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Taking the Next Step

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Tucker Paving extends its already-solid embrace of automation to its excavators

In a construction business environment that increasingly demands speed and efficiency from its players, the onus is on contractors to meet those demands — and they are doing so in a range of new and differing ways. For Florida construction specialist Tucker Paving, already a decade-long proponent of GPS-based machine control, that has meant drawing on that same technology to step up the excavation facet of their game. The results of doing so have been both impressive and undeniable. At a central Florida residential development, using automated excavator technology on several machines, the company reduced the time needed for some segments of the workflow by half, made better use of other equipment and improved their position with project owners as a valued partner. Tuckered out? Nope, just getting started.

Central to the Story

It should come as no surprise that Winter Haven-based Tucker Paving is as busy as they currently are — managing as many as 40 projects at any given time. Central Florida now boasts one of the highest influxes of new residents and rates of development of almost any area in the country. Studies show roughly 1,500 people moving to the region every week, boosting the populations of the seven major central Florida counties from 4.3 million to 5.2 million residents over the next decade. In Polk County alone (home to Tucker Paving), the population is projected to increase by more than 24% by 2030. All that growth equates to a huge demand for housing and commercial space, a need that bodes well for contractors like Tucker, according to Eric Woodcock, the company’s equipment manager.

“Developments in this part of the state are springing up almost everywhere,” he said. “The area of Polk County where we are currently working — particularly near the I-4/SH27 interchange — is just exploding. This project, called BellaVida Resort Phase 3, is a 57-acre site that will feature 300+ homesites for both single-family dwellings and townhomes. Since we started, we've been moving at a nice clip, largely because of the GPS-based equipment we have at work.”

“Chip Tucker, our owner, is very progressive when it comes to equipment that can improve the operation.”

Eric Woodcock, Tucker Paving equipment manager

Choice Cuts

As mentioned, Tucker Paving has been an avid believer in machine control since 2014, currently having more than 21 dozers and motor graders employing that solution. However, when true excavator automation entered the construction realm several years back, the company was eager to tap those benefits as well.

“Chip Tucker, our owner, is very progressive when it comes to equipment that can improve the operation,” said Woodcock. “It stands to reason that automating the excavation part of the job would have caught his attention. Here at the BellaVida site alone, we have three excavators — including a John Deere 470 we purchased from Dobbs Equipment — all running the MC-Max Excavator solution from Topcon. Our operators love it and it’s really streamlined our workflow. Dobbs’ Roger Croft has been key in getting us adapted to the Topcon automated solution, just as the team at Dobbs has provided outstanding support for all our Deere equipment and the Topcon systems on it.”

One of the most attractive features of the system to Tucker’s operators, particularly as it relates to mass excavation, is the ability to quickly switch between 2D indicate-only and 3D automatic modes. In 2D mode, should they only need an indication of bucket-depth in relation to grade, they have it and can dig as normal. However, when needing to dig a precise slope, MC-Max in 3D automatic-mode keeps them on-grade and tracking the design file, eliminating the risk of over- or under-excavating.

Now, Iron Free

While the benefits cited above have proven extremely beneficial to Tucker at the development site, Ron Hall, one of the company’s superintendents, says the new solution pays valuable dividends in other ways as well.

“Before we automated the excavators, we had two options for working any area needing a specific slope,” said Hall. “We would either need to have it staked or we’d have a GPS-equipped dozer working alongside the excavator, essentially acting as its GPS and ‘cleaning up’ after the larger machine. Well, staking is out of the question for us — since automating, the only stakes you will see on a Tucker job site are layouts for sanitary, storm, water, curb, etc.”

He also cited the inefficiency of using two machines to grade a slope. Automating the excavator, he said, not only allows the machine to operate accurately and independently, it also frees up a dozer to do work on another part of the site, raising productivity even further.

“Without GPS, the mass grading part of this job — just removing/moving the dirt and getting it ready for utilities — would probably take two and a half to three months,” he said. “Because of the efficiency GPS brings to the site, I'm going to mass grade this job in three weeks. You can’t beat that.”

“Without GPS, the mass grading part of this job — just removing/moving the dirt and getting it ready for utilities — would probably take two and a half to three months.”

Ron Hall, Tucker Paving superintendent

On Chosen Ponds

One of the most noticeable areas in which the benefit of automating the excavator function has shown itself is in construction of any of the eleven water features which serve as both retention ponds and aesthetic enhancements at BellaVida. Typically a headache — and an ideal situation for the dual-machine approach mentioned above — pond creation has instead become the area in which Tucker’s automated excavators have thrived.

“Our operators have really embraced the Topcon technology and their comfort level is reflected in the excellent production rates we’ve been getting,” said Woodcock. “While the ponds at BellaVida varied in size, each one still needed to be excavated to a specific depth and sloped to a specific angle — a challenging operation. However, giving the operator the ability to simply reach out with his bucket and know, with confidence, that he is at the correct depth or creating the perfect slope, proved invaluable.”

The largest pond Tucker’s team created was approximately 250’ long by 100’ wide at its widest point — just a bit smaller than a football field. They cut roughly 18’ from one end and 13’ on the other, resulting in them moving approximately 9,300 yards of dirt from that area alone.

“It took us three days to complete the operation using two of the automated excavators; doing it with stakes would have easily been a five-day operation,” said Woodcock. “With schedules as demanding as they’ve been, that was a huge time savings.”

Question of Balance

With both the economics of today’s construction job site and new and evolving challenges such as supply-chain interruptions, shortages of available trucking, etc., in mind, efforts were made to ensure the movement of soil balanced out at the BellaVida site. That was handled by taking material from high spots and pond excavations and using it in low areas and for use as fill for house pads.

“The beauty of the automated excavator solution is that they can be used to dig ponds, to dig lots, to dig roads — again, all by themselves. They become a much more versatile piece of equipment for us,” said Hall.

Not all material situations are quite as accommodating as the one at BellaVida. Hall said they recently completed earthwork at a subdivision in nearby Lake Hamilton where they ended up exporting about 110,000 yards of material. “Fortunately, we've also got job sites for that same developer that are 50-60,000 yards short, so we can easily move material to one of their own projects. It’s not as convenient as a balanced site, but it’s workable.”

Time Beats Money

Although the GPS environment is well-entrenched at Tucker Paving, Hall said dealing with machine control was a new experience for him when he joined the company five years ago. It did not take him long, however, to realize the benefits the technology brings.

“I've been running equipment for over 30 years and never dealt with GPS until I started working here and I love it,” he said. “I can't imagine getting work done without it now — not in a timely fashion, anyway. I know from company history that Tucker Paving was one of the first companies in Polk County to start using fully automated GPS on their machines and it doesn’t surprise me. Chip Tucker is all about getting things done right, getting them done safely and doing it quickly — GPS makes all that happen.”

In light of the tremendous growth occurring in Central Florida, that last point, speed, has loomed very large for Tucker Paving, added Woodcock.

“When it comes to bidding on jobs, there are times when we may not come in at the lowest price,” he said. “However, we secure a lot of our work based on the fact that we can give the customer a shorter schedule — that’s ultimately what they want. In the current environment down here, time is often far more important to a developer than cost. If we can tackle a job that would normally take six months and — using technology like automated excavators, machine control dozers, etc. — reduce that time frame by almost half, that’s going to win every time.”