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February 1, 2004
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Surveying Serving the construction industry in the 21st century.

Not too many years ago (seems almost yesterday) construction layout was accomplished by a surveying crew of several people pounding stakes, hubs, flats, lathes and paddles into the ground. Technology, however, has required surveyors to re-invent themselves-a necessity for all practical professionals-now and especially for the future. Many surveyors are discovering that the technology race is on, and that change is good and healthy for the industry, the public and the profession. With the increase in machine control, the construction industry-including surveyors-is witnessing a major paradigm shift. But, like when GIS rolled out, surveyors and engineers should not miss the new boarding call of machine control.

The Old Way Remembered

I myself remember pounding hubs in front of a CMI dirt trimmer, trying to stay ahead. Others have stories of climbing up on an "untouched" dirt pile to set up an instrument because that was where the control was located. And sometimes, when the control was really inaccessible, the surveyor used a technique called "wiggling-in." This process (also known by various other names) consisted of setting up and attempting to place the instrument online between known points. A good instrument man could accomplish it in three setups. What about performing a resection? Surveyors had either not heard of it, or it required a calculation too difficult to perform in the field. Remember, I'm talking about the surveyor's "dark ages" before data collectors and the like. A four-function calculator could cost as much as $100, including trig functions. And just when I thought I had stayed ahead of the curve, I woke up to this "machine control" creation-again finding myself under the gun to learn something new.

In my wildest dreams I never imagined a day where "near-stakeless" technology would exist. Today, however, the future has become a reality where subdivisions, roadways and development sites can be constructed almost entirely without stakes. Think of the ease of the construction processes without traditional layout!

Transitional Game Plan

Contrary to the common belief of many, the surveyor, engineer, machine operator and superintendent still have jobs to do, even with machine control on the job. The surveyor establishes control points for field checking and as-builts and sets up site calibration for the machine operation. He (or she) can actually measure the machines, too, through a series of blade and antenna measurements similar to measuring the height of a rod and/or horizontal offsets. These measurements are stored in the onboard computer and recalled as needed, allowing accurate guidance to the work. The civil engineer performs data preparation using digital methods where the integrity of the design is checked and viewed in three dimensions (3D). From this work, the machine operator can then perform more work in less time, thereby increasing profitability; ground support personnel are able to have personal control over all of these functions.

Construction professionals still need to set up the job both for control and data preparation since there are possible liability issues. And although many, perhaps most, of the mass grading stakes are eliminated, control points are still required. And who better to find and provide these to the engineer? A surveyor. Stakes are still necessary for grade checks and determination of project transformation parameters for GPS, as well as for traditional layout of bridges and other items not directly built by machines. As-built surveys, utility locations and boundary surveys are still required. Engineering is performed both in the design and in the construction phases. Most aspects of the project are now handled by the contractor in the ever-increasing "design-build" format where the contractor controls the job from start to finish, including design, material testing, layout, construction and documentation.

The resultant demands placed upon the 21st century contractor are great, and machine control has become a necessary cog in the wheel of progress. Automation will be on the rise, and contractors will need to stay competitive. But machine control is not a total mystery. Some aspects of the business have just shifted focus, especially for the surveyor and engineer. The surveyor's focus is influenced by the availability of tools. Remember the "gammon reel" and plumb bob? Do you remember how to use them? These tools are historically important but nearly obsolete in these days of digital data collection and transfer, CAD and nearly automated roadway design-at least in the nature of construction operations.

The shift to total three-dimensional (3D) planning is a little rocky for many 2D guys like me. Traditional attitudes of vertical controls (1D) and horizontal controls (2D) require adjustments in thinking. Previous views considered these functions separately; in fact, bench marks (1D) did not have horizontal information reported and vice versa until recently. I'm not talking about a station and offset. Since 1D + 2D = 3D, what's the hold up? Enhancements in computer software now allow visualization of the final design in three dimensions. When a design is flawed, it is apparent upon review of the data; thus, a design can be corrected before any work continues-a huge advantage for the construction professional.

A Job For Everyone

Contractors today embrace and accept more responsibilities for engineering testing and layout. Just because one sets points for construction does not make one a surveyor any more than developing profile grades and typical cross sections makes one a highway engineer. I can drive a bulldozer, but can I operate it? Contractors are still constructors after all, and the surveying and engineering professionals have a part in that as well; we all just need to recognize our purpose in the process. Professional supervision is required to protect the public: contractors employ surveyors to estimate quantities, oversee grading and determine "as-built" quantities as well as other necessary and viable functions. Engineers and surveyors design and locate; contractors build.

The New "Cut Sheet"

A "cut sheet" is a compilation of cut and/or fills for a given set of stakes on a project. While still needed, the traditional cut sheet may well be partially or wholly replaced with a "real-time" display in the tractor cab.

These operator screens are totally customizable, depending on the required information. The equipment operator can view 15 to 20 items on various screens. Moreover, the displays can be quickly altered to allow for personal preferences.

The paper trail is often more important than the actual construction itself, especially to government agencies. Only the less-conscientious surveyor will forgo providing cut sheets and other documentation on construction projects. Documenting the process as it occurs is one way to cut down on extra paperwork.

Data is the Key

Data is the key to the successful execution of projects. For the owner, success means economically responsible execution of the work; for the engineer, success means no design busts; for the surveyor, success means correct design to eliminate (or at least decrease) re-staking; for the public, success means a safe and useful final product. Correct design files lead to properly executed projects. Correct files can only be determined by inspection of the data. When the design is performed using the two established CAD packages, AutoCAD (Auto-desk, San Rafael, Calif.) or Microstation (Bentley Corp., Exton, Pa.), the foundation is in place to achieve these goals and be successful. A "field-to-finish" mentality needs to be established and maintained, however.

Looking To Tomorrow

It should be readily apparent that the surveyor's role continues to be the expert in measurement even though others may perform surveying tasks. A proud professionalism exists in our industry that must continue even when technology alters how and what tasks we are to accomplish. Training and education can go a long way, but true professionals act in a manner that brings esteem to themselves and their profession. We can remember the old days of "wiggling in" and using our plumb bobs at the same time that we are being challenged to work in today's progressive business.

Associated Professionals Inc. (API) is the only full-service machine control dealer in the Midwest. API creates partnerships in productivity by providing reliable, innovative, efficient and cost-effective solutions for the construction industry. API performs professional engineering and land surveying projects for local clients as well as sales, service, training, data preparation and technical support for machine control customers.

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