In Field Fleet Flexibility Expands Contractor’s Machine Control Commitment… and Talent Pool

Customer Profile: Based in Manawatu, New Zealand, Stringfellow Contracts Ltd. is a civil contractor specializing in road, land development, infrastructure and erosion protection. The company is prequalified to Level 4A and 5A for construction works on New Zealand Transport Agency’s roading network and has completed many projects for the New Zealand Transport Agency and local authorities across the lower North Island, including the Ohingaiti Deviation, Tennent Drive Realignment, Makura and Lindale Overbridge. Current projects include the NZ$7.9M Mangaweka Bridge replacement, a structure that connects the Manawatū and Rangitīkei districts, the Turitea Wind Farm project and the Manawatu-Tararua Highway.

Business Challenge: Expand machine control capabilities in the field.
 
Solutions:

  • Trimble Earthworks Grade Control Platform
  • Trimble WorksManager Software
  • Trimble WorksOS Software

Benefits:

  • Improved efficiency by ~20%
  • Better productivity
  • Quality finishes
  • Increased interest/excitement of workforce
  • Competitive advantage

Manawatu, New Zealand-based Stringfellow Contracts Ltd. (Stringfellow) has long been an advocate and early adopter of construction technology, from GNSS and lasers to grade control solutions to drive productivity and quality. In fact, the company has been using GNSS-guided grade control on heavy equipment since 2007.  

“It’s a competitive advantage,” confirmed Simon de Rose, General Manager at Stringfellow Contracts Ltd. “We’re a mid-size civil engineering contractor in our region, but we compete with larger companies with more resources for many civil projects. Technology is a differentiator for us, allowing our crews to do more work in less time with better quality. Our goal is to deliver the best finished product—and machine control helps us do that.”

This mindset has helped the company take on larger and more complex projects, such as motorways and highway projects including the recently awarded NZ$7.9M Mangaweka Bridge replacement, a structure that connects the Manawatū and Rangitīkei districts, the Turitea Wind Farm project and the Manawatu-Tararua Highway, to name a few.

But it’s not just competitive advantage, improved productivity and better finished products that drive Stringfellow’s investment in technology. For de Rose and his colleagues, it’s been a way to excite and energize operators of all skill and experience levels.

In Search of Simplicity
While Stringfellow was an early adopter of grade control solutions more than a decade ago, the company has realized considerably more value from the navigation solution in recent years, thanks largely to the evolution in software capabilities and ease of use. 

In the last couple of years, the company has transitioned to Trimble solutions for its large fleet of Cat machines sold and distributed by Terra Cat Industrial New Zealand Ltd. When asked why, de Rose said, “We’re a big Cat customer, which has a great integration with Trimble. We saw the Trimble Earthworks Grade Control Platform at a SITECH New Zealand event and we really liked the ease of use. Overall, we’ve really seen big leaps from both Trimble and Cat in the way of user experience. To us, Trimble is quite far ahead of the competition in terms of usability.” 

De Rose especially likes that the Earthworks platform is easy for operators who don’t have a background in machine control. He confirmed, “An operator with no machine control experience can jump in and use the platform very quickly. We’ve also got ‘Autos’ on our dozer and grader, which further drives productivity.”

The value of the grade control system to meet tight tolerances, to calculate an accurate, cutting-edge position and complete finished grade work with automatic blade adjustments is well documented. In recent months, these operators have pushed well beyond automated snap-to-grade functionality with in-field design to further drive project success.

In Situ Adjustments
Currently, Stringfellow has about 40 skilled operators that rely on a fleet of excavators, dozers and even a skid steer, all running Trimble Earthworks. 

Often, Stringfellow operators find themselves performing relatively simple, but repetitive tasks. On a recent project, crews were tasked with constructing nearly 100 sediment ponds. Each operator had a sheet with the basic pond dimensions based on the catchment size. 

Instead of waiting for a design from the office, operators used the Trimble Earthworks in-field design tool to sketch out each pond. At a proposed pond location, the operator designs the pond in 3D on the excavator’s tablet, using the contours of the site. Once the design is complete, the operator uses the 3D guidance to build a pond to precise design dimensions. 

“The ponds are built to the right size every time with an awesome finish,” said de Rose. “As well, our operators can share pond designs between machines. If one operator designs the pond, he can share with other operators so they are all working off the same design together. There’s no need for any set-out, no need for a laborer to check grade with a rotary laser, and no need for a visit from the surveyor.”

Progress Tracking
The same on-the-fly, in-field design capability in Earthworks proved beneficial for digging turbine pads on the Turitea Wind Farm project currently under construction on the north island of New Zealand – this time on a skid steer.

“Our skid steer operator watched videos to learn how to use the Earthworks in-field app—and he was off,” said de Rose. “The beauty of Earthworks on a skid steer is that it can hold the entire wind farm site map, so our operator can go anywhere in a day. He doesn’t have to wait for more data. One of our challenges in the past has been the file size limitations on field equipment. With Trimble Earthworks, no matter the design file size, there’s no problem.” 

That same wind farm project drew attention to another challenge for Stringfellow crews—progress tracking. 

“We have to submit quantity reports tallying the total amount of earth moved each month to our customer, and gathering that data proved to be a challenge. Drones won’t work because it’s so windy, so we were using rovers on poles which is very labor intensive,” de Rose said.

On social media, de Rose saw a post about Trimble’s WorksOS and WorksManager. Trimble WorksOS Software is a cloud-based operating system that provides real-time progress and productivity management, such as cut, fill, volume and compaction data updates. Trimble WorksManager software sends designs to the field wirelessly and enables teams to remotely support and manage their software and hardware. WorksOS integrated with  Trimble Earthworks quantifies material moved each day.

 “WorksOS automatically pulls real-time machine as-built data together into an easy-to-read dashboard so we can compare planned versus progress load counts and production quantities,” de Rose added. The big advantage of WorksOS is that we’re all dialed in together on a project, working to the correct design files and easily sharing updates. It lightens the load of our field workers making it easier to gather and manage the data and frees them up to do more work.”

Engaged and Excited
Beyond the streamlined data management, de Rose believes the biggest advantage to machine control and jobsite management software might be the way it excites operators—both new and experienced.  

Like other parts of the world, there is a growing skilled labor shortage in New Zealand. “For us, attracting and retaining talent is a continuous challenge,” explained de Rose. “But we’ve found that technology like Earthworks really opens new doors of opportunity for our current operators.” 

He further noted that in the past, an individual might be a digger, performing work designed and directed by others. Now, that same operator is able to adjust as needed in the field. 

“It’s that kind of flexibility and opportunity to contribute that we believe is key to attracting and retaining talent. Clearly, there are advantages of technology to make us more efficient, but I think there are more advantages in retaining staff,” he said.

Attracting and retaining skilled operators is a must for Stringfellow as the company continues to take on high profile, very large projects.  

He added, “We can see the future, when we will be able to share with operators and get live feedback to the entire crew—that’s an exciting evolution.”

When asked about the ROI of grade control and jobsite management software like WorksOS, de Rose, concluded, “We’ve done some work in parallel with others, and I can tell we’re faster. Operator-wise, our guys are really good at driving machines—this technology makes them even better. Overall, I’d say we’re 10-20% more efficient than we were even five years ago.”

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