As 21st century consumers, we’ve become accustomed to the notion of remote access. After all, most appliances today allow access via a smart phone (and Wi-Fi) to turn on lights at home, adjust a thermostat, pre-heat an oven — even take a peek inside a fridge to see what needs replacing. That same push toward connectivity has taken hold on today’s job sites as well, affording project managers and supervisors the ability to remotely monitor progress, verify and modify digital files, troubleshoot issues and more — all from the safety and comfort of their laptop or phone. For Maryland-based DXI Construction, already an established proponent of “remoting in” to its fleet of machines via a real-time site management solution, realizing all those benefits — and more — on a regular basis is not just a nice perk; it is integral to their overall workflow. And, at a time when labor is at a premium, COVID is threatening productivity, and site work is all about efficiency, it’s proving move valuable than ever.
Paving Future Growth
DXI began its existence as a small paving company in northeastern Maryland but has grown to employ more than 400 people and now covers the entire Mid-Atlantic region. That growth has also seen the company become one of the region’s top specialists in earthmoving, site-prep, utility work, and more, according to Lyle Ballou, DXI’s GPS manager.
“While the growth in workforce was exponential for the first four decades, our employee numbers have peaked at that 400 level, despite our work continuing to increase,” he said. “That is largely because of the technology we employ and the productivity it brings. Our embrace of machine control on our heavy equipment has allowed us to simply do more with less, and that’s been huge as the workload has grown.”
That ability to maximize both productivity and efficiency has been particularly helpful as the company tackles some of the largest projects in its history. It has found success constructing massive data centers and distribution centers, including a six-year stint at Sparrows Point, Maryland. Central to work at that location was earthmoving and site prep for a 1.8 million sq. ft. warehouse structure for a major manufacturer of kitchen spices. “That project was a textbook example in the benefits of GPS machine control on our dozers and excavators,” said Ballou. “It’s hard to imagine doing anything of that size without it.”
“While the growth in workforce was exponential for the first four decades, our employee numbers have peaked at that 400 level, despite our work continuing to increase.”
Lyle Ballou, DXI’s GPS manager
Looking in on Things
In a yin/yang perspective, if GPS and machine control are the active principles at work for DXI, (the yang), then surely Sitelink3D, the site management solution from Topcon, overseeing and bringing order to their fleet, would be its complementary yin. According to Ballou, DXI has been utilizing — and benefiting from — Sitelink3D for more than a decade now.
“We started out small, with just a few machines using the solution and by 2018, had about nine units connected,” he said. “Today we have 32 machines — excavators, dozers and a motor grader — running Sitelink3D with more on the way. Being as large as we are, we regularly have a few dozen jobs going on, most of which will be utilizing GPS machines. In addition, we are constantly moving foremen between jobs. Without Sitelink, ensuring that each of those machines or foremen has the latest job file available would be a nightmare. Now, however, I can easily remote in, make sure the current file is in use, and, if not, update it.”
The web-based solution allows Ballou to see a machine, or a group of machines, and monitor progress, provide remote support assistance, enable file transfers and message operators at any job site. That ability to transfer and update files is key at a time when the workforce shortage is extending well past simply the laborers.
“Engineering firms are getting the data out slower than they have in the past because they are often understaffed,” he said. “As a result, we will sometimes get the jobs before plans are actually approved, only to be followed by a stream of revisions. Having a way to quickly get those changes out and installed in every machine, helps us avoid the risk of a costly error or re-do.”
Eliminating Drives (and Drives)
Before Sitelink3D became a part of their workflow, Ballou had to make certain he had a USB drive handy for each job and get it to each respective operator. While effective, it was anything but efficient and, because some drives could still contain older versions, it opened the operator up to the risk of installing an outdated file.
“Operators are not going to ask if it’s the latest version, they will just pop it in and go,” he said. “Unfortunately, I then get the phone call that ‘something’s not right.’ We’ve eliminated that issue entirely. We also use the solution to deal with connectivity issues — if an operator is having trouble getting or keeping signal, I can remote into the machine, diagnose it remotely and get them back online.”
Similarly, if Ballou finds that a machine needs a firmware version update, he no longer has to go to the site; he simply sends them the update via the Topcon solution. While it’s true that he is now spending a lot less time shuttling to and from job sites, that’s been offset by the fact that DXI has more work than ever before.
“The difference is, I’ve replaced trips that cost the company money with ones that make it money — that’s a much better situation.”
Breaking Down a Barrier
In citing anecdotal evidence for the benefits their site management solution provides, Ballou recalls a recent case involving an operator, his inability to grasp a concept and a third, very important component to the situation.
“This particular operator was dealing with a bit of a language barrier, leading to a call from the foreman asking for my help,” he said. “He was trying, unsuccessfully, to get the operator to grade slopes. So, I asked the foreman to have him call me and, when he did, I used Sitelink3D to pull up that job and view his machine on my screen.”
As Ballou was watching the operator, he could see what he was trying to do, as well as where he was at on the job. With that info, he asked if the operator was re-spreading topsoil. Confirming that he was, Ballou proceeded to help clear things up for him.
“Since I was controlling the screen, I told him: ‘You need to be at minus .34” — just watch what I do.’ It was so easy to get the message across and it obviously hit home because he completed the job well and we never heard from him with an issue again. That’s a value we never foresaw when we were first considering Sitelink.”
“There’s little denying that Topcon machine control has allowed us to streamline our workflow.”
Lyle Ballou, DXI’s GPS manager
Sharing the Wealth
Ballou’s nearly two decades’ experience with GPS systems and machinery have resulted in his becoming the go-to guy for questions, solutions and advice within DXI. But even he was a bit surprised when a company VP asked him to sit down with the president from a nearby paving company who was considering adding a Topcon Millimeter GPS system to one of their machines.
“The company, Gerald Bowman Contractors, is practically a neighbor of ours here in Aberdeen, so we knew each other already,” he said. “Jerry Bowman, the owner, wanted to understand the value-added proposition of GPS. So, I sat down with him and explained how it all works, what to watch out for, how important it is to set up site control correctly to make sure we are grading correctly for him, and so on. Bottom line: they did become GPS users and we’ve already done a couple jobs with them which went smoothly — so, again, it was time well spent.”
While Topcon 3D-MC2 machine control and Sitelink3D have been the catalysts for DXI’s on site success, Ballou is quick to point to the Annapolis Topcon Solutions Store as key in helping successfully integrate the technology.
“Everyone at that facility has, in one capacity or another, helped us,” he said. “From Mike Ayers, the territory sales representative, to Wayne Kobrock, their northeast support manger, to Darrian McDonald who completes our installs, to Stephen Finchman, the assistant store manager, to Mark Kulawiak, TSS’s certified technician, the support is always ‘over and above.’ This is one of the most highly-trained and responsive staffs a customer could ever hope for.”
Grade Not the Blade
Though they are well-staffed, the pandemic-related labor shortage that has impacted the construction industry has not fully eluded DXI. Finding and keeping good workers, which is always a challenge, has seemingly been taken to a whole new level. According to Ballou, however, their ability to embrace GPS machine control and, by extension, Sitelink3D, has helped them weather the storm better than most.
“There’s little denying that Topcon machine control has allowed us to streamline our workflow,” he said. “Not only does it get things done quicker and more easily for us, it also takes some of the strain off the operators and laborers.”
He cites an excellent case in point: DXI recently added a Topcon 3D-MC Max system, a mastless solution, to one of its dozers and, in addition to the overall better performance characteristics, realized the noticeable improvement in operator visibility.
“Without a mast — or masts — blocking the view, that operator can focus solely on what they are grading rather than the blade, which makes for a much better work experience and, at the end of the day, a less-stressed employee.”
No End in Sight
DXI shows no signs of slowing down and, according to Ballou, is looking forward to continued, robust growth in the years to come.
“We already have some very exciting projects either ongoing or starting soon,” he said. “That includes a major golf driving range franchise located next to Ravens stadium in downtown Baltimore, a Great Wolf Lodge in Perryville, Md., and four more warehouses which will call for the movement of more than 10 million cubic yards of dirt — our largest earthmoving job to date. Keeping a handle on all of that activity would be next to impossible without a tool like Sitelink3D to bring it all together. It’s really helped shape what we can do and who we are as a company.”