Looking for your apps? Click the account icon in the upper right corner of the page.

Forming an Advantage

Hero Image

For this Florida “shell” contractor, a robotic solution means an uptick in productivity

Bill Nagele is all about fast. His passion for drag racing, the pair of his and her ZR-Series Corvettes parked in his garage, and his love for performance machinery of all types bear that out. It follows, then, that he would crave that same level of excellence in his business. The Orlando, Florida-based contractor offers a wealth of services ranging from preconstruction to formwork to complete concrete structures. While the formwork facet of the job has long relied upon total station technology, the company recently upped its game with the addition of a robotic solution. The decision fits perfectly into Nagele’s penchant for getting better results while minimizing manpower-intensive efforts and reducing the risk of error. On a recent project, a $400 million expansion of the Moffitt Cancer Research Center in Tampa, the company drew heavily upon a Topcon GT-503V for the shell layout. A fairly recent addition to the company’s “toolbox,” they reported that the unit was easy to operate, it was far more accurate than anything they’d used before and — no surprise here — it was fast.

Should we expect anything less?

“I own the company, but at heart, I am a production person and always have been.”

Bill Nagele, Universal Forming, Inc. (UFI)

The Universal Truth

Universal Forming, Inc. (UFI) was created in 2005 when Bill Nagele and Todd Volheim brought their combined 40 years of successful concrete construction experience to bear. Intent on establishing a company that could expertly build and construction-manage large, complex concrete structures, UFI was born. Today, the company employs more than 400 people, has weathered downturns that others couldn’t, and has established itself as one of the leading concrete structure builders in the state of Florida. It has done so largely because of an unflagging commitment to excellence in quality, safety, and adherence to schedules. According to Nagele, there is a definite correlation between what he loves away from the job site and the way his company performs.

“I own the company, but at heart, I am a production person and always have been,” he said. “When I was younger, I would watch guys work and instantly spot ways in which they could improve their efforts. If they were putting two nails per foot, I could see that putting one nail every ten inches could save time without forsaking quality. And I think that’s why we’ve been successful as a company; we are far more productive than our competition.”

That focus on productivity extends to Nagele’s choice of instrumentation used for layout.

He said he’s been doing work of this type since he was 15 years old — he started out working with a Wild T-1 theodolite — and he’s seen an amazing evolution of survey technology along the way.  His survey gear preference leans toward those that can provide the accuracies demanded on the job site but are also easy for his crews to understand. Those criteria, he said, led him toward Topcon.

“I liked the fact that Topcon solutions were designed for simple operation, which meant I could easily train my staff,” he said. “That helped us really get going in the early days. Once we got into it, however, we went full bore into total stations, then added a prismless capability; as a company, we evolved right along with the technology.”

Resistant to Change

That evolution hit something of a speed bump when robotics entered the scene as a means to further enhance total station performance. While many of UFI’s younger and more tech-savvy personnel embraced the technology and saw the benefits it could provide, a good many of the “seasoned” crew members were resistant — and remain so to this day, said Nagele.

“It’s a tough sell to a person who will not even use the simplest of data collectors,” he said. “What I see as streamlining the workflow, they see as threatening to take their jobs away. However, I currently have a little more than half of my people embracing the solution and that number will continue to climb as the older personnel retire.”

He added that, because Florida is such a transient state, getting workers to buy into construction as a career is challenging enough. Getting people who are capable of tackling some of the math associated with layout is another matter entirely. “The robotic unit takes some of that heavy reliance on math skills out of the equation, broadening the labor pool for us. And the simplicity of the solution makes it much easier to train a person in layout work. The ones who use this robotic total station on a regular basis swear by it. Unlike the older crew members, there’s no need to convince them of its value.”

“The biggest and most obvious benefit is the speed of the gun.”

Dave Yanna, layout/survey technician for UFI

Building a Career

One of those stalwart users to which Nagele referred is Dave Yanna. One of UFI’s layout/survey technicians, Yanna got his training with the U.S. Forest Service in Michigan before entering the private sector in 1986. Since then, his life has revolved around layout work for building construction.

“I had 15 years of surveying under my belt when a company needed someone to do layout for a large building,” he said. “The survey company I was working for said yes, but when the construction company got the bill after about two months, they decided to just offer me a job. That was in the late ‘90s and I’ve been doing buildings ever since.”

Yanna’s most current layout effort was at the Moffitt expansion project where UFI is, once again, responsible for creating the shell for the structure. In that capacity, he said he regularly benefited from the advantages their Topcon GT-503V robotic total station provides.

“The biggest and most obvious benefit is the speed of the gun,” he said. “I’ve used many other total stations over the years and this, by far, is the fastest. Even when I’ve been several floors below the instrument and laying out for the adjacent power plant building, it tracks me and holds me better than anything I’ve ever used. And should something come between me and the gun, it quickly reacquires my prism and resumes tracking. It is a great tool to have.”

Solitary Man

While construction survey/layout efforts have traditionally been a two-person operation, the advent of robotic total stations has opened the door to those tasks being performed, in many cases, by a single individual. UFI’s Yanna does occasionally work alongside another person but sees working alone as far more efficient.

“Bill has asked me in the past if I needed a helper and I said I’d take one if I had to, but I really don’t need anyone else,” he said. “On this Moffitt job, working alone with the robot, I am placing hundreds of points on each floor. I am doing things faster, better, and more accurately than if I was working with someone on the other end of a radio, telling them to go left one foot, right six inches, and so on. I have all the info right on my data collector so, as fast as I can move, I can mark a point.”

He added that, although other trades such as the plumbers and electricians still have to gather their own layout points for water lines, waste and gas lines, pass-throughs, etc., they are doing it based off his control points, resulting in a savings to them as well.

“I love the robotic approach because I tend to know exactly what I want to stake and where I want to do it,” he said. “If I have a rodman who’s not in tune to the project, there will be a delay. And, because many facets of this job are repetitious, I can often put the rod down and be within an inch of where I need, which is much faster than explaining to someone what needs to be done, then doing it. In fact, if I had a helper right now, the only help he would provide is carrying my gear up six stories. For me, this is the only way to work.”

Not an Option

Nagele and UFI get support and service for nearly every piece of instrumentation they use from Altoona, Florida-based Lengemann Corp. “With the exception of our vertical lasers, which Lengemann doesn’t handle, we rely upon them for support with all our gear and they have been excellent for us,” Nagele said.

It’s important to note that, while some of UFI’s people, like Yanna, function well as a solo act, there is just as much value to be derived when the robotic solution is used as part of a team effort.

“One-person crews are great from a layout perspective, but our work is about more than just shooting forms,” said Nagele. “There are elevations, embed locations, and so on, that have to be done. So, in those cases, we still utilize a team — but it is a far more efficient team with the robot. When robotic total stations first hit the market, I was admittedly skeptical. However, once I saw the accuracies the GT-503V could get us, I was totally on board with the solution. In this business, if you lag behind, you’re left behind.  And lagging behind anything has never been an option for me!”