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A Ranch in the Works

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Automation helps construction specialist meet challenges in innovative South Florida development project

Florida is all about the master planned community. From its numerous Del Webb developments to Jimmy Buffet’s Latitude Margaritaville sites to the nearly 85,000 resident, three zip code-large grandaddy of them all, The Villages, MPCs are driving Florida’s non-stop growth. Tough as it might seem for a new development to establish an identity in this tough market, Babcock Ranch, located just outside Ft. Myers, Florida, is betting that its residents want more, rather than “more of the same.” To that end, they are making every home certifiably “Green” in terms of energy-efficiency; making fiber optic-based, gigabit-plus broadband service available to all residents; and, most importantly, laying claim to the distinction of being the nation’s first large-scale, net-zero, solar-powered, community, made possible by an adjacent 870-acre solar farm operated by Florida Power & Light.

It’s only fitting then, that the contractor tasked with creating the lakes and preparing the site for that cutting-edge development should, itself, be progressive in its approach to its work. Drawing upon a wealth of the latest GNSS-based solutions, Mitchell & Stark Construction (MSC) is transforming previously undeveloped acreage into the community of tomorrow using a smaller — yet far more efficient — workforce than ever, helping set the stage for Babcock Ranch to become The Sunshine State’s preeminent new community. Now that’s a master plan!

Accepting the Challenge

Established in south-central Indiana in 1955, MSC saw an opportunity for serious growth in the southern U.S. and in 1981 established a branch in Naples, Florida. Today, the company employs more than 200 company-wide and is recognized in both geographic areas as the go-to source for quality work, even when facing tough challenges. And, as MSC’s project manager, Chris Anderson (and anyone working today) will attest, challenges currently abound.

“There’s no sidestepping the fact that, as it is for everyone else, many supply chain issues are hitting us hard,” he said. “The lead time on brass needed for utility work, which used to be a month, can now be as long as six to eight months. Concrete for curbs and reinforced concrete pipe, normally products that are easy to obtain, are tough to get, forcing us to order a couple months out. In addition, the cost of standard 2,000-3,000 psi ready mix concrete, has gone up 30% in the last six months.”

He added that the cloud of uncertainty hanging over the industry is causing some developers to re-think plans for how much they want to build, how many phases, what facets of the job to begin, etc. “It's an interesting time; we’ve really had to make adjustments.”

“In Topcon MC-Max, the latest automated excavator and dozer solution, we are quickly discovering what could be its most valuable trait: the ability to essentially stretch our workforce. And it could not be more timely.”

Chris Anderson, MSC’s project manager

A Control Issue

The situation Anderson describes is complicated even further by the ongoing lack of new blood — particularly equipment operators — entering the industry. To deal with that, MSC has been aggressive in embracing technology designed to maximize the effectiveness of their existing workforce. Proof of that effort is evident in the GNSS antennas on more than a dozen excavators and dozers successfully working every facet of the job at Babcock Ranch.

“We have a range of machine control solutions at work throughout the site — everything from indicate-only units to the latest, fully automatic systems,” said Anderson. “While we’ve embraced the speed, efficiency, and accuracy of GPS machine control for years, in Topcon MC-Max, the latest automated excavator and dozer solution, we are quickly discovering what could be its most valuable trait: the ability to essentially stretch our workforce. And it could not be more timely.”

Part of the recently announced MC-X machine control platform from Topcon, the system which Anderson cited, MC-Max, offers increased processing power, speed and accuracy. Modular in design, it can be installed on a full range of dozers and excavators, using the same basic components. The redesigned user and product interfaces — developed from both real-world applications and customer feedback — provide a simplified experience dramatically shortening the demanding learning curve common to other systems.

Best Augmentation

Adding MC-Max to their operation at Babcock Ranch — MSC currently has four fully automated excavators and 12 dozers at work there — has proven valuable as a means to augment the skill set of their operators.

“Starting a number of years back, there was a generational change that occurred in our workforce,” he said. “We had a sizeable number of operators who came of age in the early ‘90s and gained experience through the ‘90s and 2000s, people who are adept at operating and didn’t need the feedback of an indicate system or an automatic one. But the downturn that occurred between 2007 and 2014 slowed the influx of people coming into this industry. By the end of the 2010s, those veteran operators started aging out and retiring — and we were seeing a hefty skill set disappear”

To counter that loss of expertise, MSC looked skyward and saw the benefit GNSS technology could provide to a new, different-thinking workforce.

“This new generation of operators grew up on XBox and PlayStation and is comfortable with that environment — they understand it better than anyone before,” Anderson said. “So they grasp new technology and embrace it quickly. As a result, the Topcon MC-Max solution is taking a person who has a couple years’ experience and quickly making it possible for them to perform complex tasks. For us it is a force multiplier: instead of having two or three operators at Babcock Ranch who can finish slopes, we now have five, so we are able to increase throughput with the same size workforce. That’s been huge for us.”

“Now, because of the dramatically reduced need for staking on our projects, we have reduced that surveyor’s workload by roughly one-third.”

Chris Anderson, MSC’s project manager

Keeping it Moving

For MSC, the benefits provided by the equipment running under the MC-X platform extend to the logistics and planning facets of the Babcock Ranch job as well. And those parts of the job are key, given that roughly 3,000 cu. yds. of earth are being moved daily and more than 4 million cu. yds. will have been moved in the next 12 months. A good example of that, said Anderson, is an ability to use their newfound talent pool to maximize efficiency and productivity.

“Within our operator ranks, we have some who are experts at quickly moving a lot of dirt, essentially our bread-and-butter operation,” he said. ”Yet there are also instances when we need specialized work done — making key cuts in a pond, for example. In the past, we would have been forced to use that better, high-volume operator to do the specialty work. Now, thanks to the automated capabilities, we can allocate those jobs to other operators and keep the mass-ex portion in motion. Simply put, by leveraging the tools available to us through this force multiplier, we can keep our most expensive people productive.”

In one of the most challenging facets of the Babcock Ranch project, constructing a lake slope to pre-defined specs, the inherent strength of the MC-Max system shines through. Authorities in the development’s jurisdiction prescribe a specific slope and make permit approval contingent on accurately creating that slope.

“When having to excavate the lake in a dry condition, you need an experienced operator and ultimately a bulldozer to finalize the slope,” said Anderson. “Here, using an automatic excavator, we are able to utilize a less experienced operator and accomplish the same task. Similarly, when we are unable to de-water a lake, the system allows the operator to understand where the bucket is in relation to the prescribed slope. Again, the automated solution enables a less-experienced operator to function as a far more experienced one. That’s been invaluable to us.”

Survey Says . . .

The reduced numbers of skilled people entering the construction realm extends well beyond MSC’s doorstep. As a previously heavy user of surveyors for staking their underground utility projects as well as earthwork and roadway work, Anderson has seen the impact the shortage of well-trained surveyors can have on MSC’s overall productivity.

“Now, because of the dramatically reduced need for staking on our projects, we have reduced that surveyor’s workload by roughly one-third,” he said. “We will always have stakes at the very end to make sure everything is as it should be — we call it our ‘sanity check.’ But being able to free up that surveyor’s time has already saved us on multiple occasions, including being able to keep a scheduled concrete pour. So, even though surveyors are understaffed, a better allocation of their time made possible by automation is allowing them to keep up.”

Although the supply chain issues mentioned earlier are real and impactful to any operation, Anderson is quick to add that the supplier for both their Topcon and John Deere equipment, the Ft. Myers branch of Dobbs Equipment, has been outstanding in staving off any such interruptions for them.

“We have had no stockouts up to this point; we’ve not run into an instance when one of our GPS systems was down due to lack of a part,” he said. “And Dobbs has capitalized on using technologies such as Facetime and GoogleDuo to help troubleshoot any issues that might arise. They’ve been good for us.”

A Fitting Arrangement

Anderson sees the company’s commitment to machine control technology continuing to grow along with the company itself, citing it as one of the keys to their success in these challenging times.

“The new automated solution is another means of ensuring that the overall throughput of our system for building homes is maintained, even though we are being buffeted by all these exogenous shocks,” he said. “With MC-Max and the full compliment of Topcon solutions we employ, we’ve been able to keep production levels up to where they were when we had far more people — with much more experience — on staff than we do now. When it’s complete, this is going to be an amazing community — the first of its kind and probably a model for others to follow. How appropriate that we drew upon the latest technology to help make it happen.”

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