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Pool Sharks

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Custom swimming pool firm taps new technology for increase in efficiency.

The real surprise behind the broad acceptance of some of today’s new layout technology is not the improvements it can bring — that much was expected and did not disappoint. What is impressive, however, is the broad range of industries in which this new solution is making its presence known. Today, while adoptees of advanced layout technology are largely general contractors, others, working to improve their workflow, include professionals in the concrete, electrical, HVAC and plumbing trades, as well as landscapers and more. One of those in the “more” category, now includes designers and installers of custom pools and spas — companies like Signature, LLC. Seeking to replace cumbersome, time-intensive layout work in advance of pool design and construction, the Greenville, South Carolina-based company turned to a robotic layout navigator. Not only have they shortened layout times and improved accuracies, they’ve also found additional areas in which the instrument might pay future dividends. A headfirst dive into technology? That’s a Signature move.

“With the new robot we can just go out and take measurements at random... once we are back from the site visit, there is no more manual data entry — it allows me to dive straight in and start designing."

Chris Davis, lead designer, Signature Pools.

A Good Thing Gets Better

Established by Craig Sikkelee more than 40 years ago, Signature Pools self-describes as a family-owned and operated business specializing in custom design/build pools and spas. Started out modestly, the company has consistently grown, and is today one of the premier pool designers in the Greenville/Spartanburg area, according to Joe Gatas, manager of design and estimating.

“We currently employ about 50 people, but Craig has done a great job of maintaining that family feel within the business,” he said. “This, despite the fact that we have an impressive number of projects either being built or in the design phase. It’s a crazy time but we are managing just fine.”

Until very recently, a workload like the one Gatas describes, while manageable, would have dramatically raised the stress level of the company’s design and estimating team. However, based on a recommendation from Sikkelee, the company worked with Blake Walker with Earl Dudley & Associates and purchased a Topcon LN-150 Layout Navigator that has streamlined the layout process while improving accuracies.

Laying Out by the Pool

To appreciate the impact the new technology has had on Signature’s operation, it is best to look at the previous manner in which they’d been doing layout . According to Gatas, the process, while proven, was time-consuming and prone to error or oversight.

“In the past, we first went out with a tape and measured the house,” he said. “Then, we’d go off the corner of the house, and every 10 to 15 feet, use a laser transit to hit an elevation point, manually noting each point’s elevation. Then we’d come back and interpret the data, log all those points into CAD, calculate the difference between them and our benchmark, and log that into the system.”

As noted, one of the shortcomings to that approach includes encountering unforeseen situations. According to Signature’s lead designer, Chris Davis, dealing with that can not only affect production, it can also impact the bottom line.

“There have been cases when the slope in a yard was different from what we had anticipated,” he said. “When that happens, we have to make it right with a different retaining wall or other solution, resulting in additional costs. And, even if those costs are substantial, we don’t charge the client; that is on us for not estimating correctly. So, finding a better way to do things brought with it so many benefits.”

It All Points to Savings

That “better way” that Davis mentions is a Topcon LN-150 Layout Navigator, a robotic solution designed to easily and accurately obtain both horizontal dimensions and vertical elevations anywhere within its layout zone. Working with the instrument, a prism pole and a touch-screen controller, Signature’s team is now able to quickly obtain their layout points — as many as they need!

“With the new robot we can just go out and take measurements at random,” said Davis. “Is there a berm there? No problem, we can go right along the top or edge of that berm and get those measurements. If there’s a tree, we can hit a few marks around that tree to tell us where it is. We then transfer everything we’ve gathered to a USB thumb drive, put it on the computer and I have all my data. That simple step greatly lowers the risk of inaccuracy and saves time. Once we are back from the site visit, there is no more manual data entry — it allows me to dive straight in and start designing.”

The time savings can be substantial, adds Sean Potoniak, a designer/draftsman for the company. Now, while he is out getting the necessary points with the robot, Gatas and Davis can be talking to the customer about what they want or getting any pictures they need. “Doing so, cuts our site visit times down by 30 minutes to an hour, which ultimately saves money,” he said. “That’s in addition to the time savings from gathering the points themselves which, for a rectangular pool, can be an hour. For a curvilinear pool, it can be a saving of as much as two to three hours over the previous method. We can easily get 200 points in half the time it used to take us to get just 20.”

"Anytime you can minimize the need for reworking, you are ahead of the game."

Chris Davis

Template for Success

With the pool design approved, excavation complete and the pool shell poured or placed, Signature’s work is still far from done. The template, a document that solidifies the as-built design and includes a topographic representation of the property, must still be created. In the past, said Gatas, that function was subbed out to a third-party company which put Signature’s project at the mercy of someone else’s timeline.

“Once we contacted a company, they’d get us on their calendar, but our date could be weeks out,” he said. “Then, they’d come to the job, measure the as-built pool shell for us, and send us the data which we’d take into CAD to begin creating the stone templates for the pool coping or any other work that needed to be done. It was a lengthy process and a costly one, both monetarily — a typical template could cost $2,000 to $3,000 — and in lost time.”

By comparison, using the robotic solution, he said they now go out with the robot and within 30 minutes, gather the data themselves, bring it back to the office and create the template. That’s critical when designing for the stone — the material used in the caps, the coping around the pool, on the deck, in water features, etc. Davis added that creating a custom coping had always been a challenge for them.

“But being able to come back here and put all that into CAD, ensures that we are getting the most accurate product,” he said. “That means it’s easy for the field crews to install and eliminates the risk of needing a re-cut. Anytime you can minimize the need for reworking, you are ahead of the game. Based on template savings alone, we will probably get our investment in the robot back in a year and a half, maybe sooner.”

Pooling Their Resources

One unforeseen benefit the robotic solution has brought Signature is the possibility of alternative revenue streams. Their custom stone supplier, upon learning of the difference the robotic unit has made with templates, said their customers are always looking for that service and asked if Signature would be willing to do such work for them. Another possibility is providing accurate measurements for custom pool covers.

“When a customer calls and wants a cover for their spa or pool, in the past we had to go out and measure for those,” said Potoniak. “Now we just grab the data from the as-built, which is more accurate, and send that to the pool cover company. We are considering both of these possibilities — and others.”

When asked about future growth and the possible addition of a second robotic solution, Gatas said that they are probably near capacity and don’t foresee growing much larger.

“We really like the family structure here and don’t necessarily want to grow to be a huge company,” he said. “However, it is always nice to add some money to the bottom line and, by improving efficiencies, the robotic solution is allowing us to do that — without having to take on more projects.”

More Than Just a Pool

After talking to Gatas, Davis and Potoniak, one leaves with the impression that they see their work as more than simply designing and building pools. Each is also quick to point out that they are far from the most important part of the puzzle.

“It’s the guys in the field who really help bring each project to life,” said Davis, a sentiment echoed by the others. “It’s not all about the design, or the cost, or the way we make it fit. It’s the field crews who really make this art come to life.”

Gatas added that, from Craig Sikkelee on down, everyone in the company is immensely proud of what they do. “We don’t just build pools here, we provide family environments that help develop and maintain relationships,” he said. “We create a way for families to spend more time together, to get close, to stay home more often, to enjoy each other, to make memories. We take great pride in that.”

Davis feels so strongly about what they do that, in his office, he has a stone with the word “Topophilia” etched in it. “It means ‘the love of an outdoor space’ and I often share it with my clients,” he said. “I want them to have topophilia when they get their space. I want them to cherish it and feel it is their favorite retreat, one they choose even over vacation. We all get great satisfaction in knowing that we helped 
bring that to their lives.”