Views From The Field

December 20, 2002
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The changing business of surveying.

In 1990, Neal Kirkpatrick founded his survey business in Hagerstown, Maryland, to provide construction layout and mapping. Today, Kirkpatrick and Associates still provides accurate horizontal and vertical alignment to contractors. However, because contractors have begun using innovative automated technology, much of Kirkpatrick’s work is stakeless. Now he manages data files instead of stakes and markers.

Similarly, as president of Mountain Pacific Surveys of northern California’s Fairfield, Charles Weakley, PS, has advanced his company through a philosophical change towards the business of surveying. As the use of digital files and automated sensor technology on construction projects grew, his business strategy changed. Today, Mountain Pacific surveyors have moved beyond the role of data capture and analysis to that of project information managers, taking an influential role on construction teams.

Throughout the United States and the world, surveyors are recognizing the changes occurring in the surveying and construction industries and are responding in ways that enhance and grow their businesses. Changes in the use of automated technology in both sensors and digital data transfer offer new opportunities—and new challenges—for all surveyors. The changes are here; how surveyors respond to them will determine the future of their business—and of the industry.



Hank Stuckey and Bill Sullivan of Voyager Surveying (Myersville, Md.) provide utility stakeout with Trimble’s GPS Total Station 4700 as a base station and GPS Total Station 4800 as a rover on a 500-acre All Souls Cemetery site in Germantown, Md. The site is being graded by Trimble’s SiteVision system on a 650 John Deere dozer. Co-author Neal Kirkpatrick prepared the terrain model in Terramodel for use with the SiteVision system.
Many surveyors today already see themselves as project information, or data, managers. Rather than just providing the brick-and-mortar tasks of property line surveying, mapping and stakeout, these forward-thinking surveyors view themselves as managers of the critical data required by the entire team throughout the construction cycle. After all, surveyors are usually on site from start to finish, from construction staking to as-built. These progressive surveyors rightly see themselves as some of the most valued team players in the management of design documentation and the creation, revision and archiving of data throughout the project.

But while surveyors have performed the data management role for some time, the format in which the data is managed—and even the data itself—has changed.

Surveyors have worked primarily in two-dimensional (2D) space—or “21⁄2 D” with elevations. Today’s technology, however, frees surveyors from the limitations of a 2D plane and 2D thinking. With Global Positioning System (GPS) and Real Time Kinematic (RTK) technology, robotic field equipment and desktop computers’ ability to manipulate, store and transfer vast amounts of data via the Internet, surveyors are capable of defining and referencing the actual three-dimensional (3D) surface. This opens significant new ways to manage, plan and use data, as well as new requirements for transferring data.

Surveyors can think, plan and work quicker and easier by working with surfaces rather than points. With today’s tools, surveyors can build entire projects prior to construction, heading off potential design problems during the modeling stage. Once the surface model is built, surveyors no longer are confined to a stakeout point list. Any point observed in the field can be compared to the surface model instantly; grade and other derived information can easily be established. Additionally, surface files can be transferred seamlessly by data card into automated machine guidance systems, greatly reducing the need for construction staking. And this is increasing as automated grading machines involved strictly in moving earth—graders and bulldozers—expand to more construction machines and applications.

GPS grade control automates a largely manual process, eliminating many error sources.

Digital Data Transfer

Technology has also impacted the construction cycle. Along with pressures to find increased efficiencies, productivity and profitability, new technology has significantly changed the construction cycle, as well as the surveying functions performed in it. Most surveyors today are dealing with substantial changes in the project design data delivery system. Design engineers now commonly provide digital project design data to the contractor and surveyor; in extreme instances this may supplant the need for paper plan documents.

Digital data transfer is gaining use throughout the construction cycle to achieve greater accuracy and efficiencies. The introduction of 3D positioning systems on the machine using GPS and robotic total station technologies enable an entire site design surface to be transferred in electronic form to the machine. Seamless digital data transfer becomes even more critical; certifying data accuracy is imperative. This workflow leads to more interaction between design engineer, contractor and surveyor; substantial amounts of design information in the form of AutoCAD (Autodesk, San Rafael, Calif.), TerraModel (Trimble, Sunnyvale, Calif.) or other digital files typically flow through or originate from the surveyor.

On one hand, this change can reduce survey calculation costs with some data extracted from engineering design files. However, paper plans produced today from digital files may not be as complete as those received a decade or two ago. Paper plans adequate for project approval submission are often insufficient as a stand-alone document for construction layout purposes. This further reinforces the position of surveyors as information managers. Surveyors are frequently first to independently evaluate plans for geometric correctness, often in the unwanted role as plan-checker for the design firm. They are also often first to find discrepancies between paper and digital information, starting the process of seeking clarification with other team members before laying out construction projects. This process often leads to costly plan revision delays, again underscoring the need for timely data exchange among all team members.

“I’ve found that forward-thinking contractors rely on me to act as data manager and secure data files of projects directly from engineers,” Kirkpatrick says. “This allows me time to build the model while maintaining an open dialogue with those responsible for the design. Many design firms hesitate to provide their construction plans in digital format. After all, the information is proprietary; if files were prepared solely for producing two-dimensional hard copy, much of the file may be incomplete, especially concerning elevations. But once I explain my role in managing the geodata, most firms are willing to provide the information. If a problem arises, they would rather deal with it in a relaxed atmosphere with someone who shares their technical background, than later with a contractor while the project is on a tight schedule.”

“Clients prefer team members who are part of the solution, and as such they value the service we provide as troubleshooters, always striving to uncover plan discrepancies before they become problems,” Weakley says. “In the key role of data manager, we often must quickly relay as-built or existing condition data to the design team, and in return convert plan revision data into stakeout or updated surface data as efficiently as possible. All of this is done via digital data transfer, and when done efficiently minimizes any detrimental project impact.”

Mountain Pacific Survey’s Party Chief Ty Hawkins checks as-built pad elevations at Paradise Valley community project in Fairfield, Calif., using Trimble TSCe Controller with stored project DTM data.

Machine Control

With the introduction of machine control equipment such as GPS grade control, many contractors expect engineers to provide surveyors with digital design files. GPS grade control automates a largely manual process, eliminating many error sources. Because the machine operator uses the same data as designer and surveyor, he or she can visualize the job better and complete it faster. In addition, since GPS grade control may eliminate some field stakeout operations, the contractor can often perform work without waiting for construction stakes to be set, gaining additional time and cost savings.

The surveyor who receives the digital design files, however, faces a dilemma; the files usually aren’t ready to be plugged into a flash card, stuck on a motor grader and immediately used. More typically, a project is designed by a CAD system, with files that can be read by software packages and output in a particular machine control format. But that design file often can’t be given to a contractor as the DTM for building the project without a lot of refinement and editing. A significant amount of work may be required to upgrade that basic design file to where it’s optimum as a model for construction.

“If you’re a surveying firm preparing maps with today’s equipment, you’re fully capable of producing these DTMs; it’s a natural extension of what surveyors do and can be rightfully packaged as a part of the construction staking proposal,” Weakley says. “If construction staking is a major component of your surveying business, you should be competent and comfortable reading and interpreting plans using digital design files. It’s then a matter of staying current with data formats of machine control manufacturers to provide consistent information with their equipment for use in site calibrations and other tasks that keep contractors working.”

If a surveyor works in a region where no one uses machine control systems, it’s not an issue. But in major metropolitan areas machine control is increasingly standard, with fierce competition among contractors seeking any edge. If implemented correctly, machine control is a huge advantage for contractors, especially on larger projects. As contractors develop these capabilities, surveyors need to stay current—or potentially lose clients. Another consideration for surveyors is that the design engineer whose data files surveyors use as the basis of calculations may also be marketing this service. The surveyor’s market position is strengthened by providing a full-service construction layout proposal including DTM setup and GPS site calibration services to contractors; contractors then only need to deal with one subconsultant for surveying and layout work.

“Two years ago, I was asked to offer expert testimony in a dispute concerning the volume of excavation proposed on a nearby construction site,” Kirkpatrick explains. “The excavating company had been considering GPS grade control systems for some time; they needed someone capable of converting data for input into the machine. After a verdict in our favor, the excavator offered to purchase blocks of my time to build the models. He has since purchased two complete GPS guidance systems and is pleased with the technology. Recognizing the benefit of this new technology, I have reorganized my company, and now solely provide this service.

“Many contractors who use GPS machine guidance systems already have staff surveyors capable of establishing good control. If not, I’ll provide it. The GPS calibration has thus far been a task usually done in tandem. Data conversion, data transfer and quality control will always be my responsibility. I still provide concise positional data to the construction industry. However, I can now work in Terramodel to build an entire site in the comfort of my office on my desktop PC as opposed to point by point, out in the elements, on site.”

Process Integration

Construction professionals continue to seek new ways to economize and streamline, integrating new technologies and processes as much as possible. In this environment, data integration—from design to 3D machine control grading—is inevitable. The time saved by a project team network accessing the same file in itself makes it a worthwhile undertaking. Information sharing in the construction industry is slowly being accepted and surveyors should make every effort to continue to provide the crucial link between design and actual construction.

Process integration in machine control can come in two scenarios. In the first, the surveyor is able to provide real-time engineering. He or she is on the same team as the design engineer, doing construction staking for the contractor and design surveying for the owner. This link between the design engineer and the surveyor greatly increases the speed of implementing changes.

For example, if the contractor starts the grading machine but finds the dirt is running 5,000 yards too long, everyone starts scrambling. Does the dirt get hauled off or are revisions made to the grading plans to accommodate absorbing dirt by raising pads or otherwise eliminating the dirt? After the design engineer makes those changes, the quicker the surveyor can receive changes and update files, the quicker the contractor gets back to work. If this process is efficient, it may eliminate downtime where previously there may have been significant and costly delays.

“The situations that provide the best process integration are with engineering firms for whom we provide comprehensive surveying services,” Weakley says. “Because they don’t have in-house surveying capabilities, we’re working closely with the engineers on the project team from start to finish. A good bond between surveyor and engineer provides the strongest integration and smoothest workflow for both contractor and owner. In those situations problems get resolved quickly and smoothly. That’s the kind of integration that leads to more success—and certainly timeliness. From a machine control aspect as well as an overall concept of integration, the better the team functions the better off everyone is.”

In the second scenario, a surveyor works directly for the contractor. Here, when plan discrepancies arise, surveyors may need to generate a Request for Information (RFI) that goes to the contractor, then the owner, then the design engineer. After completing plan revisions, the process is reversed. All this may add days or weeks to the project. In situations where surveyors have a direct link with the engineer, design information is exchanged much quicker by avoiding this unnecessarily long chain of command.

Whether the project involves machine control or not, process integration is critical; when machine control is present it may be even more critical in regards to time and cost.

Surveyors have the opportunity to realize greater status, responsibility and revenues by taking their roles as geodata managers seriously. Both Kirkpatrick and Weakley agree. “By evolving our companies to provide the knowledge and infrastructure to implement real-time or near real-time construction and engineering processes, we get increased attention, respect and response from other construction team members. We also find that everyone involved, from contractor to owner, is more satisfied as projects get accomplished with greater transparency, communication and efficiency among team players—and to greater success.”

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