A Model Entrepreneur
May 14, 2008
Thad Glankler may sound laid back with his Southern drawl, but those who work with him know better. Many clients and colleagues, he admits, call him “anal.” But this meticulous characteristic is precisely what Glankler needs in his line of work: data modeling.
After almost 20 years of working for others, Glankler branched out on his own last year to serve clients as a consultant rather than an employee, which has allowed him to provide services for any project scope using a compendium of construction technology products. And as a licensed professional engineer experienced in field surveying, CAD and machine control, Glankler Data Services, LLP, of Lake Wylie, S.C., is well-positioned for success in this small but highly specialized market.
“What helps in modeling is to know different CAD files and programs and how the layers are named and whether they’re designed for checking contours,” Glankler says. “Are they splined? Do they have too many vertices? Are lines connected or curve lines joined together? Stuff like that can cause problems in the models.”
He says the student peers he had in engineering school told him not to learn CAD. “They’ll think you’re a CAD drafter,” Glankler remembers them warning. “I’d always tell them, ‘I’m not learning to draft; I’m learning to design,’” he says.
This perspective and knowledge of CAD as a 3D design tool has proven to be beneficial for Glankler. “It made my job easier if I could do profiles and design my storm and sewer--if I put it all in there rather than handing it to a CAD tech that would mess it up every time and who would have to do it over again.”
Glankler’s engineering background also helps him to read plans and know what an engineer intended. “I can look at a set of plans, and I know exactly what is going on,” he says. “Sometimes you look and think, ‘Where is this information for the storm? It’s not on the sheet. Oh, it’s probably here or here.’ Or you’ll have everything in there [but] you just need to clean it up. You ask yourself, ‘What do I need to keep?’ Well, what do you need to build the model? Anything to get your elevations, locations to build it.”
This experience and common-sense approach have propelled Glankler to where he is today. And his zeal for self-teaching keeps him on top of industry offerings.
Glankler 101“You can learn the software, but that’s not knowing how to build a DTM,” Glankler says. “Learning how to design wasn’t something that any company I was in taught me. It was me bringing it [a design program] home and playing with it or at the office trying to find a quicker way or better way to do something.”
Sometimes, finding that quicker, better way requires the willingness to try something new. “I’ve heard people say, ‘I’ve never been in that menu before. What happens?’ and I say, ‘I don’t know. Push it, and see what happens. If you don’t like it, there’s a big Undo button,” he says. “And some say, ‘Well, that isn’t what that was intended for.’ And I say, ‘So what? It works just fine.’”
But knowing where the errors are before a user even gets started is what can make or break the value of a model. Glankler says he can find where contours don’t match the road profile. For example, when a detail shows that a road is at a 2-percent slope rather than an intended 3-percent slope, Glankler spots it. His keen eye and common sense lead him to stop, pick up the phone and find out which one to go with.
While this keen eye and natural sense guide him, contractors save money. “Sometimes three contours will come in one side of a building and only two will come out the other side, and there’s a foot in there somewhere,” he explains. “In the modeling process, I will find that. Surveyors are just pulling elevations off the contours and might not necessarily pick [the error] up until they’re out there digging--and at that point it’s too late. The contractor’s losing money. If I can find those in the building process, I’m contouring it at a tenth of a foot and highlighting where the low points are so I make sure there is a catch basin or something that it’s going to. Before they get out there and start moving heavy dirt, I can show them areas that aren’t going to work.”
Glankler client Jordan Anglin, a project engineer for general contractor Henderson Inc. of Williamsburg, Va., agrees. “We’ll have a model, like a giant condo complex, and he’ll call me and tell me, ‘You might want to call your engineer. Unit Twenty-One is backgraded, and they’re going to hold water in the garage,’” he says. “And that’s before we ever step foot on the job. That saves the owners money, the engineers, everyone.”
The Missing LinkAnglin also agrees that it’s Glankler’s well-rounded experience that sets him apart from other modelers. It has, in fact, contributed to Glankler’s knack for finding intricate yet important solutions for clients, like making usable background linework files standard with machine control and survey stakeout models--an area Glankler says is a missing link for many modelers.
“Over the years,” he says, “I’ve found colors that work well out in the field [in the sun]. I found a good combination for buildings and curbs, etcetera. [Some modelers] spend so much time trying to get the surface right, they think they can just load up the CAD file and they’re good. Their color pallets go up to 256 colors--and people like to use all these different colors--but what happens when it gets imported [is that] they all turn red.”
A solid, affordable working surface model, though, is even more important--especially to contractors. Many contractors, Glankler says, look for the best price for a model and later run into errors. Their models start to “jump,” and they think something is wrong with their machines. “I used to get these phone calls,” Glankler says. He first asks who built the model. Then he asks to see it. “They can give me a coordinate of right where they are so I can zoom straight to the model, view it in 3D, and say, ‘Yep, you’ve got a bump there.’”
From there, Glankler can fix the model and turn it back around usually within a day. And with about 400 models to his name, Glankler’s clients say his CAD, construction and engineering experience is appreciated.
“He understands construction. A lot of engineers don’t. They can draw it on paper, but they don’t understand everything that goes on in the field,” Anglin says, adding that Glankler’s turnaround on change orders helps to keep his company on schedule--a No. 1 priority to most general contractors.
Glankler also--perhaps unintentionally--invalidates some myths about models and positioning technology in the course of business. “One reason I came out on my own is because a lot of people say that GPS is not that accurate,” Glankler says. “From what I’ve seen, it’s not the accuracy of the GPS--it’s more the accuracy of the models everybody was using.
“These machines will cut a bad model precisely. They say it’s good for half a foot. No, it’s good for under a tenth if you build it that way and use the equipment correctly. Even with GPS, if you don’t follow the correct procedures, you’re going to do things incorrectly. It’s a tool to use.”
Teaching Clients, Evolving the IndustrySince June 2007 when he began GDS, Glankler has been trying to work in 3D with surveyors.
“The way I look at it is: The more people that do it, the more reliability GPS gets, the more people who will buy GPS, the more people will need more models,” he says. “I think I can do models at a better price and quicker and more accurate than a lot of people.” This is a business prowess many in the industry lack.
But it’s been hard to explain the importance of a model. In fact, it’s Glankler’s biggest struggle in business. “Surveyors see [machine control] as their revenue getting taken away,” Glankler says. “The way I see it is that some of it might be taken away, but it’s offering you other chances to do other things--stockpile verification, earthwork quantities, progress quantities. They’re not getting hurt so much individually because not that many contractors have it yet. But once they start getting it, they’ll start losing even more.
“Contractors are starting to see where it can be useful,” he continues. “But they don’t quite understand the detail it needs to be in. They think the models that they’ve done to date will be sufficient--until they see one that’s done to the detail that they need it to be.
“A lot of them would say, ‘We can do the model.’ I’d say, ‘OK, let me take a look at it before you go out there.’ Something I can do in two or three days they say would take them two or three weeks to get it to that detail.”
That level of detail includes placing points every 2 feet, which raises the issue of file size capacities of machines. But Glankler says the file--and its size--depends on the client served. Surveyors want point names; contractors want elevations and contours.
“I can build a road for a contractor and not put a code name on anything, but a surveyor will want to know the edge of pavement, the flow line, the back of the curb,” Glankler says. “In my models, I’m putting in horizontal and vertical alignments, I’m building the templates, I’m putting in the superelevations, the widening--so the transitions are smooth.”
He then generates contours and verifies what was given to him in the files and frequently finds that the contours don’t match the profile and the template. “So when a contactor cuts into my model and a surveyor pulls it straight out from the CAD file, we’re going to miss,” he says. “And when the contractor starts to grade an area to a tenth of a foot spending time and money--and with gas prices on one of those machines--it gets expensive.”
Many of these issues, he says, would be nonexistent if contractors and surveyors used the same model--and worked in 3D.
He says surveyors can even take his models and resell them to contractor clients who can do earthwork and progress quantities with them. “The big thing for the contractor is doing the initial topo to verify the existing grade. Because if the topo was flown and they missed a big gorge or a big mound, right off the bat, the contractor has to spend more money either hauling in dirt or hauling off dirt that he didn’t quantify,” Glankler says. “And if he can prove that to begin with, he can get that money back. And all it really takes is a quick topo.”
A Calculated GrowthAs Glankler Data Services LLP continues to grow--and as the industry continues to evolve--Thad Glankler cautiously looks forward to the opportunity to expand and reach more customers. “I wish to grow GDS but not to the point where clients do not come first,” he says. ”GDS will be successful because it is technology-based, client-based and economy-based. Let GDS do what we do best--modeling. And you do what you do best--moving dirt and staking out sites.”
If things go as planned, the meticulous, or “anal,” engineer with the Southern drawl will do well. His clients think he will.
“[Modeling] is a relatively new field,” Anglin says, “and he’s just on the ball.”