Customer Profile: Founded in 1996, Solid Earth Civil Constructors Inc. began as a small design/build company. Over the years, this woman- and minority-owned business has expanded services to heavy civil sitework, excavation, concrete and demolition for the commercial and defense industries throughout Colorado’s Front Range.
Business Challenge: Adopt and adapt technology with an eye on cost, efficiency and productivity.
- Trimble Earthworks Grade Control Platform
- Trimble SPS930 Universal Total Stations
- Trimble T7 Tablet
- Trimble Siteworks
- Trimble SPS986 GNSS Smart Antenna
- Trimble SPS855 GNSS Modular Receiver
- Trimble PCS900 Paving Control System
- Trimble SiteVision
- 10-15% efficiency improvements
- More accurate earth moving volume calculations
- Improved productivity
Over the last 20 years, Pueblo, Colorado-based Solid Earth Civil Constructors (Solid Earth) has transitioned from a small design/build company working on residential and commercial projects to a heavy civil/infrastructure firm with services that include sitework, excavation, concrete and demolition for the commercial and defense industries across Colorado’s Front Range.
Founded by Rae and Don Peters, this woman- and minority-owned company of around 50, has realized success through teamwork, a continuous improvement philosophy, improved equipment and, more recently, technology in the office and in the field.
Solid Earth Superintendent Matt Peters, son of Don and Rae, confirms, “As jobs have grown in scope, scale and complexity, and timelines have gotten tighter, we have had to expand our capabilities and workflows to ensure productivity and efficiency, especially in the way of project estimating, construction site positioning, stakeout, measurement and machine control.”
The transition to estimating and project management software has been fairly straightforward in recent years, while GNSS and GNSS-enabled solutions have been a more difficult discussion.
“This isn’t because we don’t see the benefits, but because of the many solutions and the necessary investment,” Matt explained. “We’re a small company and every person takes on a number of roles. As a site superintendent, my job is to manage projects and crews, while also trying to assess and apply the best software and technical capabilities that can help us get a relatively quick return on investment.”
In 2017, Solid Earth took a familiar path to that investment by first renting solutions to evaluate benefits and ROI. The almost immediate benefits led to further investment in several Trimble Universal Total Stations (UTS) and GNSS rovers with help from Keith Knifer at SITECH Rocky Mountain.
“I can’t express how wonderful Keith has been for our company,” said Matt. “We started with another total station manufacturer, but didn’t have the greatest customer support. In the world of heavy construction, dealer support is critical. It feels like he’s a Solid Earth employee. When things get hard, he doesn’t say I’ll try to get someone out there—he’s right there and calling me with ideas.” That support has been particularly beneficial in the last two years as Solid Earth increased its investment in technology and began the shift to machine control.
Layouts and Labor Savings
The Solid Earth crew put the technology to work across all company divisions, especially concrete, site work and excavation. Concrete projects range from curb and gutter slip form paving, to structural slabs on grade and commercial foundations, to parking lots and roadways.
“For our concrete projects, we no longer have to wait for surveyors to layout and check boundaries,” Matt explained. “We can provide immediate support when our crews need something. We’ve achieved 10-15% in job proficiency just in time savings.”
Matt recalls a recent custom home project that had complex angles and architecture with many different corners and arcs. He added, “It would have taken weeks to layout this project using conventional methods. It’s easy with UTS. This technology simplifies the most complex layouts and has helped us cut labor costs and increase accuracy considerably.”
Crews have realized similar savings on commercial projects. On a municipal site excavation project, Solid Earth crews finished the project in 56 days with help from the Trimble site positioning systems, well under the estimated 100-day duration. “We’re seeing huge savings just in labor,” confirmed Matt. “In this case, we were able to move to the next job before the first job was supposed to be complete.”
Technology has also helped improve site prep and excavation projects as well. For example, on a lump sum land clearing and site prep job, crews were expected to move 7,000 yards a day. “Land clearing jobs are typically a challenge because we’re estimating how much material we can move. With help from Trimble, we know exactly how much we move on any given day.”
The success of the site positioning technology investment soon led to an interest in machine control.
A Measure of Control
By 2019, Matt and his crews were ready to invest in machine control to support the growing number and size of site work contracts. These projects can range from commercial lot grading and site excavation to storm pipe installation.
Matt once again looked to Keith at SITECH Rocky Mountain for help. After some evaluation, a demo and testing, Solid Earth invested in the Trimble Earthworks Grade Control Platform for dozers and a compact track loader.
“I love Trimble Earthworks because the interface is easy to use,” said Matt. “Most of our operators are very experienced, but may not have a lot of software skills. So the easier it is to use the interface, the more likely they are to adopt it. And the Autos function on the dozers makes the transition that much easier.”
Matt believes that Autos helps a new operator get up to speed much quicker. He continued, “They will learn the machine behavior and replicate that when they are not using 3D grade control. It’s a great tool for learning. And it helps experienced operators move dirt faster with more accuracy.”
In the last year, the company also implemented 3D paving for its curb and gutter machines. Specifically, they use the PCS900 and SPS930 total stations alongside the Wirtgen SP15 Slipform Paver. Matt confirmed, “Going stringless was a bit of a shift, but luckily we had background knowledge on the UTS and Keith [Knifer] to help ease the transition. We don’t have to set stringline, which is a pain, and we’re able to pave every day, unlike our conventional methods of every other day. I’m much more confident with those types of projects.”
Minimizing Model Mayhem
Developing 3D models has long been a challenge for small and medium contractors who don’t have dedicated staff to prepare models for machine control systems. Solid Earth is no exception.
“We tried to develop models internally in the early days,” explained Matt, “but found the burden too much for our estimators. We even tried to do our own topos to build a surface on the data collector and upload on the machine, but that came with some errors and wasn’t as smooth as a true 3D model.”
Finding the resources and time to dedicate was a challenge. Then a colleague of Matt’s recommended outsourcing to Quantum Land Design, an Iowa-based company that specializes in managing and preparing site data required for machine control, grade checking, volume calculations and planning of any scale.
“About 70% of our projects rely on 3D models,” said Matt. “We’ve been using Quantum for 2-3 years now. Quantum has facilitated our ability to further adopt 3D technology. We email the engineered site drawings and any existing topographical survey to them and they develop the model. They even help us find discrepancies.”
Beyond the machine control and survey tools, Solid Earth has also adopted site visualization capabilities, specifically Trimble SiteVision.
This handheld integrated positioning solution includes GNSS and integrated Electronic Distance Measurement (EDM) powered by a smartphone. Using SiteVision, contractors are able to visualize site data, track project progress, measure points, lines and cut/fill values, identify issues and collaborate to resolve them.
Matt said, “In my opinion, this is one of the greatest tools Trimble has ever come out with. We do a lot of projects that are paid based on quantity installed, so the ability to hook up to a cell signal and measure areas is huge.”
The benefits of SiteVision were immediately clear while working on a recent Colorado Department of Transportation job. The highway job required the Solid Earth team to pour a concrete cover on a median. The median cover divided a four-lane road with varying widths, lengths and curvature.
“It would have been very hard to measure with conventional methods, but the job was not large enough to set up a base station to just measure median cover,” Matt confirmed. “My team used SiteVision to measure the area poured and to calculate the concrete orders. Our concrete yield has been sub 10 percent on those items. That’s a big deal. Guys will throw a tape measure and add 10 percent. With SiteVision, we can measure and then make the orders with high accuracy. That same quantity data is then used for payment applications.”
The measurement tool in SiteVision is also beneficial for pedestrian ramps, which according to Matt, are never exactly to design. “They’re always a little geometrically peculiar,” he said. “In the past, we’ve used a tape measure and wheel, and still we have to negotiate with the inspector about quantity poured. Now, with SiteVision measurements, there is no argument. We bill for the exact right quantity. SiteVision paid for itself within a month.”
Today, Matt and his team primarily use SiteVision on unit rate projects and project billings, but see more applications down the road. Matt’s goal is to get one for every concrete crew.
Matt is quick to point out that profits are reinvested into the team, as well as more technology and equipment. He concluded, “Every year we add more technology. It’s a huge investment, but, if we want to grow, it’s a priority to give our talented team the tools they need to help them do their job safely with accuracy, quality and speed.”