

 Since he got it about nine months ago, Hartness has been through training but is still discovering the capabilities of the software (see sidebar). During ongoing use nowadays, he reflects that “When challenges come up, there are multiple avenues to get them solved.” In order to do this, he says, “We try to simplify as much as possible. One of the newest features of SiteMaster is the ability to grey out all line work that doesn’t apply. That is, if I am building a road only, only the program applications of building a road such as horizontal/topo and cross sections are available.” In terms of other aspects he appreciates most, Hartness says, “I really like the elevate line features, and the ease-of-use – the ability to take it to my guys in the field, and they understand it when I need to walk through something over the phone.”

In the field, employees use Topcon’s GR-3 handheld device for satellite tracking, radio, cell and positioning. SiteMaster can also be used with Topcon’s FC-236 handheld device, which runs Pocket-3D software (that in turn integrates with the use of SiteMaster back in the office).

The biggest challenges Hartness has found lie in not having the software on enough machines, and keeping up with the updates. Of the latter, however, Hartness is quick to stress keeping up with the updates is worthwhile. “They are all good changes and I believe most of them come from recommendations of end-users. They really seem to listen to what we want in the field from these systems at Topcon.”

He’d like to get more familiar with Topcon’s Sitelink program, because he sees its advantages (being able to examine job progress in “real time” and share information with the office) as “huge.” “It seems to offer the ability to really keep an eye on what is going on in the field, as well as accurately bill material moved and adjust schedules accurately,” Hartness explains. “The more I learn about this system the more I think this is going to be a direction we will steer to in the future.”

For Shroeder, buying SiteMaster paid for itself in one month due to “simply not having to farm out the work, and being able to do it in house,” says Hartness. One thing he’d like to see added is a way to use it in the estimation process – by tracking the operator, pay rate and daily fuel usage in comparison to actual work performed. He’d also like to see a way to break the jobs up – such as 12,000 cubes of bank material, 5,000 cubes of rock excavation, 6,500 yards of fill – and separate these into files to more accurately price the units of material moved.

Reflecting on all the capabilities today’s hardware and software provides to the contractor, Hartness says he’s been surprised and impressed again and again in the recent past. With all that’s now available, he thinks, “It is only a matter of time till the cloth tape and auto-level with bluetops go away, the same as batter boards when pipe lasers were introduced.”

Learning the Software
Training time for Trimble HCE depends on individuals’ background, level of experience and desire to learn, says Jamal Mohammed, sales manager at SITECH Mid-Canada, the distributor of HCE in Canada. “Experienced software users can become productive in a few hours, others may take days or longer to become proficient,” he observes. “Our goal is to provide support, service, and learning and training tools throughout the process so customers can get up to speed as quickly as possible. Most key workflows are available as video tutorials, and online forums are also available for customers to ask questions and have Trimble staff review project data. We provide an enormous amount of support.”

For Steve Smith of Behan Construction in Cobourg, Ont., training started with working through the tutorials in a class setting in order to get an overall feel for the software but he admits it was in the real world that the learning took off. “The real learning took place once I got back to the office and had to use it to prepare a site,” he notes, while adding that it took him a day or so to figure out the overall work flow and functionality of the tool. Smith says the challenge can be summed up in an overall sense as “simply learning how to do something that you’re used to doing in a different software package and figuring out how HCE requires it to be done.” He gives alignment definition as an example. “In Terramodel, you define the horizontal and vertical alignments separately and combine them into a road,” Smith explains. “In HCE, it’s all in one menu.”

Jim Hartness of Shroeder Construction in Austin, Texas, says SiteMaster training by his local Topcon dealer in Austin (Geoshack) has been, and is still, excellent. “The initial training was from Topcon representatives and they were also top-notch,” he says. “We have since followed up with some ongoing Internet training from Geoshack that has really been great.” As to how long it takes to become proficient at SiteMaster, Hartness says, “there are new situations every day, and we are constantly learning new ways to increase efficiency with this system. I believe to truly see the full capabilities, it will take about two years. I use that as an average, in that many people will pick it up and with the right training and conditions will be off to the races, and some people who may be set in their ways will take more time.”

In terms of ongoing issues where his company has needed help, he says, “Most all issues are user error.” He adds “I’ve found that I come across situations weekly, and call Bill at Geoshack and ask ‘Can I do this?’ and he usually blows me away and starts telling me how to do it. It is like the plans come to life.”


Treena Hein is a freelance journalist based in Pembroke, Ont. She wrote this article for Aggregates & Roadbuilding.

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