Top fuel dragsters are the fastest accelerating vehicles on the planet, starting from a dead stop and reaching astounding speeds of up to 330 mph at the quarter-mile finish. This nothing-to-all-out approach, when applied to business decision-making, often leads to the equivalent of a crash and burn. Contractors who add too quickly to the payroll or machine fleet can find themselves scrambling for extra projects or wishing they had a parachute to slow the process down.
It's interesting to speak with Gene Lowder, Lowder Site Contractor, Winston-Salem, NC. Lowder recently took his mid-size site prep contracting firm from zero machine control technology to four 3-D GPS machine control systems in one controlled blast.
"You couldn't hardly pick up an industry trade magazine without someone referencing GPS systems, so it piqued my curiosity," Lowder says. "I explored it. Started asking questions. And, I soon recognized that no one in my area had yet purchased a system and that became a big motivator. I wanted to be the first one off the line."
The idea of moving into GPS machine control fit into Lowder's business plan. "I was finishing up a stretch of expansion and we were in a holding pattern — a time to catch our breaths. I wasn't interested in buying more iron or hiring another 15 employees. My business plan was to maintain employment at roughly 55 and become more efficient with my machine fleet. As I considered the alternatives to buying another excavator or dozer, everything pointed to GPS machine control."
Lowder invested a year of research — reading the trade magazines, studying the manufacturers' literature and consulting with a larger contractor for which Lowder's firm had completed subcontract work.
"They have Trimble systems, so I asked a lot of questions and sat in one of the machines to learn how it works," Lowder says.
Lowder invited Trimble and one of its competitors in for presentations to get a better sense of the pros and cons. "I had narrowed my choice to Trimble and a competitor. Having more confidence that the Trimble dealer would provide the support and service I was looking for was the deciding factor."
After the initial GPS grade control systems presentations, it was several months before Lowder decided to purchase. "I wanted to time my entry into this technology to coincide with the local economy and I wanted to build a backlog of business," he states.
"I began to feel confident enough with the notion that GPS machine control will help us, so I looked at what would provide me with the optimum advantage on a project site," Lowder says.
"I know many contractors start out by purchasing a base station and a motor grader. This doesn't make sense to me. I wanted the efficiencies during mass excavation, since that's where we make the most money. By the time we're performing fine grading, all the money has been made or lost already. It makes sense to me to equip one or two machines in the cut environment and one or two in the fill environment."
Trimble GCS900 grade control systems were purchased for Lowder Site Contractor's Hitachi Zaxis 230 LC and Zaxis 270 LC hydraulic excavators and for its two dozers, a Cat D5M track-type tractor and John Deere 750J crawler dozer.
"I reached a point when it all came together," Lowder said. "I understood that 3-D GPS grade control is a tool ... it's practical ... and it's going to make us a better, more efficient operation. The largest mistake in the grading business is moving that cubic yard of soil twice. Today, the only way to win a project is to be the low bid. If we move that yard of dirt two or three times, we've lost our margin and there's no making it up."
In addition to eliminating costly rework, Lowder likes the fact that the system can help him and his crew spot potential problems in the field ahead of time before they can become a re-do situation. "With the 3-D digital model, our guys can recognize ahead of time if something doesn't seem right — let's say a site staking error or a mis-staked storm drain line."
Additionally, Lowder feels the GPS machine control system helps to maximize the skills of his machine operators. "It's no secret that skilled operators are harder to find today. So, if we can take a good operator, who has equipment experience and initiative, and put this tool in front of them, it increases their skill level."
As an example of the company's success using the Trimble GCS900 grade control system-equipped machines, Lowder points to the Salem Creek Industrial Park project where they currently are well ahead of schedule.
Located on the outskirts of Winston-Salem, NC, the approximately 40-acre parcel is zoned for heavy industrial use with the intent of attracting manufacturing/fabrication facilities, warehouses and/or distribution centers as tenants. As many as 20 structures will be built on 1- to 4-acre tracts.
Lowder Site Contractor is responsible for everything from clearing the standing timber to widening the access road into the property to erosion control, which includes some large-size storm water management ponds. In addition to all the mass grading, the company will complete public utility trenching and fine grading.
"Once we cleared the canopy, we started using our Trimble GPS machine control systems," Lowder says. "We have a substantial amount of undercut on this job and have used the GPS system to quantify the undercut. We're way ahead of schedule, and the Trimble systems have definitely helped. We certainly have had less re-dos."
Lowder's now 78-year-old father founded Lowder Site Contractor in the 1950s.
"My dad's philosophy when faced with a tough challenge or deadline was to give it some gas — work harder. He made our company successful with that approach. I like to think that we still put the pedal to the metal when faced with obstacles, but that we're now being even more productive by using the Trimble GPS-based grade control systems on our machines."