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From the Editor: Where Do You Go When You’ve Reached the Peak?

Mark Scacco on September 10, 2018 - in Articles, Column

For the last 17 years, I’ve worked with surveyors, contractors, and engineers to help them lower their costs and increase profits. In doing so, I’ve seen many firms get to the point where they’ve reached “peak efficiency.” It’s exciting when an organization puts in the effort, makes upgrades, tweaks the process and gets positive results. But then what? Where do you go when you’ve gone as far as you can?

In the early 2000s, I was consulting on earthwork operations. Earthwork is one of the largest costs associated with a land-development project, so there was keen interest to optimize the process. This included modeling surfaces, balancing cut/fill and executing the earthmoving operations. Surface modeling had been in wide use for years, and the process of construction staking also was well-established. Aside from a few minor tweaks, the overall workflow was as efficient as possible—except that it wasn’t.

When was the last time you looked to see if the tools and processes themselves need an upgrade?

GPS and Machine Control

It was around this time that GPS for surveying had hit its stride, but its star turn in the earthmoving world was yet to occur. When GPS-guided machine control hit the market, it changed things overnight.

Even with the high cost and efforts to equip machines with the required hardware, train operators and office staff, and the time needed for everyone involved to trust the results, the industry transformed in less than five years. The time and cost savings were significant and offered the compelling reason for rapid adoption.

An industry task considered at peak efficiency with its processes and workflows suddenly was found not nearly as efficient as possible. Those who failed to adopt went out of business. This scenario is playing out again with a tool that uses GPS and takes it much higher.

Enter the Drones

A colleague in the southwest owns a consulting firm which, like my own, helps the AEC industry get the most from available tools. He also owns a surveying company, providing the perfect setup to be his own guinea pig; he’s always testing new techniques to optimize workflow efficiency.

He looked into survey data and collection. Using robotic total stations and GNSS systems coupled with highly configured office software, they were as efficient as possible—except they weren’t. It was still taking too long to collect data and process them into useful topos, ALTAs, etc.

To reach true peak efficiency, he had to step back and challenge his own (and the industry’s) assumptions at each step of the process. In doing so, he discovered a way to decrease his data collection and processing time by as much as 60 percent.

Three years ago, he began looking for new tools to improve his processes. Like many before him, he looked at laser scanning, determining that although useful in some situations, it was limited for regular use on typical projects. His pursuit eventually led him to the much-hyped world of UAVs (drones). He had heard the marketing about drones, but it wasn’t until he put them to the test that he realized there was a signal in all that noise, and he had found the solution.

In the last 18 months, his firm used drones on more than 300 projects for themselves and other surveyors. In addition to slashing collection and processing costs by more than half, he can deliver the finished product to clients much faster. But speed without quality is useless. Fortunately, the quality is as good as conventional methods, with horizontal and vertical accuracies of 0.03 feet.

He’s used drones on small half-acre sites to 120-plus-acre farm fields. Although drones aren’t applicable to every job (e.g., heavily vegetated sites; small unimproved sites), he found a tool to blow past what was previously “peak efficiency.” His clients agree: the summit of peak efficiency they were standing on suddenly felt like a valley compared to the efficiencies of drone data collection.

You likely have modern software and hardware; an intelligent, hard-working team; and workflows developed to maximize return on investment. It’s also likely you’re at or near peak efficiency with these tools, people and processes. But when was the last time you looked to see if the tools and processes themselves need an upgrade? You may be surprised by how a new approach can impact your profits and put you back on the peak.

Mark Scacco

About Mark Scacco

Mark Scacco, P.E., is the Editor in Residence for Informed Infrastructure magazine and since 2001 has been an AEC industry consultant. He is the president of Scacco LLC and can be reached at mark.scacco@scaccollc.com.

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