Published January 2001

Graders, pavers benefit from laser technology

By John Wolcott
Herald Business Journal Editor

Thanks to innovations by Topcon Laser Systems, Northwest contractors are saving time, money and labor by using lasers to control heavy equipment on construction sites.

PPI Survey & Laser Equipment in Kent, the only Washington and Oregon dealer for the California-based Topcon systems, is impressing Northwest builders by automating much of the site work done by excavators, graders and paving equipment, said PPI’s branch manager, Ken Shersty.

Shersty, who’s currently showing his wares to Wilder Construction Inc. in Everett, one of the Northwest’s major paving and construction firms, is contacting Snohomish County contractors who use a variety of machinery.

By linking excavators, graders and paving equipment to on-site laser beacons, global positioning satellites (GPS), computers and other electronic systems, Topcon’s equipment transforms even older construction machinery into state-of-the-art, high-tech tools.

One of Shersty’s favorite examples is Topcon’s Touch Series 5 laser system mounted on excavators. Using a combination of laser beams and excavator-mounted sensors that calculate bucket angles, the Topcon LCD Touch Control Panel shows the operator his exact bucket depth and angle relative to the project’s desired grade or depth. Instead of requiring one or two grade checkers to take periodic measurements while the operator stops digging, the Topcon system allows continuous work without spotters.

“That’s not only a labor saver, but it’s also a safety advantage,” Shersty said, referring to accidents in which grade checkers have been caught in cave-ins.

The equipment even lets operators work “blind,” moving ahead with digging projects despite water-filled ditches that obscure the bucket’s location and the depth of the cut.

Using the Topcon laser and equipment control system, operators can have automatic control of sloped cuts and precisely controlled excavation depths that “virtually eliminate over-excavation and rework,” according to Topcon literature.

Rob Holden, equipment manager for Universal Land Construction Co. in Woodinville, installed a Topcon TS-5 system on an excavator two years ago, specifically for digging huge detention ponds for storm water runoff on large projects.

“They have to be dug exactly. The percentage of slope has to be perfect to get approved by the inspectors. All you have to do with this system is set it (on the instrument panel), click on it, and it does the right thing,” Holden said. “The surveyor puts his marks in and we take off from there, and we only have to dig it once. Before, we’d cut over or under the slope line, and we’d come close but not good enough for the inspector and the engineer. Now, it’s exact every time. It’s pretty amazing.”

Before using the Topcon system, Holden said, “we were paying two people — the excavator operator and a man on the ground to check the grade — and the equipment had to stop regularly. Now, we’re able to send the ground man off to do something more productive, and the excavator operator doesn’t have to stop work at all. As hard as it is to get manpower these days, that change has been really important for us.”

Holden said the first unit was paid for in a year, and Universal has bought a second system.

Topcon started the “machine control” industry nearly two decades ago, Shersty said, but the idea of using laser-guided and automated machine operations didn’t really take off until the early 1990s, he said.

Today, the big users are excavators and graders, a market PPI and Topcon have cultivated by visiting construction companies, showing off digital videos and CD-ROMs on the sales crew’s laptop computers and even flying potential clients to Topcon’s Pleasanton, Calif., factory to see equipment systems in action.

“This is not a spur-of-the-moment sale. You don’t just take order forms to people; it takes a lot of soliciting. But once they use the systems, they love what they do,” said Shersty, who counts Goodfellow Brothers Inc. of Wenatchee and Washington Groups International as satisfied customers.

Topcon’s new 3D-GPS system for graders is the world’s first self-tracking station with satellite links, laser communication to the grading equipment, a precision Local Positioning System and a rugged Rocky laptop computer.

Digitized site plans loaded into the laptop create a Digital Terrain Model for reference. Then the computer is connected to Topcon’s GRT-2000 high-speed auto-tracking laser that locks onto the LS-2000 receiver mounted on the grader. As the machine moves over the site, its position is automatically tracked by the laser station, while the laser on the grader receives slope and elevation data from the site plans. At any point, the operator knows how accurate the grade is as the site is reshaped.

Different parts of the country vary in the use of automated construction equipment and laser systems, Shersty said, with about 75 percent of paving operations automated in the Northwest compared to 10 to 20 percent of the grading and excavation operations, a far lower figure than in other parts of the country. That’s why Topcon sees this area as an unfulfilled market for its laser systems, Shersty said.

For more information, call Shersty at 425-251-9722 or 800-558-5368, or go to Topcon Laser Systems Inc.’s Web site,

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