Sitting in seminars, rubbing shoulders with the masters

Great speakers aside, the main reason for the Trimble Dimensions conference is the education. There are two basic areas, construction and survey and dozens of individual sessions within those. Some of these, as you might imagine, are dedicated to specific Trimble products and the products of participating vendors, but there are plenty of non-product specific sessions as well. In a lot of these you hear from a contractor or panel of contractors talking about their experiences with all manner of GPS and digital technology.

In the construction offerings this year there were ten “tracks” with multiple sessions in each track. The tracks covered data prep, site positioning, grade control, asphalt paving control, Connected Site solutions, the business side of positioning technology, site prep for the GC, building layout, building information models, and construction operations and asset management.

There was also an off-site demo area with machines and GPS and asset management gear set up so attendees could get some hands-on experience with the equipment.

Due to my travel schedule I was only able to attend a handful of these sessions. In the “Adapting Trimble Connected Site Solutions for Heavy and Highway,”  Trimble’s Mark Forrest cited an FMI study that talked about the top five things that impact productivity. The first three had to do with lack of planning and communication in the field. He also cited lack of technical training at the craft level and resistance to change. Technology can help in all of these areas, Forrest said, by connecting communication points and unlocking the value of the people in the field. “We need to put more empowerment in the hands of the site supervisor.” He also mentioned a Trimble tablet computer that’s coming that will go a long way towards meeting these goals.

In my next session I listened to three asphalt paving contractors talk about their experience as beta testers for a new Trimble product, the PCS 400 2D grade and slope machine control system. Said Paul Sowa, a supervisor for W.G. Yates in Jacksonville, Florida: “It didn’t matter who I had on the back of the paver, anybody could run it, even guys with just one or two years of experience. We paved 14 miles with it with zero bumps and 100 percent rideablity.” Also mentioned was another job, a 160 acre airport site that where the PCS 400 enabled the contractor to increase production by 300 tons a day and a savings of almost $1-million.

I also attended some technical review sessions on the basics of GPS systems as well as a presentation on a new laser grade control system Trimble matched up with a new hydraulic control system for attachments on a Bobcat compact track loader.

Perhaps the most eye-opening session I attended was presented by Dave Pinaire, productivity solutions manager at Caterpillar. Most citations of fuel or productivity improvements using GPS machine control sound promising, but controlled scientific side-by-side studies are rare, given the logistical difficulties. Pinaire, however, cited just such a study done at the Caterpillar’s proving grounds in Spain. The study involved building identical, roads side by side, one using traditional staking methods, the other used a Trimble Accugrade GPS machine control. The primary machines involved were a Cat D6N, 330D excavator and 140H motorgrader.

The conventional method took 24 hours, 32 minutes. The GPS method took just 11 hours, 50 minutes; a 101-percent improvement in productivity. But when fuel usage was compared, the GPS method cut fuel consumption by 43 percent. “It’s just a no brainer,” Pinaire says.

After presenting his case study, Pinaire opened up the floor to comments and questions. When asked if any contractors in the audience had used GPS, many replied yes. One contractor mentioned he’d saved $800,000 in asphalt costs on one GPS job. Another chimed in about a pipeline job he did with a 3-D GPS enabled excavator that took half as long as usual and saved him $30,000. Audience members also mentioned that the Missouri DOT had recently let for bid its first stakeless job and that several stakeless jobs were being done in Michigan.

The main concern audience members had was on the data prep side of things. Pinaire acknowledged as much, saying data conversion is still a bottleneck for many.

Perhaps the best aspect of the Trimble Dimensions conference is the opportunity to get into these kinds of discussions with other contractors. While there are moderated work sessions a-plenty, there’s also ample time to rub shoulders and pick the brains of other contractors as well as all the Trimble people and vendors in the Partners Pavilion.

The Partners Pavilion is set up in a large hall and is loaded with GPS and telematics gear and GPS armed equipment, including one of Caterpillar’s D7E electric drive dozers—which was a big hit with this tech-oriented crowd. Other Deere, Komatsu, Doosan, Bobcat and other OEMs were represented as well with motor graders, excavators, trucks even ruggedized plastic cases for sensitive electronic equipment. The same hall is where attendees are served lunch and where the Monday night grand banquet is held.

If there is one difficulty in all of this it is that one person can’t cover it all, especially if you want to take in the off-site demo area which eats up an afternoon. If you’re seriously considering going, I’d recommend taking at least two people.

The other compelling reason to attend the Trimble Dimensions conference is because this industry and technology changes so fast that it’s hard to stay current. At the first one I attended in 2006 all the contractors had about the same level of knowledge. I skipped 2007 and came back in 2008 and was surprised at how far some contractors had come with their knowledge and applications.

In that two-year time frame there was a group of contractors that had taken the technology bull by the horns and were talking about applications and techniques that had even the Trimble people taking notes.  At the same time there were GPS newbies there who were struggling just to begin to comprehend it all. That’s what I now refer to as the “digital divide,” and it’s going to have a big impact on construction in the future.

In 2009 the digital divide wasn’t as pronounced, the newbies were a little bit better informed, but there were still a lot of contractors who had clearly mastered the technology and were looking for advanced studies.

Right now it seems like most of the GPS masters are coming from the big construction companies. There are a few small outfits that get it, but not nearly as many. As these larger companies start locking in the productivity gains mentioned above, they’re going to be just that much harder to bid against. A few years back a source told me that he thought GPS was the small contractor’s secret weapon—a way they can bid on bigger jobs than they could without. But the value of this secret weapon for small contractors will diminish over time as more and more of the big players master the technology and drive their bid prices down accordingly.

Big or small, if you want to stay on the upside of that digital divide, I think some form of continuing education, such as the Trimble Dimensions conference, is essential.

The dates have not been published for next year’s Dimensions, but it’s usually held in February at the Mirage in Las Vegas. Check for announcements.