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The Technology Benchmark: The human asset.

April 1, 2009
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When we are surrounded by advanced technology that can do a myriad of tasks, it’s easy to underestimate the value provided by humans.



Engineering, design and construction firms are increasingly trying to automate processes and work flow. Because a surveyor’s role is labor intensive, this function is often thought of as one that can be automated further. Indeed, some of the technology used to accomplish this goal is proving successful. Yet some of the best productivity still comes from the manual effort of people who are motivated, highly skilled and highly experienced. This productivity is being demonstrated on some mining and construction sites where the roles of dozer operators and surveyors increasingly are shifting to encompass new responsibilities that maximize their skills and experience.

Streamlining Productivity

Consider a modern coal mining operation. Each mine site must be returned to its original condition with adequate drainage. It must be maintainable and sustainable so that erosion doesn’t cause a realignment of the landscape that would be deleterious to farming or any other activity that resumes on the site. A typical coal mine might cover hundreds of acres or several miles, and each site can feature substantial elevation differences. Many firms use software to assist in regrading the site, but the amount of points produced can be counterproductive due to their large mass.

While experienced dozer operators understand how to regrade the site so that drainage from rainfall won’t cause erosion, sometimes this knowledge contradicts the grade shown in engineering drawings for a site. In a traditional process, the dozer operator identifies a potential drainage problem and gets the engineers involved. A new set of drawings is developed, a new stakeout occurs, and the dozer operator then follows the information on the stakes. A substantial delay at a significant expense can be caused by pulling in this additional level of resources.

This is where the human factor comes into play.

Working alongside dozer operators, experienced surveyors can sift through the data and use their know-ledge of prior projects to cull out the critical information needed for regrading the site. They can select key points for drainages and stake them out. They can then discuss the data with the dozer operators to make sure that they have what they need to successfully move forward. Some companies even take this process a step further and give experienced staff the freedom to solve problems without further input from others. When the surveyors and dozer operators are allowed to become stakeholders in the decision-making and data prep processes, they can help ensure a successful development.

For example, a dozer operator at one coal mine noticed that the drainage plan he had was likely to cause serious erosion problems even though significant switchbacks were added to the flow channels to slow the flow velocity. The operator suggested that he could solve the problem by building a waterfall into the landscape. Although the surveyor found this to be an unconventional solution and initially had doubts, he and the dozer operator compared notes, discussed other possible approaches and finally agreed to try the waterfall. When the surveyor returned at the end of the day, the entire waterfall was constructed with the proper use of bedding materials and boulders to accomplish the goal at hand, and the work was approved. The company was able to use its engineers and surveyors for other projects while eliminating any idle time for the dozer, and the reclamation was accomplished effectively.

A New Work Flow Model

The top-down work flow, in which the engineers call the surveyors to deliberate over problems, is disappearing. Under today’s scenario, surveyors lay out the ridges, subridges, drainage areas and subdrainage areas to create long, smooth drainage curves in order to slow the flow of water velocity. If the layout calls for something that is not constructible or maintainable, the operators can make localized changes, build it and have it inspected upon completion. They are provided with offsets and main stakes to work from; other than that, they interpret the rest.

Experienced dozer operators can often figure out where to place stockpiles and borrow pits almost on-the-fly. They can also customize the solution based on highly localized conditions to create an aesthetically pleasing landscape. And this scenario is not just occurring at mines--similar responsibility is being given to dozer operators on construction sites.

Of course, this scenario only works if the surveyors, operators and others in the company have a strong practical sense of teamwork. Employees must treat each other as clients, with customer service being the top priority. Communication must be paramount to avoid restaking and grading rework. Additionally, this type of work flow simply isn’t practical on sites that require a large number of vehicles. In these cases, it may be best to stick with traditional methods in which GPS guidance or stakes take control. In many other cases, however, giving experienced dozer operators more control on site can provide benefits for the entire operation.

Reallocated Human Resources

So what happens to the surveyor in this new work flow? While surveyors are becoming less involved in the pounding of hubs and stakes, they are shifting into key roles as decision makers and stakeholders. Perhaps a more accurate title might be “construction site data managers.” Individuals in this high-level role control or oversee data prep and 3D modeling, conversions to proprietary formats, data dissemination, the implementation of change orders and the update of equipment control as changes occur. This re-allocation of human resources allows for better management of various operations within a mining or construction firm.

Technology is changing the way work is performed on a jobsite. However, technology isn’t the only answer. In fact, the best use of modern tools often occurs when they supplement--rather than replace--the human value. Working as a team, treating your teammates as “clients” and embracing a level of freedom on the job can enhance productivity to a level where even the most advanced technology cannot compete.

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